Last week, I talked about how Enlisted’s position as just outside the scope of your typical military show meant it’s able to approach topics that are similarly off the beaten path. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a show that’s going to ignore the issues that are facing soldiers—its unspoken commitment to being respectful of its subject matter means it’s not going to whitewash or gloss over topics that may be important. And one of the most important issues that confronts soldiers today is post-traumatic stress disorder, a problem less visible than damaged limbs but no less painful to those who suffer through it. It affects thousands of soldiers and their families, causing very real and present harm in their lives, and is certainly in no way a source of comedy.
That makes it all the more remarkable Enlisted would choose to incorporate the topic this early in their run, and even more remarkable they’d do it so directly by hoisting it on their main character. Pete’s been set up in the first couple episodes as a supersoldier who’s frustrated by his unglamorous posting, but there’s been plenty of indications there’s more to him than that. Lest we forget, he was in the middle of a firefight in his very first scene, and earned his reassignment to Fort McGee by punching out a superior officer—an action that’s out of character for a career soldier to say the least. And he’s mentioned his combat experience and various injuries at several points, but has avoided going into too much detail other than using them as humblebrags. “Pete’s Airstream” peels that cover back to reveal him as a more complicated individual, and does so in a way that epitomizes what Enlisted is all about.
What’s especially impressive about the way Enlisted addresses the idea of Pete having PTSD is that it hides that fact for two-thirds of the episode in a standard sitcom pilot. Having been assigned to Fort McGee for three weeks, he can’t get a moment of peace from his unit—particularly Randy, who’s so boyishly happy to see his brother he wants to spend every waking moment together. He’s even boosting the idea that the three should move in together, setting themselves up in three-story bunk beds seen on a Japanese website. (“It’s like a brother vending machine!” chimes in Derek, clearly thrilled to be back in his middle child role of instigator.) When Jill offhandedly mentions a “single guy trailer park” out by the dump, Pete fixates on it as the answer to his problems: a place where the coffee pot’s within arm’s length of the toilet, where there’s just enough room for a family portrait minus the rest of the family, and where he can reenact Risky Business to his heart’s content.
Of course, Randy’s beyond hurt at this rejection of his generous offer, and even gets the whole platoon on his side to guilt Pete into letting them hang out with him at the trailer. Three episodes in, Enlisted’s doing a good job of fleshing out the rest of the platoon, and their decision to split time between him in even increments means they get some solid character work. Private Gumble (Mort Burke, Parker from The Mindy Project) is a nebbish foodie with a fascination for Korean/Cuban fusion food looking for an investor. Private Dobkiss (Kyle Davis, Lil’ Kevin from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) is an intense sort who also writes and performs hip-hop as DJ American Eagle. (Surprisingly, he’s not that good.) And Randy? We learn there’s only three things important to him: “I enjoy football, sharks and having a brother who wants to spend time with me.”
Things escalate quickly in the expected fashion, as it all culminates in a welcome-home bash outside the trailer, complete with “mouth-garitas,” a pig on a spit and girls on top of his trailer. Pete, having reached the end of his rope—a process you can watch unfold magnificently on Geoff Stults’ face over successive sessions with his platoon—ends things by taking one of the four-pack of fire extinguishers Randy gave him as a housewarming gift, dousing the entire party, and ordering them to leave.
Now in a normal sitcom, this would build to a third act where the standoffish character realizes he’s gone too far, invites them back to have the party again, and everyone grows closer as a result. That approach is too easy for Enlisted however, as it’s Cody who approaches Pete first. Shrewder than the rest of the troops—and also the only other one who’s been deployed and come back damaged—Cody can see the warning signs immediately. It feels like exactly the right kind of conversation that two people who want to address an issue without addressing the issue. Cody doesn’t even come close to suggesting Pete has a problem, or even try to say the term PTSD: he simply says he understands what it’s like to have that much going on in your head.
And that approach carries over to the rest of the unit. Randy’s allowed to be goofy and Derrick’s allowed to stir the shit for the first half of the episode—which is what both characters do so well—but this is still their brother, and they know when to pull back. Parker Young in particular nails the emotional beats, first when he explains to the platoon what they need to do and when he conveys that back to Pete with a second, much quieter party just outside his trailer so they can be there if necessary. It’s an emotional gut-punch (or a hand-on-head as it were) that still keeps from being too saccharine, because once again these soldiers respect each other too much to make a big thing of it.
The episode’s b-plot is notably lighter than Pete’s struggles, but doesn’t feel out of place because it’s also thematically tied to the degree of distance superior officers keep from the soldiers underneath them. Jill, who proudly boasts to Pete of how removed she is from her unit, finds herself roped into a girls night with Park and Robinson at the Claymore. Thrown by their aggressive friendliness, she gradually finds herself having a good time, throwing back shots, flirting with the male customers and even making it to Pete’s party to dance on the trailer—getting a taste of the fire extinguisher for her enthusiasm. She even gets a nickname out of it, “Lone Wolf” for her solitary nature: a nickname that backfires on her when some of her soldiers start howling during the morning formation.
The pairing of Jill with the female members of the unit allows those two to get similar depth—Park’s intensity from the pilot is still there, and Robinson’s a terrible influence when it comes to both drinking and tattoos—but more importantly it gives Jill necessary depth early in the show’s run. While being competitive with Pete is all well and good, keeping her solely in an adversarial role means that the character runs the risk of becoming one-note, less a source of comedy than an obstacle to be overcome on a regular basis. (Looking across Fox’s schedule, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s had a similar issue with Amy Santiago, another character with an ultra-competitive streak that’s since been nicely smoothed out with new traits from her interactions with Holt and Diaz.) Jill’s subsequent meetings with Park and Robinson strike a welcome balance between being the commanding officer she wants to be, and also someone who can be a welcome partner in the platoon hijinks.
Looking at the grade for this episode and the previous two, there’s part of me that feels like I’ve been too easy on Enlisted starting out (or too lazy to pick a different grade), but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a sitcom start out this solid and assured in what it wants to do. “Pete’s Airstream” is a gutsy move for a show to pull, and they nail every beat they need to in order to get their message across.
- Fox shifted Enlisted to an earlier timeslot this week, swapping it with Raising Hope and opting to give it whatever boost Bones is still able to provide. It’s still nowhere close to safe—last week saw an expected drop in ratings—but clearly Fox likes the show and wants to make the best of a bad situation. (The boosts in the L+3 and L+7 ratings certainly don’t hurt either.)
- Just tell us what was funny, Chappell, God!: The base’s safety seminars were easily the best recurring gag between Jill’s increased frustration at the nervous families, the straight-faced way she was forced to discuss zombies and mole people as an actual threat and the constantly changing banner (shades of Arrested Development). Plus, Pete’s sinkhole model was priceless: “Though if it did happen, it’d look like this! … I know they’re terrified, but that model was so much fun to build.”
- Cody’s supernatural ability to know everything that happens on base—and his joy in responding to challenges—will surely be a reliable resource for Enlisted going forward: “That wasn’t marijuana! It was heirloom tomatoes. [To the tomatoes] I’ll see you in tonight’s arrabbiata.” (On that note, definitely check out Will Harris’s Random Roles with Keith David to further understand how lucky this show is to have him.)
- I hope there’s a lot more plots where Jill, Robinson and Park team up, because they had a fun dynamic. Robinson: “We are like sexual catnip up in here! All ethnicities represented!” Park: “We’re like a yogurt commercial!” Jill: “Keep walking white girl, you had your time!”
- Another serious situation tentatively touched on this episode: Randy breaks his series of “Hey brother!” and supersoldier questions to ask a question about how drone warfare counters the Army’s ability to win hearts and minds. Though the fact that he’s naked keeps that from getting too deep.
- Continuity error: Ruiz is still in Jill’s platoon this week after being transferred in “Randy Get Your Gun.” Either he opted to transfer back or this episode was shot before last week’s.
- “She’s a runaway who made it big as a junior beauty queen before donating a kidney to Pablo Escobar.” Dobkiss’s theory on Jill’s origins.
- “No naked brother hugs, we talked about this!” “I know, but I am so happy.”
- “Answer the black friend question!”
- “Sonovabitch! Sinkholes really do happen!”