Every year when the new batch of comedy pilots are rolled out for review, the initial comment critics offer is that you can’t expect too much from comedy pilots. Even more so than dramas, a comedy thrives on the dynamic between its cast members and their individual comedic gifts, a concoction that is almost never arrived at after 22-plus minutes. This season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Trophy Wife were key examples of that trend, starting out with the right pieces of a show yet needing a few episodes to find the right combinations and strengths, and since then growing into the year’s most solid comedies.
So when I say that the pilot for Enlisted is the best comedy pilot of the season, take that recommendation for whatever it’s worth. Don’t, however, assume that only means it’s the best of a bad lot, because even factoring out the competition this is a great half-hour of television, one that boasts a comfortable tone and an engaging cast. It’s a show that manages to be respectful of its subject matter—an important hurdle to cross given it’s about the armed forces—and also able to recognize that there’s some real humor in how our men and women in uniform go about their everyday lives.
Enlisted centers on the Hill brothers, a trio who followed in their father’s footsteps as soldiers in the U.S. Army to varying degrees of success. Oldest brother Pete (The Finder’s Geoff Stults) is the “supersoldier” of the three, leader of over a hundred raids on insurgent camps and not shy about calling attention to his achievements. Middle brother Derrick (Chris Lowell, Piz from Veronica Mars) is the sarcastic middle child, more at home pulling pranks and downing tequila shots than following orders. And youngest brother Randy (Parker Young, Suburgatory’s Ryan Shay) is the most boyishly enthusiastic about his duties, though that enthusiasm rarely yields the results his commanding officers are looking for. When Pete loses his temper and punches out a superior, he’s demoted and shipped back home to head up a Rear Detachment (Rear D) unit in Florida, finding himself once again marshaling his siblings.
The idea of making a sitcom about the military—even the military stationed state-side—is an interesting idea, largely because it seems like one it’s easy to do wrong. True, films like Stripes and Private Benjamin remain comedy classics more than 20 years later, but those came out in a very different time, a time where the United States hadn’t been at war for over a decade and American citizens jaded by endless reports of surges and casualties. It’s a topic that has potential, but also a topic that runs the risk of alienating its audience if it takes a step in an overtly political direction.
Thankfully, Enlisted is in the hands of people who know how to make a show like this. Enlisted creator Kevin Biegel got his start on Scrubs and Cougar Town, both shows that find pathos in even the most cartoonish characters, and executive producer Mike Royce proved his expertise with very human stories in Men Of A Certain Age. As such, Enlisted’s pilot opts for smaller moments and conflicts—Pete’s frustration at being placed in a dead-end career track and his brothers’ resentment at his superior attitude—and chooses to focus on how its characters feel about being soldiers in an environment where it’s possible to forget that detail. It’s clearly respectful of the troops and showcases that respect in a quiet way, as when Pete raises his beer in a silent toast to a memorial or his commanding officer reminds him one of their jobs is to carry the news of fallen soldiers. Refreshingly, Enlisted feels no need to beat you over the head with its mission, it simply provides moments that are legitimate in their sincerity.
After saying this I’m worried that I’ve made Enlisted seem like an overly serious show, but rest assured it succeeds first and foremost as a comedy. There’s an easy rhythm to the dialogue and jokes that’s not often laugh-out-loud funny, but has a comfortable feel to it that evokes Biegel’s earlier shows. Going back to Stripes, there’s a definite current of that film’s irreverence running through the pilot, both in the montage of Pete’s unit trying—and failing—to find the great soldier inside each of them and the episode’s climactic war games against an Italian platoon. (The latter scene in particular has a triumphant mood that makes it easy to imagine the pilot expanded into a full film.) Like its fellow Fox sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it applies the workplace comedy template to an ostensibly more serious setting, and executes it well because it knows to focus on the quirks of the people doing said job.
The early success of the show is also due to the fact that the brothers at its center have been cast extremely well. Young is the obvious standout, his broad grin and enthusiastic embrace of his duties giving the pilot its funniest moments yet never crossing into broadly cartoonish, even when he’s getting retroactively scared or inadvertently blowing up tanker trucks. Stults is positioned as the straight man in the bunch but there’s a degree of self-awareness to his performance—particularly when he’s acknowledging his jokes falling flat—that indicates he’s capable of broader work. (Anyone who doubts his comic chops should go back to Ben And Kate and recall his guitar face.) Lowell’s got the tougher load to carry as the cynic of the batch, mostly reacting with a quip to the action around him, but his delivery in each instance evokes a smile. All three of them play their characters well, and more to the point they play well combined with one or both of the others. A show prominently featuring siblings needs to sell them as siblings, and the chemistry between the three feels lived in from the start.
Outside of the Hill family, Enlisted also has two strong supports in commanding officer Sergeant Major Cody (Keith David) and rival platoon commander Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral). The disapproving superior/father figure is a role that Keith David could play in his sleep, but he’s clearly wide awake because of how much fun the material is, selling both his frustration with the Hill brothers and his awareness of when they need a comforting word or a kick in the ass. (A kick delivered by his prosthetic foot, a detail he feels entitled to mention in every conversation as the original was blown off by a land mine. Pete: “You get it’s weird that it’s a white guy’s foot?” Cody: “My size only comes in white.”) And as with Pete, Jill is a character who could easily be put into the role of buzzkill but proves to be more than a trope, willing to offer olive branches and leap into the action alongside them.
It’s a strong start for a show, which is why it makes Fox’s treatment of it all the more baffling. Fox has done the show no favors by holding it for January, moving it to Friday, and planting it behind the abysmally rated yet equally endearing Raising Hope. (There are probably a half dozen “Save Enlisted” websites in waiting to launch once the first ratings come in.) Hopefully the network is prepared to be patient with this one, because with a start this promising Enlisted has the potential to grow into something special.
- Reporting for duty as your Enlisted critic! Welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage. I’m as excited for this as Randy was to go to Medieval Times for his birthday.
- It’s still too early to see how the non-Hill members of the unit will shape up, but the clear one to watch is Tania Gunadi’s Private Park. Simultaneously cutesy and terrifying, she’s a contradictory figure who’s the most memorable soldier after Randy and Cody.
- Someone please provide a GIF of Randy crying while doing jumping jacks.
- Carnations are “man flowers.” Tell your florist.
- “Suddenly I’m thinking consequences.”
- “Keep your unit out of my unit’s way.” “I’ll put my privates up against your privates any day.” “I’m not normally a fan of double entendres, but this has been a fun exchange.”
- “No one likes an ironic name!”
- “I’m gonna go watch The Hurt Locker to cheer myself up.”
- “Pandas are very powerful. They can tear apart bamboo with their teeth.”
- Young’s delivery of “Uncle Sergeant Major Cody” might be my favorite delivery in the entire episode. I deeply hope that’s a recurring thing.