In the new opening titles of Enlisted, a Keith David narration neatly sums up the focus of the show: “The Army is filled with troops on heroic missions. And then there’s us. We take care of things back home. We are the Rear Detachment. Yes, we’re soldiers.” Enlisted may not be a military sitcom in the same way M*A*S*H was, where the realities of war were right in front of its cast, but it’s as much a show about the men and women in uniform as its predecessor was. In many ways, the fact that it’s set at home allows it to tackle topics other takes on the military may not. Being farther away from the action means you’re doing the less glamorous work, and that work means a lot more time to think about what it means to be a soldier.
The ability to approach this question is helped by the fact that Enlisted’s band of (literal) brothers are all men who entered the military to carry on the family tradition, even though they have vastly different ideas of what being in the military means. Pete’s the career soldier driven by his ambitions, yet tempered by real fighting experience. Derrick’s the reluctant soldier who’s doing what’s expected of him. And Randy’s the one who genuinely loves the life, even if the gulf between what he can do and what he wants to do is wide enough to drive a tank through. This difference means that all three can be entry points to various takes on military life, asking the same question and getting different answers.
Enlisted’s second episode asks both why and if Randy should be a soldier, and “Randy Get Your Gun” is an excellent spotlight on the youngest Hill brother. The Rear D marksmanship competition is coming up and Randy’s determined to get the best score, winning possession of the coveted General Murray trophy (a nice Stripes reference and also a horrific image, due to General Murray’s accidental disfigurement at one of Cody’s barbeques.) However, Randy’s reach far exceeds his grasp, as not only does he fail to win he fails to even hit the target. Derrick tries to cheer him up, but the action of Derrick being supportive is so out of character even Randy can’t miss it, and he forces a sheepish confession out of his older brother. Turns out that Randy didn’t even pass the marksmanship test in basic training, Derrick just took advantage of a distraction to shoot up the target on his behalf.
The focus on Randy is a great move for Enlisted this early in the game, as it pushes Parker Young to the front and lets us know the pilot barely scratched the surface of what he can do. Anyone who watched Suburgatory knows that Parker Young is a terrifically gifted actor who’s game for anything, and those who haven’t should watch the scene where Ryan Shay learns his true parentage immediately for the best example of it. What makes him so winning is the fact that he’s an actor who can play a lunkheaded character, and he sells it because he balances that oblivious nature with an overwhelming amount of earnestness that allows him to move between sincere and goofy with ease. “Randy Get Your Gun” lets him run through all the paces, and it’s terrific to watch. In one scene he can be punching a cake and talking about “evil genies,” in the next he can speak earnestly about how leaving the military would be like being disowned from the family, and in the next he can talk about anthropomorphizing the target into Harold, a guy who works two jobs and should get a raise (but, you know, management holds all the cards.)
And then there’s the Toy Story 3 scene, which I honestly wish I had an additional review space so I can talk about how wonderful it was. Derrick decides that Randy needs to be less emotional to pass the test, and the best way to reach that point is to prove that he can recite the entire plot of Toy Story 3 without sobbing. This proves easier said than done, leading to a ludicrously funny montage of Young breaking down over and over again and sobbing nonsensical lines. (Personal favorite moment: “That lamp doesn’t have a family!” he bawls about the Pixar logo, right before burning his head on an actual lamp.) It’s hard to think of any other actor who could simultaneously sell this breakdown, and then turn the film’s most heartbreaking moment into a moment that’s legitimately badass when Randy aces his retest.
Of course, Randy being so badass leads Derrick to worry that he might have broken something special about his brother, and ask the question if Randy should even be in the army. (Credit to Chris Lowell as well, who nails both Derrick’s growing frustration and uncertainty at the results he’s gotten.) Once again, Cody takes the reins of showing the Hills the right path, taking him to the Family Readiness group where Randy volunteers. Far from being a killing machine, Randy’s still as empathetic and huggable as ever, able to talk Army wives through their worries due to his own he held about Pete. It’s a terrific moment, showing Randy may be able to repress his emotions to be a better soldier—a move Cody sharply reminds Derrick could save his life—but he can also more than that: the kind of man the Army needs.
But what of the third brother, one of the people who tied to win the marksmanship trophy? Unsurprisingly, neither Pete nor Jill is happy at the idea of having to share the position of best soldier on base, and their competitive spirits lead them to find a series of other challenges. This leads to even more ties, as the two are equally matched at treading water, disassembling a firearm, finding targets at night and even at cooking—Enlisted offering up some Fox synergy with a Master Chef-style competition using the available ingredients from the cafeteria. (Private Dobkiss, a graduate of the Ben Wyatt culinary school, judges neither of their meals as better than a calzone, leaving no winners there either.)
This plot’s highly amusing in how painting both Pete and Jill as increasingly obsessed with victory, and also addresses the sitcom trope hanging over their relationship: the will they/won’t they question. Obviously any sitcom is going to have this question asked of it before too long, and Enlisted gets out in front by presenting evidence this wouldn’t be the best relationship. It’s almost an inverse Cheers: Sam and Diane didn’t work because they were too different, and these two likely wouldn’t work because they’re entirely too similar, and more uncomfortable than embarrassed at the suggestion that they’re flirting. Keeping with Enlisted’s focus on military life, Cody also reminds them it’s highly unprofessional for the two of them to fraternize in this manner. This, more than anything else, may be what keeps a kibosh on their relationship: Pete and Jill are career soldiers, and neither’s likely to jeopardize their careers over a crush.
And given how Pete ends their contest—not with a kiss but by drawing a “2” on Jill’s forehead when she finally falls asleep and gives him his victory—it seems he’s not heading for a dramatic personality shift anymore than Randy is. Enlisted’s pilot set a high mark for the rest of the series, and “Randy Get Your Gun” is a great indication that the show knows exactly what strengths it has and how to use them going forward. And if it has to cry through a few Pixar films to get there, more power to it.
- Well, the ratings were exactly what we feared: Enlisted debuted to 2.4 million viewers and an 0.7 in the key demo. Here’s hoping that Fox is well aware of how unforgiving the Friday at 8:30 timeslot is and is prepared to be generous. At the very least, Kevin Reilly promised at TCA press tour this week that every episode will air so they can see what the full numbers look like. Hopefully he’s as good as his word.
- This week we meet Private Ruiz, a transfer from Jill’s unit whom neither sergeant can remember. Cold, man.
- I would also watch a show called Evil Genie. Though I think I’d abstain from reviewing it.
- Shades of Cougar Town when Randy talks about how a realization “donged” on him: “You hit a gong, it makes a ‘dong’ and then you realize something.” I half-expected Christa Miller to poke her head into the motor pool, say “Change approved!” and then walk out. (Speaking of, I wonder how close Fort McGee is to Gulf Haven.)
- After Randy’s Toy Story 3 training, the funniest moment of the episode is Cody’s lively takedown of Pete and Jill. “A constellation contest? More like a full-fledged flirt fest! A secret soldier smooch seminar! … It’s called alliteration! It makes language more colorful.”
- “I don’t understand voluntary exercise. I also don’t understand why any live band needs a third guitarist.”
- “Shoot blindfolded? I sleep blindfolded. … The one time that doesn’t work.”
- “All I could think about was whether or not Pete was going to come back alive. And Celebrity Apprentice.”