In terms of programming that's both realistic and riveting, television and the military have always been a poor fit. With the notable exception of HBO's superb Band of Brothers, there hasn't been a realistic TV series about men at war since the early 1960s.
Shows about military families have generally flopped, too. As a (relatively) young service member in the 1980s, I remember watching about 30 minutes of a highly-touted series entitled Call to Glory, which starred Craig T. Nelson as an Air Force U-2 pilot during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I turned off the TV when Nelson's character--a full Colonel--sauntered over to the National Mall (in uniform) for Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech." Then as now, it's virtually impossible to imagine a military officer attending an event that was deemed both controversial and political.
That's not to imply that military officers are racist, or don't care about civil rights. But if you're an Air Force Colonel, bucking for your first star, you carefully obey the rules regarding political and protest activity, and you don't attend controversial events in uniform. With that little departure from reality, I lost all interest in Call to Glory, and never saw another episode.
Twenty years later, the Lifetime cable channel is taking another stab at military life, with its new Sunday night drama Army Wives. The series debuted a couple of weeks ago, apparently to high ratings and critical acclaim. I decided to take a look and see if the series lived up to its buzz. Mrs. Spook, who was with me for most of my career and could write a book on military life, took a pass. "They'll get it wrong," she warned.
As in most matters, I should have deferred to my wife. Army Wives is awful. Just as unwatchable as Call to Glory and, like the more recent (and successful) JAG, it is unintentionally hilarious. Viewing the first two episodes, I discovered that the Lifetime series is filled with gaffes and dramatic liberties that undercut the stories and characters, and (more importantly) distort its depiction of military life.
The premier begins with an Army airborne battalion returning from a deployment to Afghanistan. Wives and family members crowd the flightline as the C-17 transport touches down. Uh, excuse me, Mr. Executive Producer and members of your writing team, but these days, the troops deploy and return home on charter jetliners; we use the transports to haul their equipment. Mistake #1.
Leading the returning unit is Lieutenant Colonel Joan Burton (played by Wendy Davis). We subsequently discover that Colonel Burton has been in Afghanistan for two years, and is suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Having trouble re-connecting with her civilian husband, Burton decides to let off a little steam by getting drunk and performing a modified pole dance in a local bar. More recently, we've learned that Colonel Burton is more comfortable sharing a bed with her rifle, and not her husband.
Phul-eeze. Forget about the PTSD issue for a moment, and consider the gross distortion of this central character. Deployments to Afghanistan are typically one year, not two. Some deployments have been recently raised to 15 months, but the military frowns on the idea of keeping someone in a combat zone for longer periods of time.
Then, there's the notion of a woman commanding an airborne battalion. In fairness, we haven't been told what type of unit it is, and women have led support battalions in the 82nd Airborne Division in the past. But officially, women are still barred from ground combat units, so the idea of a female officer leading a "line" airborne battalion is ludicrous.
Equally preposterous is that little pole dance. As a lieutenant colonel and a battalion commander, the Burton character is on the fast track for full Colonel, and possibly, flag rank. Even with PTSD, it's inconceivable that a woman who has worked long and hard to advance in the army would risk "throwing it all away" with a drunken display at a downtown bar. Public drunkenness and/or DUI are career-killers in today's officer corps. Perhaps the writers need to stop channeling James Jones and create a more realistic storyline.
The first episode also featured a promotion ceremony that didn't resemble anything I saw in a 20-year military career, and a formal, outdoor "tea party" for wives of all ranks. Never mind the traditional "divide" between officer and enlisted wives--and the fact that "formal teas" disappeared from military bases about 40 years ago. There it was, a full-blown, outdoor tea party, with the privates' wives hob-nobbing with spouses of senior offices. Somewhere, George Patton is spinning in his grave.
Believe me, there is much more to dislike about this series. As we've noted, Army Wives focuses on a battalion-sized unit, yet there are (apparently) no company-grade officers (Captains and Lieutenants) and no mid-level non-commissioned officers--the very personnel that form the backbone of those organizations. Apparently, the lives of personnel in grades E-5 through E-7 and O-1 through O-3 aren't interesting enough for a primetime program about military life.
If that weren't enough, there is also a running subplot about a wife who's attempting to get her family out of debt--by serving as a surrogate mother. About that time, I officially gave up on Army Wives and began watching my granddaughter's Sponge Bob DVD. Compared to the alternate universe of the Lifetime series, an animated sponge is almost reality television.
Why does this matter? For better or worse, popular culture shapes our perceptions of public figures and institutions, including the U.S. military. And in a society where many have no concept or military service, or contact with those who wear the uniform, trashy shows like Army Wives becomes a reference for millions of viewers, and provides their "window" into the armed forces.
The real Army--and real Army wives--deserve better than this twaddle.
ADDENDUM: Current and former Army spouses have been weighing in on the show at the Army Times forum. Some sample comments:
I watched the show and it was horrible. Like they were trying to hard. The girl in the bathroom with her dress off, please. THAT DOES NOT HAPPEN. I am an Army wife and I also happen to be black. This is another typical Lifetime production with a bunch of country people and white people. There is only "black" person and she looks mixed. I also noticed that most of the people are officers and the one PFC looks old enough to be a SGT or SSG. And can't relate to it and I am an Army wife myself. I was also in the Army myself and this show is a poor poor representation of the Army and life as an Army wife. I HATE it!
I am a retired Army Wife (my husband served on Active Duty for nearly 30 years) and I must say that I was HIGHLY offended by the show. Army Wives are a very special group of women who have made sacrifices many of you will never in your wildest dreams think of or go through. We have reared our children most of the time without a dad around, and we have done it willingly, lovingly and with pride. We have supported our spouses, loved them, prayed for them and cried for them. We did not do or act as the women in your show have depicted. In the real Army you would never see a General being promoted at a party - you would never see enlisted wives and officer's wives becoming best friends, you would never hear of surrogate babies being born - you would never see someone want to be Airborne and just get "picked" to join a paratrooper unit. You would first have to go through Airborne School and be assigned to an Airborne Unit! Army Wives are strong women who are proud of who they are and what their role in life is. Don't demean us in the way that your show does. I vote that it be taken off the air immediately!!! I, for one, will not watch another episode. I only watched the first one to see what kind of farce it would be.
My husband and I caught the show while flipping through the channels. We had no idea that it was a new show until we read the Army Times. Evidently I am hanging out with the "wrong" crowd. I have not experienced anything like the show, and I am so thankful. My husband is about to pin on Captain, and I only say that because I am either not low enough ranking or not high enough ranking to be caught in the gossip of the Army Spouse life. I have lived on post and off post, and I realize that the Army is a small world. I know people gossip, but I pray that it is not as bad as the show portrays. My husband and I were slightly disgusted and will most likely not watch another episode. I have better things to do with my time, which is probably why I do not relate with the show.
Ouch. By my tally, about 80% of the message board comments about the show are negative. And rightly so. Any resemblance between the series (and life in the military) is purely coincidental.