Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Army Wives

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.


Eric said...

Did you catch "Over There" on FX?

It got canceled pretty fast, but was an awesome program that showed both a squad in country as well as their families back home...

turn said...

I rather like CBS's The UNIT.

Rob said...

Spook, you ought to do a series of articles taking on all of the military-themed television shows. The Unit is a good example. The show is entertaining, perhaps, but nothing at all like actual military life.

My guess is that you could analyze every single military-themed program on television in the US and not find a single accurate depiction of military life.

On the other hand, television gets EVERYTHING wrong, so why stop there? My career is in software and, believe me, I cringe every time a computer comes into view on a television show.

The fact is that hollywood finds the real world boring. It's too hard to tell stories set in the real world. It's much easier to build up a fantasy world and tell your stories there. Especially if your stories don't work so well in the real world.

Abeclectic said...

Your reference to "(apparently) no field-grade officers (Captains and Lieutenants)" in the show should have said "no company-grade officers." Field-grade officers are Major, Lt Colonel and Colonel.

Spook86 said...

Turn/Rob--I deliberately left The Unit out of my article because I haven't seen the show. However, I have heard good things about it; one of the creators/executive producers is (ret) Sergeant Major Eric Haney, a longtime Delta Force operator, and I enjoyed Dennis Haysbert's work in 24.

ABC--good catch on field grade vs. company grade. The Lifetime show has plenty of field grade characters, but (apparently) no Lts and Capts.

Michael said...


Good news... HBO is currently doing pre-production on the sequel to "Band of Brothers". The same people behind the scenes will be involved (including the inestimable military tech advisor Captain Dale Dye, ret. US Marines).

The new series will cover WW2 in the Pacific. Shooting begins later this year in Australia.

Augurwell said...

Some of Hollywood etc. have lost touch with and are failing to capitalize on an old saying I've heard many times - "Truth is stranger than fiction."

I agree with what rob mentions about Hollywood living in la-la-la-la yada-yada land. I think one of the larger problems we face today is the distortion between fact and reality coupled with a voting public.

I see a some kind of 'Tower of Babel' effect happening here, it's within the same language but the meaning is lost i.e. some use words that they don't understand and others agree with them in fear of revealing ignorance. It may be an ego thing,? cured by simple admission of 'I don't know?' < I should think.

I sometimes think that many confuse movies, TV and films with the news and that this is agitated by some of the news that tries to compete with the fictional shows for advertising ratings, then there's the bias distortions added.

I suppose the whole issue could be addressed by the education system. I recall learning about literature and history; that there is a difference between reality and fantasy, is this still taught in schools - I wonder? AND passing civics classes could be required before one is permited to vote. Confusion and deception can bring about equal results. Oh well - B.S. detection 109 etc.

On an other note: Spook do you recall a series that ran on PBS originating from Great Britian, I think it was called "The Sand-Baggers", I was wondering how it reflected the reality of the Cold War from your experiences? The show ran in the '80s, the lead actor was named Burnside. It was a good show to watch.

Oh yes, another thing since I'm commenting and like to give full value - I have found that the use of spell-checkers has eroded my spelling ability (poor to begin with) and that by going back to the dictionary reduces this, not only that but it relates more correct meaning back to what is being said by better word selection, a further reduction of 'Babel effect'. Rambling are we Augurwell? : )

Hey, thanks for many interesting observations. (A house divided... etc. exploited by the bad guys.)

Augurwell said...

-I think one of the larger problems we face today is the distortion between fact and reality coupled with a voting public.-

Should read: I think one of the larger problems we face today is the distortion between fact and reality and that which is not fact or reality coupled with a voting public.

I made a mistake because I was bleary. Now is that so hard to do?

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