What works best about "Over There" (debuts Wednesday, 10 p.m. EDT, on FX), the new Steven Bochco series set in the Iraq war, is everything you'd think would be hardest to pull off: the surreal experience of battle, the drudgery of an Army private's work, a hot, dusty, ancient sense of place. What fizzles like a dud grenade is the stuff Bochco -- who won Emmys for the shows "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue" -- is supposed to be good at: character and drama. This makes "Over There" a strangely lopsided piece of work. When the characters are shooting, being shot at, or getting ready to do either, it's some of the best TV around. As soon as they take off their guns and start talking, prepare to grind your teeth.
The series follows the members of one Army unit during their first tour of duty in Iraq. It sticks to the grunt's-eye view; the only people who talk politics in "Over There" are the occasional (and startlingly handsome) insurgent leaders the soldiers capture. And while it's not entirely clear whether the action in each episode is supposed to be happening in Iraq right now, references to Abu Ghraib suggest as much, presenting the show with the interesting challenge of keeping up with volatile real-world developments. Whether future episodes will deal with actual offensives (such as the siege of Fallujah) or just fictionalized ones (in the "ripped from the headlines" mode of "Law and Order") remains to be seen.
After quick vignettes from the lives of the unit's six privates as they leave for their stints, "Over There" lands them right in the middle of a fire fight. Their new sergeant (nicknamed "Scream," and played by the charismatic Erik Palladino) is pissed; he was all set to go home, until the guy who was supposed to lead this bunch of "virgins" had to have his tonsils taken out.
"Appendix, sir!" corrects Bo (Josh Henderson), the fresh-faced Texan.
But Sgt. Scream doesn't give a shit which malfunctioning organ has come between him and his flight back to the States, dammit! "Don't call me sir!" he barks. No sergeant wants to treated like some pansy-assed commissioned officer!
OK, a certain abundance of cliché is to be expected from any military drama: There's not a whole lot of nuance and only a few variations in the ways people respond to life-threatening situations. Army protocol is designed to deal with all of them, and the fabled stupidities of Army life tend to come about when the formulas go awry.
In the opening battle, the unit is dug in around a mosque defended by insurgents with automatic weapons. They have to hold back because a journalist from Al Jazeera is inside trying to broker a surrender, and with this kind of press coverage, a general will have to sign off on a more aggressive approach to the situation. A lieutenant (nicknamed "Mad Cow") says the orders are for the unit to move up 50 meters after nightfall. After moving up 25 meters, Scream radios back that they've hit the last berm; if they move in farther, they'll be entirely without cover. Mad Cow tells them they have to follow the orders to the letter, which leaves our heroes out in the open, desperately digging holes to hide in before the sun comes up. How did Mad Cow get his nickname? "A disease that eats men's brains," Scream explains.
The battle sequence is rich in palpable details; you can sense the heaviness of the soldiers' suits, the confusion about what's going on in the dark and the dust, the disorienting effects of the sun slamming down on the scrubby terrain. They munch dry instant coffee out of the packet and risk their lives sneaking off to take a dump in privacy. By the time it's over, you almost expect to be spitting sand out of your mouth. Then, in one of the series' best scenes, shot through a distorting lens, the unit walks around in numbed near-silence after the fight is over, looking at the corpses of the men they've killed.
The filmmakers deal out snippets of character development: Bo's gung-ho and plans to attend Texas A&M on a modest football scholarship; "Dim" (Luke MacFarlane) is so-called because he somehow wound up an Army private despite having a degree from Cornell; "Smoke" (Kirk Jones) is a disgruntled brother from Compton whose recreational habits you can guess from his nickname; "Angel" (Keith Robinson) is a choir boy -- literally -- who enlisted in a fit of pique after failing the auditions for a world-class singing group; "Doublewide" (Lizette Carrion), the mechanic, is an earthy mom, and "Mrs. B" (Nicki Aycox), the driver, is a cipher, really, but from a few disturbing moments in the first three episodes, you get the impression she was conceived with Lynndie England in mind. (U.S. military policy is not to send women into combat, so the show's creators have to contrive ways for them to stumble into it with the rest of the unit, in this first battle via the ambush of their truck.)
In later episodes, the soldiers will deal with some of the Iraq war's archetypal predicaments. They'll guard a roadblock checkpoint as a speeding car, its driver impervious to orders to halt, bears down on it. They'll hand over a captured insurgent leader for interrogation by a swaggering officer who says things like "You see this empty, little piece-of-shit ghost town? This is my town. Nothing happens in my town unless I say it happens." They'll suffer the worst catastrophes when they least expect it.
All the inevitable strengths and shortcomings of "Over There," however, are apparent in the pilot episode. The battle scenes are written and directed with imagination, style and fidelity to the long tradition of soldiers' accounts of combat. Bo stares as an insurgent walks across the field, a mortar blows the top of his body off, and the legs take a few more steps before falling over. Dim and Bo pull Mrs. B out of a tight spot and Dim winds up shooting an enemy fighter at close range while the man fumbles to reload his weapon. No one has to explain that Bo and Dim have crossed a threshold in these moments, seeing and doing things that have changed them forever. Writer-director Chris Gerolmo had the sense not to overwrite these scenes, to use very little dialogue, to just shoot the actors' faces, which are blank with the effort of understanding what has just happened.
Then, a little later, he tromps all over the powerful restraint of these scenes with a sequence showing the video e-mail the soldiers send home to their families. Doublewide telling her infant son "Mommy's at work," does have a tangy humor to it, even though you know she's being set up as the straight-talking black lady who'll wallop the gang's moral compass back to true every so often. Then Dim, the show's most problematic character, takes the screen to unleash a pompous, sub-sub-Conradian gloss on the hallucinatory violence we saw earlier: "Someone said tragedy is the inevitable working out of things. The tragedy here is that we're savages, thrilled to kill each other. We're monsters, and war unmasks us. But there's a kind of honor in it too, a kind of grace."
Granted, it's unfair to ask any actor to deliver lines like those (later on, Dim will have to say things like "You're a natural leader, Bo"), but MacFarlane certainly isn't up to the Herculean task of making someone who talks like this sympathetic. "Over There" suffers generally from an uncertainty about whose story this is; it's not a scrupulous ensemble piece in which everyone gets equal time, and it can't seem to decide whether Bo or Dim is the hero. The glasses MacFarlane wears to signal Dim's intellectualism (really) look like exactly that, a prop, and the character has a grating edge of self-pity and incipient hysteria. Henderson is a sweet Brendan Fraser ringer, but his Bo seems too green to carry the series, even before a plot twist sidelines him for a while.
Self-importance is the Achilles' heel of "Over There"; the show is detectably pleased with itself for employing a blue-chip talent like Bochco to handle such an important topic. Still, it has earned some of that pride. Hardly anyone else seems to be considering the hardships the war is visiting on the largely working-class people who have to fight it. (A certain portion of the series focuses on the expectable crises on the home front, as well.) At its best, "Over There" is the kind of tough, salty, unvarnished, macho drama that FX does so well (c.f., "The Shield" and "Rescue Me"), and at its worst it's a wobbly soap. As long as the guns keep firing, it'll have something worthwhile to show us.