I Like to Watch

David Mamet brings us tough-as-nails soldiers fighting terrorism (and their even tougher wives) in CBS's "The Unit," while FX presents an insufferably "colorblind" white couple in "Black. White."

Published February 26, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

"Mistakes were made." That statement should be inscribed on all of our graves. It has a little bit of the shrugging, passive quality of "Shit happens," but without the utter lack of responsibility that statement implies. After all, we can only learn from the shit that happens if we recognize that we were the jackholes who made it happen.

Of course, we can't learn from our mistakes if we don't recognize them as mistakes in the first place. If we see our mistakes as odd mixtures of circumstance and unfortunate luck, if we see them as twists of fate, or as insignificant side effects of a greater good, or worse yet, if we embrace our mistakes as beautiful creations filled with accidental grace that were simply interpreted by onlookers or by the media as mistakes, then we won't learn anything at all. That means we'll be doomed to repeat history, which means that big hair and boy bands and "Three's Company" will come back to haunt us, but instead of recognizing them as the colossal mistakes that they were, we'll thoughtlessly embrace them, putting the free world at great risk. That's right, Gavin MacLeod could rise to power once again, if we don't straighten up and fly right.

As a wise man once said, "The ultimate measure of a man is how he handles his biggest screw-ups." While some bounce back from their mistakes, shaking off their failures and moving forward without hesitation, others get hopelessly snagged on their blunders and then start to define themselves by the bad decisions and missteps they've made. Of course, those who refuse to acknowledge that their mistakes are even mistakes have the easiest time of all. These "mistake-blind" types -- or "politicians," as they're commonly known -- blithely go about making more and more mistakes but remain utterly unburdened by the knowledge of their own responsibility for suffering at home or death and destruction in exotic, dusty lands far away. This means they can enjoy their coffee and buttered toast without any regrets or nagging guilt tugging at their hearts, at least until that fateful day when Gavin MacLeod rises to crush us all under his iron fist of tyranny.

Truly, madly, manly
But if anyone's equipped to deal with Captain Stubing's inevitable power grab, it's the boys of "The Unit" (premieres at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7, on CBS). Created by playwright David Mamet and co-written by Shawn Ryan, who created "The Shield," "The Unit" explores the workings of a military special-forces team that takes on high-pressure missions worldwide, from blowing up the homes of arms traders in Afghanistan to subverting terrorist plots at home.

If there's ever been a career where your mistakes are painfully obvious and frighteningly significant, this is the one. But these are tough guys who savor the weight of their responsibilities in the world, guys who spend their time, in the wake of every error, obsessively atoning for their sins and aiming to do better. Starring Dennis Haysbert, who thankfully isn't doomed to appear only in Allstate insurance TV ads for the rest of his life, "The Unit" offers a merciless look at the intense life of specialized factions of the military.

Of course, this show has Mamet's sticky fingerprints all over it, from the unrealistically sharp and somewhat leaden dialogue to the melodramatic, suffering-hero scenarios. While Mamet's men are steely-jawed macho studs who glower and growl and sweat a lot, Mamet's women stride around explaining what they believe in and what their intentions are every other minute. Although the military wives are very different from each other, they're all smart and almost heroically confrontational. Take the new recruit's wife, Kim Brown (Audrey Marie Anderson), who pushes hard to live off-base and to reject the Christian hand-holding culture of the other wives. Or take Tiffy, a perky blond wife who, although she seems the weakest and most confused of the group, still marches into a tea held for a female senator and angrily confronts her about cuts in the men's training budget, which she eloquently and passionately explains is necessary to keep the men alive out there in the field.

It's all a little bit much, particularly when the men are all tough and loyal and dedicated to their jobs to the point of being superheroes. Aside from a few weak moments, they have each other's backs, stare directly into the face of danger without balking and, when they screw up, work tirelessly to make up for their shortcomings. In the first episode, new recruit Bob Brown (played by Scott Foley) is on a relatively benign mission in Idaho with his boss, Blane, when terrorists seize a plane a few towns over. Without hesitation, Brown sneaks into the darkness and single-handedly and quietly kills two terrorists, while Blane plans a way to bust onto a plane filled with terrorists and civilians. Returning home from this amazing impromptu mission, Blane brings Brown to his new house (across the street from Blane's) and says, "It's not much to look at, but it's ours."

"You kidding?" Brown responds. "You get to shoot guns, jump out of airplanes, come home to your family. It's damn near perfect." Grrrrow! Me man like big shoot'em-up, then come home to me woman in split-level military cave!

But the almost unbearable "Armageddon"-style tough-guy moment doesn't last -- Mamet is always armed with new ways to undercut the sanity and peace of any given situation. In fact, one of the major strengths of "The Unit" is its ability to tackle the blurry ethical lines and confusing behavioral codes of the military during a time of war. Unlike most military shows, "The Unit" doesn't instruct us on exactly how we should feel about any character or situation, and each character tests our patience at one point or another. From the very beginning, when the wives of the base approach Kim with a Stepford Wives intensity, it's not entirely clear whom we should side with, the brainwashed military women or the stubbornly independent Kim. After all, the wives are warm and genuine, whereas Kim, like so many of Mamet's heroines, has a sassy short haircut and a slightly off-putting no-nonsense style. She's cool and independent, we get it, but her new environment brings out the coldness in her at those moments when you're just about to take her side.

Mamet's comfort with ambivalence really suits this context; it's refreshing to see a military drama that toys with the boundaries of our tolerance for the customs of military life. How much are these men -- and more important, their families -- expected to sacrifice to complete their missions?

But just as he pushes our boundaries, the courage and genuine intentions of most of these men are never called into question. Mamet obviously savors the bravado of military culture. When the boys think they're going to participate in a drill where they imprison a military team and attempt to break them, their leader asks if they have the stones to pull it off:

Col. Ryan: Any of you thinking of being lenient? Who you going to save that for?

Keenan William: Pets and babies, sir!

Of course, we now know that going soft on pets and babies constitutes a major risk to national security. Still, Mamet certainly knows how to keep things interesting. In fact, the most promising aspect of "The Unit" may just be that each of the three episodes sent by CBS were entirely different. Most cop, lawyer, doctor and military shows tend to find one formula and stick to it, over and over and over, each episode mirroring the last in terms of plot. In contrast, "The Unit" is all over the map, featuring surprising and inventive stories that haven't already been done to death. Even with this unpredictability, the stakes are always high, the tensions between the characters feel real, and the odd twists and ambivalent perspective cast odd shadows on a military setting that's typically treated with utter reverence.

Ambivalence front
For more good old-fashioned ambiguity and high stakes, tune in for "Hamas: Behind the Mask" (8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, on the Discovery Times Channel, check listings), a close-up look at the violent militants who won landslide victories in the Jan. 25 Palestinian elections. This isn't the most compellingly narrated or beautifully shot documentary, but the footage of young masked Hamas members in training is startling, particularly when a future suicide bomber is kissed by his proud mother, then sent off to kill as many Israelis as possible. In addition, for those unfamiliar with the history of conflicts and monumental blunders on both sides since Israel was formed, Shelley Saywell's documentary offers a loose but valuable primer.

What becomes most apparent when examining the hatred and violence in the region is that neither side feels comfortable admitting to its mistakes, a stubborn stance that only perpetuates the violence. Of course, as their children grow up in this mire of uncertainty and death, a future of resentment and hatred is assured. Dr. Eyad al Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist, explains that in a study of 3,000 Palestinian children, he found that "nearly 45 percent of them witnessed the beating and humiliation of their fathers by the Israeli soldiers in front of their eyes." Al Sarraj explains, "The father became helpless, unable to protect himself. And what has this done to the children is serious. Comes the time when they are teenagers, and the father figure replacement comes in the group Hamas."

Devil with a blackface on
Of course, some play the role of father figure more responsibly than others, as is evident in FX's documentary series "Black. White." (premieres March 8, check listings). The show challenged two families, one black and one white, to swap racial identities and see how the world looked different to them.

Now, the minute you hear about such a show, you imagine two extremely liberal, open-minded families going earnestly into the great unknown looking to unlock the experience of another culture and race. "My, these grits are good!" "Gosh, Talbots really is a great place to buy ladies' fashions!" Such an experiment, undoubtedly filled with polite, p.c. observations you could dream up without watching, might not be all that compelling. Luckily, though, the producers chose an infuriatingly ignorant, dorky, clueless white couple who consider themselves sensitive and progressive, but who emerge from the early stages of the documentary feeling that racism in this country is grossly exaggerated.

Of course, this flavor of arrogant, "If I can't see it, it's not there" egocentrism is exactly what should be unearthed by any show that purports to tackle the slippery issue of racism in America, since the refusal to admit that it exists is the main obstacle facing those who want to openly address racism in this country. Nothing is more frustrating to those who struggle against racism than people who are too wrapped up in their own experiences to grasp how pervasive racism is, yet feel free to issue sweeping statements on the subject as if they have special knowledge of it. Bruno Marcotulli and his wife, Carmen Wurgel, fit this profile perfectly. Soon after venturing out in his new makeup, Bruno reports back to his black counterpart, Brian Sparks, that he was treated exactly the same as a black man as he always has been as a white man. He seems excited that he didn't walk out the door and immediately hear the N-word, and takes this as proof that white folks aren't so bad after all.

Meanwhile, Renee Sparks has a different experience entirely, and she doesn't even have to wear her white makeup to have it. Sitting in a little bar in all-white Pasadena, Renee tells a stranger she just moved to the area and wonders if there are any black people around. The stranger, who looks like a typical long-haired California hippie, says there aren't too many blacks around, but tells her that she'll have no trouble fitting in, since she's different from most blacks. Then he starts to ramble on about how many blacks choose to be ignorant, which condemns them to being looked upon with disdain by more informed, upstanding citizens like himself. The man's outlandishly racist statements back up my own experience of Los Angeles as a far more segregated and racist town than my hometown of Durham, N.C., a place that most people assume is deeply backward and racist, but where blacks and whites interact far more often than I've seen in L.A., and tensions (and lifelong friendships) between them are out in the open and directly addressed.

While Bruno and Carmen aren't necessarily bad people, their total lack of experience with black culture, paired with their very stubborn refusal to consider the notion that they're as bogged down by prejudices as any of us, lead to some unforgettably cringe-worthy situations, like when they both decide to wear traditional African garb to a black church, where everyone else is dressed in normal old clothes. The Sparks family gets a huge kick out of this, but generally views the white family (excluding the very sensitive and humble teenage daughter, Rose) with disdain and annoyance.

The best moment of all comes in the second episode when, after hearing Rose's teen group of black slam poets perform in the house the two families are sharing, Carmen stands up and delivers a rambling soliloquy on how moving and special all of these fine black children are, replete with grand gestures, all stage-whispered in a voice dripping with condescension. The icing on the cake, though, comes when she refers to one of the female poets as "this beautiful black creature" like the girl just crept out of the swamp, a monster whose beauty only Carmen can truly see and appreciate.

The teenagers are all silent and look thoroughly irritated, but Renee Sparks is absolutely livid. She's hated this freakish woman since they were practicing "black lingo" together and Carmen jokingly yelled at her, "Yo, bitch!" thinking that black women insult each other ruthlessly as a form of greeting. What clearly bothered Renee was not that Carmen made a mistake, but that she couldn't manage an apology that wasn't filled with the self-righteous insistence that she hadn't done anything wrong and she didn't intend to offend and that, most of all, it didn't mean anything, all muttered with an indignant, angry strain in her voice. After the kids leave and Renee expresses disbelief at Carmen's absurd display, that same "Screw you, you're paranoid" tone returns. How do you enlighten someone who thinks they know everything already?

Ah, but white people have a long history of not being able to admit their mistakes, a history that most white people don't know about, since they'd rather order pizza and play Super Mario Bros. than consider the major blunders of the past. So this very worthwhile documentary series is left with one black couple who strain to point out the racist undertones they see everywhere, and one white couple who strain not to see any of it. It's pretty depressing, and will make the honkies among us deeply ashamed to be butt-white and filled with just as little understanding and just as many prejudices as Carmen and Bruno.

But at least some hope lies in the fact that these two jackholes so clearly demonstrate the stubborn, self-centered, small-minded beasts that exist in all of us, beasts that were formed through centuries of ignorance and elaborate, violent misunderstandings, beasts that can no more easily be shaken off or ignored than our very DNA. As sure as there's still big hair and boy bands and a "Three's Company" rerun playing somewhere out there, it's clear: Mistakes were made.

Next week: The overburdened leading men of "Big Love" and "Thief" compete to become the next Tony Soprano.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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