Sunday, August 17, 2008

Is there anybody who's watched Army Wives who doesn't love the show?

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The centerpiece of Army Wives, remarkable Claudia Joy Holden (Kim Delaney), with my favorite general, Michael Holden (Brian McNamara)

by Ken

This is really lame of me. Here I've been meaning for ages to write about Lifetime's Army Wives, but I don't get around to it till the day of the second-season finale? That's inexcusable.

Uh, better late than never? Anyway, what I've been meaning to say is that I really love the show.

In the first season it got a huge response for a cable show, and somehow I assumed it was just some trashy soap wallow, and from a right-wing perspective. For some reason, though, I started recording the episodes, and about four episodes into the season I watched the premiere episode. By the time I blinked, I'd been through all the stored-up episodes. (Isn't this a great way to watch, incidentally? When there's a show you really enjoy, you get to devour a chunk of episodes without having to wait the normally mandatory week.)

What I discovered was that the show isn't any of those things I was imagining. Creator Katherine Fugate and the other producers and the rest of their team went to the trouble of creating a fascinating core of principal characters, and creating them as three-dimensional human beings, and there is no right-wing perspective. The show is in fact decidedly nonpolitical. It does its damnedest to give us a sense of what it's like to live on an Army post (one thing we all learned is that the Army has posts not bases), from the standpoint of both officers and enlisted personnel, and of couse especially from the standpoint of their spouses and families. (One of the brilliant touches was to make one of the five central Army "wives" a husband.)

Now this is just a personal quirk, I admit, but one thing I love about the show is that it deals almost exclusively with good people. This is incredibly courageous in commecial TV, which depends heavily on bad guys to hold viewers' interest. Oh, we've had some of those, notably last season: the bitchy post commander's wife, and of course the guy who blew up Betty's Hump Bar in the cliffhanger finale. But even they were drawn in totally three-dimensional terms.

The downfall of the monstrous general's wife, beyond providing much audience satisfaction, unmasked the reality of a marriage that had no purpose except the service politics of the general's rise. It wasn't exactly heartbreaking, because these were people who for once got what they deserved. But the awful believability of it struck a powerful chord, at least for me.

Of course this creative team has something better than the best villiain they could have created: the reality of two wars going on, the reality that governs the everyday lives of all the characters on post. And I have no difficulty with the reality that the service men and women really believe in their mission.

What right-wingers seem incapable of grasping is that those of us who believe that the Iraq war is an unmitigated pointless monstrosity, and the Afghan war arguably justifiable but a colossal botch in strategic terms, have no quarrel with the military personnel who carry out our government's policies. Our beef is with the criminally dishonest, deluded, and incompetent who have made a travesty of servicepeople's courage and commitment. We support our troops by insisting that their lives not be put at risk by civilian leaders who should be preparing for war-crimes trials.

And I've found it hard not to fall in love with all the central characters.

Now you know that ballsy Roxy (Sally Pressman) [seen at right with Drew Fuller as her hunky husband Trevor] was created to be irresistible, struggling to raise her two young sons as a brand-new Army wife, discovering that she's married to the Army at least as much as to her adorable husband. Well, she is irresistible. And so is Trevor! So is her friend Pamela (Brigid Brannagh), who gave up her career as a policewoman for life as an Army wife, and hasn't figured out much better than Roxy how to have a marriage and raise two children with a husband, Chase (Jeremy Davidson), who's sometimes there but more often not.

I suspect that anyone familiar with Army post life would tell us how unlikely it is that the wives of two enlisted men would have the kind of relationship we see develop between Roxy and Pamela and the spouses of three officers -- Denise Sherwood (Catherine Bell), wife of the only occasionally seen Major Frank S (Terry Serpico); Roland Burton (Sterling K. Brown) [seen here regrettably overdressed], the afore-alluded-to husband of Colonel Joan B (Wendy Davis), and a psychiatrist and superhink, with one of the really great bodes you're going to see; and above all Claudia Joy Holden (Kim Delaney), wife of now-General Michael H. But these are remarkable people, and everyone seems to appreciate that their closeness is highly unusual. There is a definite "upstairs downstairs" quality to the relationships.

Of course this all sounds dead and schematic, utterly "I've seen it a million times" predictable when it's all laid out like this. What makes it all work is the full dimensionality of the characters' lives, the believability and identifiability of their travails and triumphs -- and here obviously we have to credit the wonderful collaboration between the actors and the writers.

At the center are the Holdens. Last season when Michael was a colonel and deputy post commander to the far less capable officer who had been unsoundly promoted over him, we were introduced to his intelligence, dedication, and military toughness along with his decency, fairness, and compassion. Now he's my all-time favorite general. Brian McNamara is an actor you realize you've seen all over the place, but here he really commands the screen. Kim Delaney has been much more noticeable in everything she's done, back to her NYPD Blue days, and she's done more exciting work, but she's never been better used than as Claudia Joy, who seems to keep everything nonmilitary on the post working.

At the very least I should have written something before the second season started, by which time the first season was out on DVD, and you could conceivably have gotten caught up on that in time to plunge into the second season, especially if you have a DVR to help with the job. What I'm about to write, though, should perhaps be avoided by anyone who might still want to get caught up on the show -- after all, it won't be that long before the Season Two DVDs are out. You really shouldn't read this if you've season all of Season One and the Season Two opener, which resolved the season-ending cliffhanger.

That said, it was a brilliant stroke to choose, out of all the people who were in the Hump Bar at the time of the bombing, to sacrifice the Holdens' elder daughter, Amanda. The scenes in which Claudia Joy was seen preparing for Amanda's departure for college -- a trip that should have happened before the bombing -- became unbelievably poignant when they turned out to be imaginings of the seriously injured, unconscious mother, who doesn't know yet that her daughter is dead. And the death of Amanda not only changed the lives of her mother, father, and younger sister but radiated out in one way or another to all the people who depend on the Holdens. We don't often get to see the aftermath of such a tragedy viewed in such touching breadth -- it was one of the great triumphs of the second season.

Well, that's all I'm going to say. The second-season finale is tonight at 10pm ET/PT (repeated at 1am, then Monday at 8pm and Saturday at 11pm). Last week's episode is repeated tonight at 9 and midnight.

Wives Denise, Claudia Joy, Roxy, Pamela, and Colonel Joan

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At 7:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The army wife who inspired this whole thing is in very, very deep trouble.

Her husband is PTSD bonkers, beat the living shit out of her(her own words) and she'd all but destitute.....maybe someone on the show will throw her a crumb or two, ya think?

I despise any attempt to glamourize anything relating to violence.........and this INVASION.

At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw General Holden in a great family movie recently called The Legend of Tillamook's Gold. I rented it on Netflix for my kids and so I could see Brian McNamara. They loved the family adventure about this young girl who searches for a treasure and finds what is really important. Its shot on the Oregon coast which is really beautiful. Anyway, the kids liked the story and I got to watch General Holden as the girl's dad. Julie

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review! I too am in love with Brian McNamara - so hot!

One correction for you though - last night wasn't the season finale. They are off for a few weeks & I believe have 2 or 3 episodes left this season :)


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