"I guarantee you one of you fools is going to do something stupid and get yourself killed within the week." - Sergeant Scream
Since 1981, not a television season has passed without a Steven Bochco series prominently featured on the prime time network schedule. With the conclusion of NYPD Blue, the failure of Blind Justice, and NYPD 2069 never making it to air, that staggering run may finally end. However, the traditional networks are no longer the trailblazers in quality television, so it's no surprise that the man who's made a career pushing creative boundaries to new heights would team up (as executive producer) with the newest force in progressive dramatic programming (FX) for his latest project: Over There. Set during the current war in Iraq, Over There seeks to sidestep politics and present a realistic and compelling tale of one U.S. Army unit during its first tour of duty, balancing not just the action on the front lines but the lives of the soldiers' families as well.
NOTE: This review text covers not only the DVD of the pilot episode but whether or not you should tune in to the upcoming series. The ratings in the righthand panel only apply to the DVD.
While Over There does feature heavy involvement from Bochco himself, it is largely the work of writer/director Chris Gerolmo, who made a name for himself with the screenplay to Mississippi Burning and then saw great success as director of his own adapted teleplay to Citizen X. The pilot episode that is featured on this DVD release is not only written and directed by Gerolmo, but he is also credited as the writer and performer of the show's title song. Clearly, this is his baby, and the differences between his style and the typical Bochco series are apparent very early on in this first entry.
After a brief introduction to a few of the key characters in their final moments before leaving their families, the pilot episode of Over There drops us right into the middle of the action and keeps us there for the better part of the hour (44 minutes). The rookie unit is holding position outside a mosque/weapons cache, and we soon learn some of the unique aspects to fighting a modern war covered on both sides by 24/7 news. The action is tense and the special effects are effective at establishing a level of realism for the conflicts. Unfortunately, much of this action is undercut with overly talkative character-establishing dialogue. While there is certainly plenty of anxious waiting during times of war, and that likely breeds some interesting conversations, these early introductions to the characters come across as forced and are a side effect of trying to pack too much material into what amounts to barely 40 minutes of actual content (minus credits). Unlike the traditional Bochco method of sprinkling in some character traits slowly throughout the course of a long season, Gerolmo tries to do too much too quickly, and this opening effort suffers because of it.
Another consistent attribute of Bochco's shows is their attention to detail and the concentrated effort to present a high level of realism. On this front, the pilot episode largely succeeds and, with the exception of some of the aforementioned dialogue, effectively captures what it must be like to be involved in a modern war on foreign desert soil. Also to Over There's credit, the pilot lends validity to the goal that the series will not take political sides, questioning whether or not we should be in the war. It simply accepts that we are at war, for better or worse, and instead focuses on how these characters deal with their circumstances. The war scenarios presented in this pilot are coherent and logical, and they certainly show promise for the future of the series.
But what is the future of this show? Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question. It is the rarest of shows where the pilot episode is a true indicator of the quality of the series, and to predict what will follow from this short entry to the show seems foolish at best. What I can tell you is that while this pilot episode is flawed, it is a competent production and lays a foundation interesting enough to warrant watching the episodes when they premiere on FX (July 27th at 10:00pm EDT). The action is vivid, and the characters -- while bogged down with some excess exposition -- present a diverse group of individuals around which many good stories can be told. Erik Palladino seems perfectly cast as the vociferous sergeant, and Keith Robinson (who was fantastic on American Dreams) gives a strong but subdued performance as the wise marksman. However, it is far from "one of the most gut-wrenching hours of TV you'll ever see", as is plastered across the front of the DVD case. While interesting and showing some definite promise, do not expect anything near the quality level of pilot episodes for series like The Shield or Six Feet Under. This episode simply sets the stage and introduces the characters; what they ultimately perform on that stage remains to be seen.
This pilot episode of Over There is presented in widescreen with anamorphic enhancement, and for the most part, the transfer looks very good. There is a light amount of grain to the video, but it is consistent throughout the episode and fits with the gritty nature of the show. The drastic shifts from the bright desert sun to the cool dark night to the green night-vision view are handled well, and it is only during a few of the nighttime sequences where the image could use improvement. The audio is Dolby Surround, and although there is nothing wrong with it, it does not stand out either. For a series based within a war, I expected more.
One note on the presentation: the DVD opens with a manic and annoying anti-piracy piece. While I understand the motivation, I have a hard time seeing how these things serve any functional purpose other than annoying those of us who legally purchase DVDs, and annoyed I was. The episode is also preceded by a short FX promo for the upcoming season.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
The only additional material is a 16-minute featurette entitled Over There: An Inside Look and a group of FX promotional pieces. Showing interviews with Steven Bochco, Chris Gerolmo, and John Landgraf (President and General Manager of FX Networks), the featurette provides some background information on how the show was conceived and what the creators hope to do with it. For a short piece, it's interesting viewing material, and if they are successful in the goals they describe in these interviews, it should make for an entertaining new series.
The FX promos feature both the current slate of FX favorites as well as a quick look into some of their upcoming comedies (Starved and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) plus what looks to be a very interesting Andre Braugher/Linda Hamilton project called Thief.
Although I definitely recommend you watch this show when it airs and see for yourself where it goes from here, I fail to see any reason to purchase this DVD. This pilot episode is nothing spectacular on its own, and it would be a shocker of epic proportions if the first season was not released in its entirety sometime in the near future. Consequently, with regard to this particularly DVD, I suggest that you Skip It. As for the series, while this pilot exhibits some flaws, and my initial gut reaction is that it is a "good" show trying a bit too hard to be "great", it features a unique concept, vivid and effective visuals, and a strong cast. I can only guess at what its future holds, but based on this opening entry, I Recommend you tune in on July 27th and check it out for yourself.