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Over There: Season 1

Fox // Unrated // March 21, 2006
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted March 23, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The first television series set in a current war, "Over There" works because it intentionally avoids the politics that have divided the nation over war policies. It is simply the story of those fighting and those they have left behind, which is enough drama that political commentary would not only be excessive, but simply unnecessary.

By playing it neutral yet refusing to ignore the harsh realities of war, "Over There" becomes a Rorschach Test of sorts for the viewer. Some may see the ugly bloodshed and the ruined lives of all involved as a tirade against not only this war, but all war in general. Others may view the explicit violence and overt machismo as a glorification of sorts of the same. And surely there will be arguments about whether the series defends or condemns the actions of the soldiers. More interestingly, some will find it agrees with their philosophies, others will find is goes against them, and neither will agree on what the series means to say. I have seen online comments that declare the show as being obscenely anti-soldier followed by comments proclaiming it to be highly patriotic.

The series offers no answers. It shows soldiers acting courageously and shamefully, and often it insists on letting a single character do both. Lines are not only blurred, they are obliterated.

It doesn't always work, however. "Over There" takes a few episodes to find its footing, with its pilot episode too dependent on the old war story clich├ęs as well as overly obvious strokes of melodrama that run a little past their welcome. Subplot come off as overly dependent on Big Moments, as though the writers are afraid that subtlety would not do the characters justice. And the idea of making every single member of the unit we're following an emotional wreck of some sort comes across as overkill. Surely somebody in This Man's Army has a normal life, right? Not according to this series, which drops personal problems into the laps of everybody, all in the name of heavy drama.

(I'm also not sure what to make of a supporting character in the third episode, "The Prisoner." We meet a mystery man - CIA? - who interrogates an insurgent; the agent, while enjoyable to watch and expertly played by Michael Cudlitz, comes off more like a movie character than someone out of real life, which too distracting.)

But the show eventually settles into something quite remarkable. The melodrama overkill that demands every character have a major backstory to tell manages to evolve into compelling stuff indeed - yes, it might not be realistic, but hey, not every law firm or forensics lab is TV-level exciting, either, and besides, the stories are so well told that we're willing to forgive such silliness because we're so drawn in. The stories ultimately become that good.

Among the personal series-covering story arcs (which cover everything from life after amputation to marriages on the rocks to soldiers going AWOL to disagreements with know-nothing officers) we find the closest thing the series will offer regarding commentary. The writers manage to tie in all the major headlines. One storyline follows a soldier's wife who must fight the system when she's billed for property her husband never returned (because he was too busy getting blown up); another details an embedded journalist's footage resulting in grizzly accusations against one soldier; yet another watches as the training of an Iraqi security force leads only to frustration. The writers are always careful in presenting these ideas, watching their footing, making sure to only present the facts not as we civilians might view them (with the time and energy to contemplate their political ramifications), but as the soldiers might view them (as in: just something else to deal with while trying to not get killed).

All thirteen episodes, then, become an emotional powerhouse, with the later shows more so, as we've gotten familiar with these characters and their plight. The cast - mostly a group of unknown faces, aside from Erik Palladino of "ER" as a Vin Diesel-ish Sgt. Scream and rapper Kirk "Sticky Fingaz" Jones as the brash Pvt. Smoke - never falters in bringing the emotion home. Every performance is spot-on and highly memorable, with the cast allowing their characters room to grow in all the right ways, making it all the easier to connect with these people. By the time each episode ends, the sounds of the haunting theme song (written and performed by the series' co-creator, Chris Gerolmo) underscoring the heartbreak of another week's wartime agony, the viewer is left numb from it all. Taken as one giant story, "Over There" wears us down in ways only great television drama can.

Gerolmo (whose previous credits include screenplays for "Mississippi Burning" and "Citizen X") is assisted in production by series co-creator Steven Bochco. Bochco is no stranger to quality TV, having given us "Hill Street Blues," "Murder One," "NYPD Blue," and "L.A. Law," among others. Bochco knows how to make TV work not only on an hour-by-hour basis, but in structuring an overall story that lures us in and traps us with its expert storytelling over the course of an entire series. I do not know how much of "Over There" is Bochco's doing and how much is Gerolmo's, but the duo have crafted a series that manages to get better with every passing episode.

Sadly, the FX network has not yet picked up "Over There" for a second season, a move that effectively turns the first season into a single compact story. Fortunately, the first season ends so cleanly and satisfactorily that no damage is done by not continuing the story. Unfortunately, this means that the series was canned just as it was hitting its stride. If the first year of "Over There" had grown into great television, we can only imagine what grand heights a second year might have given us.

The DVD

Fox's four-disc release of the series seems to cement its single-year status, as there is no mention of the phrase "complete first season." But then, there's no mention of "the complete series," either, so maybe there's hope.

The four discs come packaged in two two-disc slimline cases, which are housed in a cardboard slipcover. The included episodes are:

Disc One: "Pilot," "Roadblock Duty," and "The Prisoner."

Disc Two: "I Want My Toilets," "Embedded," "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," and "Mission Accomplished."

Disc Three: "Situation Normal," "Spoils of War," "Suicide Rain," and "Orphans."

Disc Four: "Weapons of Mass Destruction" and "Follow the Money."

Video

The handheld jerkiness and intentionally grainy look of the series does not hinder the show's presentation in any way. The images (in the show's original 1.78:1 widescreen, with anamorphic enhancement) are commendable throughout the entire series; this is a visually dazzling show, and the DVD does it justice.

Audio

The Dolby 5.1 mix has fun with the surround mode, with bullets whizzing and helicopters buzzing on the rear speakers without ever becoming distracting in the process. Full attention is given to the dialogue, which is always clear, while the music fills up the speakers in impressive ways. Also offered is a 2.0 Spanish track. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.

Extras

Commentary is provided for three key episodes. On "Pilot," we hear Gerolmo and co-producer Joan Gerolmo dryly discuss the series' creation; there are some interesting anecdotes, but the two aren't charismatic enough to keep us riveted for a full hour. "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" features military advisor Ssgt. Sean Bunch and Iraqi advisor Sam Sako; they, too, tend to run a little dull at times (with too many gaps in the discussion), although it's worth a listen for Sako's comments on the series' treatment of Iraqi characters (which is fairly nonexistent, a decision I understand but some detractors may not feel was appropriate). And with "Spoils of War," we get a cast commentary featuring Luke MacFarlane, Erik Palladino, Keith Robinson, Kirk Jones, Omid Abtahi, Lizette Carrion, and Nicki Aycox; like most big group discussions, this one is lively and full of wisecracks, but the rambling, overlapping chatter (combined with shoddy recording quality) makes this one enjoyable only in small doses.

Found on Disc Four is a 140-minute documentary, "Tour of Duty: Filming 'Over There.'" Centering on the production of the final episode and backtracking to cover the series' complete creation, this feature is exhaustive and quite impressive - and much more than I was expecting from a cancelled basic cable show.

Rounding out the extras is a quickie featurette titled "Weapons Debriefing," which is included on Disc One. For gun enthusiasts (of which I am not one) only, this is five-minute rundown with armorer Vince Flaherty, who goes over the various weaponry used in the series. (Footage of the show is edited in, perhaps to pad the running time.) Both features are presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Note: Fox had previously released the pilot episode as a separate release, in an effort to drum up interest in the show. Included on that disc was a featurette ("'Over There:' An Inside Look") that has not been carried over to this complete season set. Having not seen that disc, I do not know if footage from that feature has been incorporated into "Tour of Duty," but for suffering completists, I'd say don't worry about it. "Tour of Duty" is comprehensive enough to make up for the absence.

Final Thoughts

If you're willing to stick through the show's iffier first few hours, "Over There" pays off with first-rate drama. The noteworthy cast and sharp behind-the-scenes team deliver episode after episode of thrilling stuff that will have you lamenting the absence of a second season even before you're through with the first one. Add in an impressive DVD presentation and you've got yourself one Highly Recommended series.
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Highly Recommended

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