Let’s face it: the Army isn’t the sexy service. It doesn’t have coastal settings, fighter fly-bys, and pristine white uniforms. Instead, they slog through muddy training near towns ending in “ville.” What the Army does have is an elemental connection between leader and led. As a force, they’re less concerned with technology and more with group dynamics. It’s a ripe opportunity to explore basic human emotions in a high-stakes environment.
I salute any attempt to dramatize the Army, as Lifetime TV does with Army Wives, a series which premiered June 3. That said, I don’t think it was “on target” as one reviewer noted. While it had commendable aspects, the first episode was saturated with stereotypes and cliches. Sometimes a show needs to find its stride, so I’m optimistic that Army Wives will fill out the characters and end its over-reliance on stale material.
Produced by Mark Gordon who brought us Grey’s Anatomy, and drawn from the book Under the Sabers by real-life Army wife Tanya Biank (who is a consultant), Army Wives follows characters at the fictional Fort Marshall, a division post near Charleston, SC.
Roxy (Sally Pressman) stars as the deep-south-barmaid-with-a-heart-of-gold who marries her earnest soldier after a four-day courtship. With her gee-whiz, blank slate attitude, she becomes the plot device to explain military culture to the audience–acronyms and afternoon teas, for example. Roxy has an uncanny ability to end up in the middle of things, and she’s often the mother-confessor to others. As an uniniated military wife, she always points out when the emperor wears no clothes.
Claudia Joy Holden is the enameled colonel’s wife (icily overplayed by Kim Delaney) who politics for her husband’s promotions like Lady Macbeth. She’s what we in the business call an “Army power wife,” a woman overly identified with her husband’s career who often wears his rank. Claudia’s fuming over a lost general’s star which portends more intrigue.
Catherine Bell plays Denise Sherwood, the wan but devoted wife and mother hiding the secret that her son abuses her. I saw her character in American Beauty in the medicated Marine wife who could barely make it through the day. No woman who manages Army life can be that passive. Dig deep and find your inner JAG lawyer, Ms. Bell! Her husband, Major Sherwood, is the buttoned-down officer who upbraids his teenager for being ten minutes late. Didn’t I see this military man in The Great Santini? I’m sure I did.
The least believable character is the female Lieutenant Colonel Joan Holden (Wendy Davis), recently returned from an unrealistically long two-year tour as a battalion commander in Afghanistan. In an opening sequence, she’s having stall sex with her husband in the women’s bathroom during a promotion party. Yeah, right! A few days later the deep-south-barmaid pulls a drunk and depressed Joan off the bar where she’s doing her coyote ugly imitation. These nutty scenes don’t do anything to illuminate Joan’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a serious subect that deserves more exploration than a whiskey-induced pole dance. How about a heightened fear of overpasses and loud noises, jumpiness, and insomnia? That makes more sense in this context. Joan’s husband, Roland (Sterling K. Brown), serves as the sole male Army spouse in the cast.
Finally there’s Pamela Moran (Brigid Brannagh) who decides to become a paid surrogate to help her family get out of debt. The episode ends with her improbable emergency delivery of twins on the pool table at the local juke joint, ably assisted by the deep-south-barmaid and three others. It was such a farcical finish that I had to laugh. Again, I’ve seen the “bonding over childbirth” scene in a few B movies.
Army Wives aims for high-minded socio-political drama (a la West Wing) but gets derailed by silly soapiness. If they capitalized on the inherent human drama of Army life rather than the stock tinsletown version, they’d have a more powerful product.
I’ll watch it for a season and keep my fingers crossed. At worst it’ll be what Orange County Housewives and Dairy Queen blizzards are to me–guilty pleasures in which I shamelessly indulge.
About Those “Commendable Aspects” I Mentioned:
What Army Wives Got Right
- An Army post is like a big fishbowl where work, friends, family, recreation, and living blur into one community.
- The infidelity at home when the units deploy. (”I’m married. I’m just not fanatic about it.”)
- Three biggies: financial stress, substandard housing, and absent spouses.
- A conversation between two Army teens shows their emotional state: “Don’t you think your whole life’s about the military?” and “I only see my dad on video.”
- The scenes and settings of post were realistic. I thought I caught a glimpse of Fort Campbell and Fort Benning.
- The rumor mill on post, unfairly portrayed by just enlisted soldiers’ wives who skulk about the neighborhood generating grief and gossip.
- The dread of hearing CNN Headline News, when all the headlines about the war are achingly personal.
- The montages of departure scenes were powerful, especially when accompanied by haunting melodies like “Is This Love?” by Thomas Anderson (downloadable on Lifetimetv.com.)
- The close female friendship between Claudia and Denise.
…And What They Got Wrong
“I just hope people realize this series is a fictionalized version of the Army,” I emailed to a friend. In my book Household Baggage I devoted a story to the misrepresentations of the military in movies. For the record, here are a few infractions from Army Wives.
- What was that crazy combination Formal/Dining-In/Promotion ceremony they had?
- Would you really go to a formal the night before you deployed to the Middle East?
- Saluting indoors? I don’t think so.
- What are the ethics of a paid surrogate getting her obstetrical care on the Army’s dime?
- A wife floats a rumor and subverts the Department of the Army evaluation and promotion system? Wives aren’t that powerful!
- A duplex with a nice yard in a cul-de-sac is probably better than a Private would get.
- A Major can’t make a call and get his son into West Point.
- “Soldiers don’t like their wives to work.” This isn’t true in my experience. Many wives try to carve out careers, but it’s difficult because of frequent moves and increased demands at home, not because of an old-fashioned code.
- I’ve never heard military wives call each other “hon” and “sweetheart” as much as they did on this show.
Army Wives airs at 10 pm EST on Sundays. You can also view clips on Lifetimetv.com.