Bochco’s Iraq War: Ketchup-Blood Carnage

Stephen Bochco’s new Iraq war drama Over There has several flaws, but the fatal one is the background music. Mr. Bochco has declared his production politics-free; he intends merely for it to be, “you know, a compelling entertainment,” as he phrases it in videotaped promotional materials (a DVD of the first episode is being released barely a week after it premieres on the FX channel, at 10 p.m. E.S.T. on Wednesday, July 27). But if you’re going to cue amped-up electric guitars every time American soldiers lift their machine guns, it’s going to feel a trifle hawkish, yes?

The show’s brass have spoken—rather eagerly—about the “potential for controversy” inherent in their handiwork, meaning not so much the possibility that it will be interpreted as propaganda, but rather the graphic violence (the camera has a tendency to linger luxuriously on severed limbs) and coarse language. But that’s actually a moot point, since this is cable. The more pressing issue is: If one is not dramatizing a current war for political purposes, then why exactly would one want to focus on it—rather than, say, the Trojan War?

The rules and results of combat, after all, are pretty eternal, though the weapons and outcomes might change. Why eschew the calming perspective of even a few years’ historical distance, a distance that almost all previous projects of this sort have respected?

It may be an indication of just how this particular war is registering on the American psyche at large—murky, distant, complex—that the creators’ response to these questions is a shrugging “Why not?” After all, as the greasy-haired screenwriter-director Chris Gerolmo puts it: “War is a natural subject for television. It’s got all the drama of Law & Order, all the action of 24, and, for better or for worse, it’s got all the gore of C.S.I.” Cool!

In other words, it’s a potential ratings bonanza. There’s certainly nothing controversial, nor especially groundbreaking, about the show’s format. Aspiring to put a “human face” on combat (something everyone can agree is a tribute to the troops), Over There features a diverse grab bag of virgin Army recruits, a veritable Breakfast Club of grunts that includes a fresh-faced jock who aims to play football at A&M when his tour of duty is over; a rebellious bad-ass from Compton (“I grew up in a combat zone,” he tells a fellow recruit); a freaked-out, slightly nutty girl in the Ally Sheedy mold; and a bespectacled Ivy League intellectual (“We’re savages, we’re monsters, and war is what unmasks us, but there’s a kind of honor in it, a kind of grace,” he groans to his wife via video e-mail. Oh, and by the way, she’s cheating on him; for Over There also aspires to dramatize the war back home). Cleft chins abound.

Leading this motley pack is a type familiar from military movies from The Dirty Dozen to An Officer and a Gentleman: the irascible squadron leader with a heart of you-know-what, here personified as Sgt. Chris Silas, a.k.a. Sergeant Scream, played irresistibly by Erik Palladino. (“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ goddamnit!”) Shot through a dusty golden haze, the soldiers are blazingly articulate while lying poised to fire in a dusty dugout, chugging packets of dried Taster’s Choice and wondering where they can defecate without getting blown up. (Not for nothing does Mr. Bochco—who famously gave us a parade of dimpled male buttocks in NYPD Blue—claim that his show will offer stuff the news can’t give you.) Of course, they all have nicknames and poignant back-stories. Of course, they all have differences, which they will perhaps eventually overcome. Of course, the one who most loves the Army—the one who actually wears a T-shirt reading “Be All That You Can Be”—is going to have something really, really gruesome happen to him pretty quickly. (The actors attended a five-day boot camp for authenticity’s sake, where they were trained by a technical consultant from the Marine Corps.)

And the Iraqis? They’re not going to be part of this human-face-painting process; for now, at least, they are grunting, anonymous men tumbling to the ground in slo-mo with their heads swathed in printed scarves, or draped in dark hoods.

“This dude was right over there when I capped him,” marvels the bad-ass, examining a corpse. “Nice shot,” says his buddy. The dramatic, jerky, post-mortem camera angles bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those employed in 1980’s music videos.

There is one apparent counterpoint to the show’s jarringly ballistic soundtrack: a hokey ballad (“There’s mothers crying, fathers sighing … ”) supposedly composed by one of the characters, a 19-year-old private from Arkansas named Avery “Angel” King (Keith Robinson), who has reluctantly joined the Army as a sort of consolation prize after being rejected by a professional choir. It’s subsequently warbled over the closing credits by its actual creator, the multitalented Mr. Gerolmo: a kind of meditative punctuation mark to an hour drenched with ketchup-blood carnage. Mr. Bochco, it appears, wants to have it both ways: to air both a patriotic rallying cry and a sentimental cautionary tale about the horrors of war.

In The Weeds

In the opening credits of Weeds, the new Showtime comedy about a morally righteous suburban widow who sells pot for a living, the camera zooms through a loathsome California subdivision where all the people drink lattes, drive Range Rovers, and run around neatly manicured lawns in identical nylon jogging jerseys.

The soundtrack music helpfully explains: “They’re all made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.”

Ostensibly, this describes the cookie-cutter exurbs like Agrestic, the setting of the show. But it also covers what lurks behind them in the world of prime-time TV.

Viewers won’t be surprised to learn that, when not jogging, everyone on Wisteria Lane—er, in Agrestic—also smokes dope, screws around on his wife or gets caught dancing naked in the gay neighbor’s hot tub.

Thus, after more than a decade of premium cable pushing the boundaries of what can go on TV, a program like Weeds finds itself squarely within bounds. Genre-defying television has become a genre all its own.

Weeds “has all the ingredients of a talked-about show,” said creator and executive producer Jenji Kohan. “It’s an idea that’s kind of a no-brainer. I don’t think it’s particularly original—a drug-dealing mom has floated around before. But we did it in an interesting and provocative and unconventional way, with a really strong cast.”

“We have half the audience of HBO and a fraction of the audience of FX or broadcast networks,” Showtime president Bob Greenblatt said. “So I’m always looking for things that people are going to talk about. But there’s got to be some real complexity to it. Otherwise, we could do stuff that’s pornographic, salacious, exploitative and get attention that way. I want to get attention, but appropriately, with something that warrants it.”

Hence Weeds. The show stars Mary-Louise Parker as Nancy Botwin, a pretty lady who sells popcorn balls infused with premium-grade marijuana. Her co-stars include Kevin Nealon as a weed-fiend city councilman and Elizabeth Perkins as the vicious, pathetic president of the local P.T.A.

Ms. Kohan can write a script with the best of them, and she knows her way around the F-word, a key ingredient in the HBO-Cinemax-Showtime universe.

But it’s the underlying theory of Weeds’ composition that makes it both notable and buzzworthy. The show is a careful amalgam of all the sensational elements of every other show on premium cable (with a smidgen of broadcast thrown in).

It is as if Bree Van De Kamp sat down one night, sparked a doobie and découpaged the best of premium cable: the promiscuity of Sex and the City; the joys and perils of family and crime, as on The Sopranos; the gay themes of Queer as Folk and The L Word; the social and stylistic rebelliousness of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“It’s a very zeitgeisty show,” said the nine-months-pregnant Ms. Kohan in a telephone interview from California. “There’s something in the air right now, and we were lucky enough to catch it in a bottle.”

All of it.

Weeds follows Nancy Botkin, a Westport-style hausfrau whose husband dies unexpectedly of a heart attack, forcing her to find work to support her two children. So, naturally, she starts buying pot from a wisecracking African-American family on the other side of the tracks and selling it to her fellow Range Rover–driving, nylon-jersey-sporting comrades in exurbia. Though her quaint business involves pushing a Schedule I drug, Nancy is still the moral compass of the show. Digs at hypocrisy are one of the two temptations that Ms. Kohan and her writing staff can’t resist. (The other is baked goods, images of which overwhelm so many scenes in Weeds that the final product gives the feeling of having been written and filmed by people with a really bad case of the munchies.)

Characters joke about abortions, the economy, Jews, xenophobia, racism, slavery and, most of all, Christians. None of this is especially shocking, but it is occasionally satisfying—as when Josh Wilson, a teenage dope dealer who does business with Nancy, comes to her because his supply has been wiped out.

Demand is up because they’re showing Winged Migration—a movie that is boring sober but said to be fantastic when seen high—at the local multiplex, he explains. Then the kicker: “Shit hasn’t gone this fast since The Passion of the Christ.”

Ms. Kohan, who is 36, is a Jewish girl from California (“Jenji” is a name that came to her mother in a dream). A graduate of Columbia, she’s the daughter of Buz Kohan, the king of variety, whose 13 Emmys adorned the family piano in her childhood home, and of Rhea Kohan, an accomplished novelist. Her brother is “the famous David Kohan,” creator of Will and Grace.

With no intention of moving back West after college and following her family into the television industry, Ms. Kohan wound up doing both. “I was living in a welfare hotel in New York, and I couldn’t take it any more,” she said. “So I drove across country with a friend. I kept thinking, ‘I’ll get off somewhere and write a novel or be a waitress or something,’ but I never got off.”

Ms. Kohan eventually landed a writing job on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which she followed up with stints writing for First Time Out, Mad About You and Tracey Takes On, for which she won an Emmy in 1999. After that, she wrote for Sex and the City and Gilmore Girls, among others, before writing the pilot for Weeds, which Showtime optioned last year.

Mr. Greenblatt bought the show in part, he said, because “there’s been such a dearth of interesting comedies over the last couple of years. There’s a feeling that the sitcom form has pretty much died.

“When the most attention-getting comedy of the year is a one-hour show called Desperate Housewives,” Mr. Greenblatt said, “I think the comedy form is really [in trouble].”

Not on cable it isn’t. Not where there’s controversy, vulgarity and oregano glued to sticks.

“I’d love it to be a hot-button thing,” Ms. Kohan said, “but it doesn’t seem to be as controversial as I think the writers had fantasized about. Everyone’s been so lovely. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute—throw some shit.’”

—Rebecca Dana Bochco’s Iraq War:  Ketchup-Blood Carnage