‘JAG’ missions accomplished
Before there were embedded reporters with the military, there was the embedded television show: “JAG,” starring David James Elliott as the hair-on-fire Navy pilot turned crusading lawyer.
After 10 seasons, the final episode is set for broadcast tonight on CBS as “JAG” goes into reruns, the television equivalent of leaving active duty and joining the reserves.
Harm, Elliott’s character, and his legal team partner Mac, played by Catherine Bell, are being reassigned from the Judge Advocate General office in Falls Church, Va., to other duty stations.
“JAG” producers hint that the Navy commander and the Marine Corps lieutenant colonel (Harm and Mac) may finally act on their mutual attraction, or not.
In its long-running portrayal of military life, “JAG” may be second only to the cultural phenomenon that was"MASH” (1972-83). But “JAG” was a kind of anti-"MASH,” a post-Vietnam look at the military in a fictional setting.
In “MASH,” individuals were seen as virtuous, but the military organization was more often mocked as dumb, dysfunctional and even pernicious.
In “JAG” the opposite was true: There were bad people in uniform but there were more good ones and the organization was dedicated to fairness, as well as a small thing called national defense.
“JAG” creator and executive producer Donald P. Bellisario, a former Marine, said that without fresh episodes, America might soon lose “somebody to speak on the other side of the aisle for the military.”
Being a military booster in liberal Hollywood isn’t easy. “I find my position on the military to be a lonely one,” Bellisario said.
Although he may have felt lonely in television land, Bellisario and “JAG” were welcomed by the Navy and Marine Corps.
Both services offered script advice and access to bases for filming, mostly at Navy bases at Point Mugu and Port Hueneme -- and occasionally at Camp Pendleton Marine base. The carrier deck seen in the opening credits is the runway at Point Mugu.
Although liaison officers occasionally winced at the exaggerations necessary to create drama, the military thought the cooperation and the access to restricted facilities afforded “JAG” were worth it.
“The Navy never looks bad” in “JAG,” said Cmdr. Bob Anderson, chief of the Navy’s Office of Information-West, which works with the entertainment industry, turning down most requests for help, but approving a few.
“The show had to have bad guys on it or there would have been no drama,” Anderson said. “In the end though, the Navy does the right thing -- bad people are punished, and good people are rewarded.”
Yet there were disagreements between the military and “JAG” writers, some so sharp that the military declined to assist in certain episodes. The Navy drew the line at an episode in which a nuclear torpedo was inadvertently dropped into the water while a submarine was pier-side. The idea was ruled too improbable and alarmist.
“That was unacceptable to us,” Anderson said. “They just built their own stuff and did it their own way.”
Working with “JAG” required a learning curve for the military.
“Television is a crazy business, but I finally learned it’s an awful lot like the military,” said Lt. Cmdr. Christy Hagen. “You have rank, a chain of command, specialists who really know what they’re doing, and you run on a schedule.
“Both have a mission.”
Scripts would arrive weekly and be marked with comments about use of military terminology and uniforms and other matters.
Only occasionally would higher-ups at the Pentagon have to be consulted. “The writers hated it, but the producers loved it” because it made the show more authentic, Anderson said.
Doug Sayers, former public affairs officer at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, said he was impressed with the attention to detail by “JAG” writers on episodes involving a character played by Patrick Labyorteaux, who had a leg blown off by a landmine in Afghanistan.
“They asked a lot of questions about rehabilitation and amputations,” Sayers said.
To Bellisario’s dismay, “JAG,” which airs at 9 p.m. Fridays, was never able to boost its viewership numbers in the 18-to-49 age group so enticing to advertisers. The show remained a favorite of the 50 and over set, a kind of “Matlock” in uniform.
Bellisario is determined not to repeat that with his “NCIS,” another CBS series about the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The Tuesday night show is more techno-oriented and has a sassier and sexier tone, with even a dash of anti-authoritarianism. For a while, Bellisario considered a “JAG” redux with Bell assigned to sunny San Diego but finally dropped the idea.
In its final season, “JAG” was virtually alone among television series that tackled some of the thornier political and ethical issues involved with the U.S. military occupation in Iraq.
Two episodes were direct takeoffs from deadly incidents in Iraq: the bombing of the chow hall at Mosul, and the furor over a Marine caught on film killing an apparently unarmed insurgent in a mosque during the battle for Fallouja.
In Bellisario’s version, “Death in a Mosque,” a self-absorbed television reporter captures the shooting on film and blasts it to the world, context-free. “It’s ZNN,” snarls a Marine general. “There are no rules.”
At a hastily convened court-martial, a Marine captain explains, “We don’t have the luxury of casual deliberation in combat.” The Marine is found not guilty after evidence shows the insurgent was attempting to signal a sniper.
In real life the incident is still under investigation to see whether the Marine will face charges. “Death” made at least one accommodation to the military: Certain antagonistic remarks about embedded reporters were toned down.
“JAG’s” unwavering support of the military does not necessarily extend to support of U.S. foreign policy.
A young Marine in “Two Towns,” asked why he lied about an incident in Oklahoma after the bombing in Mosul, blurts out, “Because that’s what Washington has been doing. They lied to us about why we were fighting the war, about how many troops it was going to take and about the kind of support we were going to get.”
Harm, Elliott’s character, offers no rebuttal to the Marine’s sense of betrayal.