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Baghdad blues

Times Staff Writer

Premiering tonight on FX, “Over There” is the network’s second series, after “Rescue Me,” to have sprung, in a general way, from the events of 9/11.

Set in contemporary Iraq among the members of a small, variously employed combat unit, and to a lesser extent among the people they left behind, it shares with the earlier, FDNY-set series elements of unusual stress and heavy gear. Co-created by “NYPD Blue” mastermind Steven Bochco (who was approached by FX to develop the series) with Chris Gerolmo, it’s technically accomplished, convincingly played and reliably diverting, and it raises a lot of questions -- not so much as to what we’re doing or not doing in Iraq, but about what it means to watch a television fiction set there.

Bochco, for one, is not kidding himself about higher purpose: “Our agenda ... is simply, and fundamentally, to create a very compelling entertainment,” he says in the video press kit FX sent out with the series’ first three episodes. Gerolmo is more expansive: “War is a natural subject of television. It’s got all the drama of ‘Law & Order’ and it’s got all the action of ’24' and, for better or worse, it’s got all the gore of ‘CSI.’ Why not write about war? ... We can give you a powerful, visceral gut-wrenching experience that the news can’t give you.”

Gerolmo has a point about the growing failure of the news to communicate any sense of the reality of Iraq. But to hear the Unfortunate Event of our time described in terms of cop shows is ... interesting. There’s a sense in which it pays respect to an event to mirror it in the culture -- whether that mirroring supports or attacks or dispassionately analyzes -- but there is also a point at which honor begins to look like exploitation. It’s a difficult line to walk -- maybe impossible. “Over There” seems relatively well-intentioned and -researched, but it falls victim to movie convention and, worse, to a lack of curiosity about its own characters and setting. The series comes most alive when the least is happening, when for brief moments it regards how people live together and gives them time to talk. But for the most part it feels fuzzy, its lack of detail and complexity only somewhat disguised by a plurality of big events.

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The soldiers all have nicknames -- “Smoke,” “Dim,” “Doublewide,” “Angel,” and so on -- and general attitudes, but, with a couple of exceptions, not yet much in the way of personalities. In general ways, they are reminiscent of the sort of characters who populated the war films of old: There is the “smart guy,” a kind of slumming intellectual, whose intelligence is signaled, as it has been in a thousand other films, by the fact that he wears glasses; the All-American Kid; the urban cynic; the ethnic guy (here an Arab American from Detroit); the tough sergeant and his clueless superior. And there are the usual Hollywood touches that add excitement not necessarily in the service of truth -- the power ballad that ends the episodes, the florid camera moves (though this is less eccentric than some Bochco productions), the smoke and lighting effects. When the stateside husband of a soldier goes to a family support group, all the women are good-looking, as if they’d just stepped over from “Desperate Housewives.” One gets a whiff of “Apocalypse Now” here, a taste of spaghetti westerns there.

As to the enemy -- ordinary Iraqi citizens barely exist in the show so far -- they are mostly video-game blips in the distance, to be picked off before they pick you off. When they get closer, they are unambiguously treacherous (or seriously misguided), as if to ensure sympathy for our heroes. There is no blurring of right side and wrong. Even the little girl who dies in a car running a checkpoint is revealed to be the pawn of the insurgency, not an innocent victim of American gunfire. The apparently crazy special-operations officer who hijacks the unit’s insurgent prisoner is only crazy like a fox. Synapses of future episodes indicate similar strategies ahead: “A member of the fire team is implicated in a civilian killing that the unit suspects was a setup by Iraqi insurgents”; and later, an Iraqi prisoner “strapped with explosives threatens to blow up himself and everyone else at the prison.”

The series is apolitical in the sense that it doesn’t take a side on whether we should be in Iraq in the first place, and its sympathy toward the troops reflects a widespread, if not universal, attitude that the soldiers are not to blame and not to be criticized. But it’s dreaming to think that one can remove that question, or all the questions that question raises, from the experience of watching it, or indeed from making it. Every decision of what to show or not to show, whether to make a character profane or well-spoken, what to have them say or not to say, what music to use and when to use it, every aesthetic decision ultimately has a political resonance, whether intended or not. The subject is too big, too urgent and too real for it to be otherwise.

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‘Over There’

Where: FX

When: 10 tonight

Ratings: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Executive producers and creators Steven Bochco and Chris Gerolmo. Writer and director Chris Gerolmo.


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