THE FIRST few episodes of last year’s premiere season of “Army Wives” played out with the chaos, speed and tragic whimsy of a John Waters movie. There was a son, Jeremy Sherwood (Richard Bryant), who beat his mother, Denise ( Catherine Bell); a mixed-race surrogate pregnancy; a female lieutenant colonel, Joan (Wendy Davis), who danced on bars when drunk; and a new wife, Roxy (Sally Pressman), who, when she spilled something on her dress at a party, retreated to the bathroom and stripped it off, running it under water while standing in heels and a thong, to the shock of the good wives of Ft. Marshall.
Though similar in premise to CBS’ “The Unit,” which splits its focus between military men and their families, “Army Wives” felt more like “Desperate Housewives” or “Sex and the City” but with a dark, almost gothic twist. Especially given the subject matter, it was gloriously strange.
Over the course of the season, though, the show leveled off to become a conventional, often gripping family drama -- although it is set in and around a military base, in the shadow of war, “Army Wives” is little concerned with politics. And with camera work stiffer than that of a daytime soap, unforgiving lighting, fits of ham-fisted dialogue and some acting that relies more on facial expression than emotional expression, it sometimes came off like a propagandist telenovela.
But toward season’s end it enthrallingly shifted back into overdrive. There was an unplanned pregnancy, a couple of affairs and a cliffhanger worthy of a Hitchcock flick. In the finale, several of the protagonists were trapped in the Hump Bar -- where Roxy works, it’s become the group hangout -- by a jealous husband (of a secondary character) with a bomb strapped to his chest.
Tonight’s second-season premiere (Lifetime, 10) picks up four days later, after the bomb has gone off, and by contrast with the vividness of the first season, it is trapped in amber. The fallout from the bombing is revealed in flashback bits, slowly, and in a contrived narration by one of the wives, Pamela Moran (Brigid Brannagh), who hosts a radio show. It is a labored episode that feels more like a necessity than a new direction; “We got ourselves backed into a corner,” show creator Katherine Fugate told Entertainment Weekly recently. “The man has a bomb and there’s a credibility factor. People have to die.” Suffice it to say that last season’s ancillary characters were being fattened for a reason.
Up against many of the show’s other plot lines, though, the bombing itself is of only medium importance -- “Army Wives” has plenty of other intrigue. Joan’s husband, Roland (Sterling K. Brown) -- very much one of the “wives” -- has had an affair and is planning to move away until he learns that Joan is pregnant. A psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder, for much of the first season, he also served as a sort of omniscient narrator -- he often seemed to be speaking truths about the entire cast. After the affair, though, he began to unravel.
After living by the rules of her well-meaning but uptight husband, Frank (Terry Serpico), for almost 20 years, Denise decided to go back to work and also to initiate sex. Frank is now deployed in Iraq, leaving Denise room to roam. (There also appears to be burgeoning sexual tension between Denise and Roland -- or, this being Lifetime, sensual tension.)
The ostensible anchor couple of “Army Wives” is the most senior. Michael Holden (Brian McNamara) is the ranking officer on the post, a man of quiet sternness. His wife, Claudia Joy ( Kim Delaney), is a social martyr and do-gooder who squelches her own happiness at every turn. Her husband and friends call her by her first and middle names together -- it is an oppressively pleasant appellation. Living up to the cloud of Joy that hangs around her has become more and more overwhelming. Though she hasn’t cracked, she will.
Instead, the fortunes of “Army Wives” are linked to the fate of its most junior couple: Roxy and her young husband, Trevor (Drew Fuller). Roxy is a survivor, full of folksy wisdom (“Fastest way to a man’s zipper: tight jeans, new haircut”), and Trevor is, plainly put, perfect. Attractive in a “One Tree Hill” way, unerringly romantic and generous to a fault (he insists upon adopting Roxy’s kids because he was adopted and doesn’t want them to feel as if they have no father), he is still complicated, with something troubled lurking behind his brow and his slightly slow, always comforting speech.
Undoubtedly he is being set up for a difficult return from Iraq. If “Army Wives” is political in any way, it is in commenting on how war can ravage even the most serene of families. War is always absurd, but the absurdity it creates at home can be devastating too.