Over Here7/29/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern
Last week, as we watched the debut of FX's Over There, a gritty depiction of the Iraq War, we were reminded of how bold and timely television can be. Never before has a television war drama been shown at the same time the war is being fought.
FX could have irritated both proponents and opponents of our continued involvement in Iraq. Instead, Over There appears to have won over many of both with its complicated portrayal of the job of war, drawing one of the largest audiences in cable history for a series premiere and getting good reviews in the process.
As the medium has proliferated and matured, it has changed the way the world sees itself. In its prime, Ted Koppel's Nightline brought together world leaders who discussed the hard issues—live, and with candor and hope.
However, the image of leaders with something important to say on Nightline has unfortunately morphed into footage of terrorists beheading captives, as shown on Al Jazeera.
In an earlier era, Vietnam became known as the television war. So, when Walter Cronkite talked on the air about the hopelessness of the American presence there after the 1968 Tet offensive, President Johnson, it was widely reported, said, “If we've lost Walter Cronkite, we've lost the country.” Three months later, LBJ announced he would not seek re-election.
Cronkite has never been a fan of the current war, but the anchor-as-arbiter model has been diluted by the explosion of media outlets. TV war coverage is now instant in a way undreamed during Vietnam, and yet Iraq War coverage remains strangely distant.
It seems to us that we saw more of the Vietnam War, and its tragic consequences for soldiers and the Vietnamese people, than we now see of the war in Iraq. In part, that's because, while Vietnam was a guerilla war, there was something like a front—a North and a South, along with large, ongoing battles.
Journalists in Iraq are now targets for insurgents. And by contrast, the journalists in this war usually arrive after the “battle” right along with the nurses and doctors rushing to mend bodies ripped to shreds by suicidal terrorists. This is a different kind of war.
Still, even with a proliferation of all-news outlets and a cluster of journalists embedded with troops, we cannot see the returning dead. It's an official rule: We are rarely shown in real time, from the real battlefield, our own casualties of war.
It's sometimes as if we're not over there. For all the faces we could put on the statistics, they still become a roll call of body counts, except ex post facto in stories of difficult homecomings and high-tech prosthetics.
That is why FX's Over There is a gutsy endeavor. In the first three episodes that we have seen, the series from Steven Bochco and Chris Gerolmo reflects the wide ambiguities of the war.
Over There is neither pro- nor anti-war. But it does portray the idea that this war is a particular hell—on the battlefield and for families back home. And it does a better job of showing it than most of our newscasts most of the time. That's good for FX, but not a particularly flattering commentary on the news business.