What a difference four decades make. The Vietnam War was an unpopular war that dragged on for 12 years, but all we ever saw on television was gritty news that featured journalists in foxholes reporting live, with bullets hitting soldiers right alongside them. It was enough to make the American people put pressure on Washington to bring the troops home.
Meanwhile, just two years into the Iraq War, we got a Iraqi war drama ("Over There") that tried to be apolitical. But the curious thing is, also in 2005, a USA Today article revealed that more than half of Americans wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, while "roughly half" of the people polled in 1970 wanted America to withdraw its troops from Vietnam. Now, less than a third of the people polled support the Iraq War, but the atmosphere is far more patriotic than it was in the Seventies. Go figure.
And now we have a nighttime Lifetime soap opera about the spouses of men and women serving in the military, both stateside and in Iraq. It doesn't exactly romanticize the military culture, but it comes close--and given the current attitudes, that seems a little strange, even unfathomable to me.
Then again, "Army Wives" is a good old-fashioned soaper that could very easily have been set in the corporate world. It plays like daytime television, so if you like shows like "All My Children" you'll appreciate this show, which could just as well be called "All My Military Children." The headlining actress, Kim Delaney, is a veteran of "All My Children," the writing comes closer to the melodramatic and clichéd dialogue of daytime television, and the near-constant background music is just as melodramatic. The main difference is in the production values and the blocking. One cliché of daytime TV is that the actors stand toe-to-toe and deliver LONG emotional monologues. They're at least broken up here, and the characters move around more naturally. Still, this isn't a tongue-in-cheek soaper like "Desperate Housewives." It's an unabashed, unashamed, play-by-the-book daytime soap opera refitted with an evening gown. And one tux.
Kim Delaney stars as Claudia Joy, the army wife people feel thinks she's better than everyone else because she won't have an affair while her spouse is spending a year at a time away from home. Then there's Denise, the timid and proper wife who wants to maintain appearances and keep the abuse she's been experiencing a secret. Speaking of secrets, the big one in the pilot comes to us courtesy of Pamela (Brigid Brannagh), who struggles financially that she and her husband agree to have her be a surrogate mother--something she tries to keep from the rest of the camp. The most engaging character, though she's also a cliché, is Roxy (Sally Pressman), a barmaid with two children from two different guys who gets a proposal in the opening scene from a serviceman. The tux is worn by the long-suffering Roland (Sterling K. Brown), a psychiatrist whose military wife Joan (Wendy Davis) just returned from Iraq with a big-time case of post-stress syndrome.
The thing is, despite some strong performances, the material and the treatment are so soap-bubbly clichéd and the lines are said with such doggone determined seriousness (which makes them sound even more clichéd) that you have a hard time forgetting about the dramatic structure and just enjoying the characters. The people who will be able to do this will be the fans of daytime television who are used to the weepy and overly dramatic music accompanying every character everywhere, like a sappy version of the Peter Pan shadow.
Then there's the plotting. The first episode begins with a proposal in a bar and ends with a birth in a bar (atop a billiard table, to be precise). Such contrivances abound. This Band of Sisters (plus one honorary brother) show gets a little too touchy-feely in terms of its support mechanism, too, as if these folks were in AA and were such hard cases that they needed more than one buddy to keep them from sinking.
Consider the 13 episodes that are housed on three single-sided discs, and you'll see what I mean about the plotting:
1) "A Tribe is Born." The title pretty much is a tip-off of the tone of this series. We follow Roxy, the "newbie" who moves to the army camp and tries to fit into a strange new world where everyone has to have their own support system for when their spouses leave for extended duty. The show introduces the characters and their problems.
2) "After Birth." Jeremy (Richard Bryant) manhandles his mother for the last time, and Denise decides to get some self-defense training. Pamela and her husband (Jeremy Davidson) are forced to take in the twins because the real parents are out of town. And Joan's behavior takes a bad turn.
3) "The Art of Separation." Trevor (Drew Fuller) wants to adopt Roxy's sons before he ships out, but there are complications (of course). Jeremy's violence becomes too much, finally, and Pamela decides to come clean about the twins.
4) "One of Our Own." Denise's husband (Terry Serpico), a hot-shot major who's a walking "be a man" cliché that made his son the way he is, has his helicopter shot down and Denise and the others await news. But the biggest soap bubble comes when a soldier takes Roland and Claudia hostage.
5) "Independence Day." One of the wives outside the circle who's been giving Pamela a hard time has a secret of her own, but Pamela gets some bad news at Claudia's Fourth of July party that spoils everyone's day. Roland goes to Col. Holden (Brian McNamara) to plead for his wife, whose behavior has her facing a court martial. You'd think that since Roland and Claudia Joy Holden are buddies it'd be a slam-dunk.
6) "Who We Are." This breather episode brings in other characters and storylines. Claudia's daughter, Amanda (Kim Allen) returns and picks up where she apparently left off with Jeremy. Meanwhile, Roxy's mother pops in and Trevor's deployment is rescheduled after an injury.
7) "Hail and Farewell." Roxy's mom tries to plan a birthday party for her, and the Army Wives gang up on Jeremy.
8) "Only the Lonely." The Holdens schedule a vacation, hoping to nip this thing between Amanda and Jeremy in the bud. Denise decides to return nursing after more than a decade off. And Roxy gets an ominous sign when she meets a single mother who has to leave the post after her husband's death.
9) "Nobody's Perfect." Yep, and especially the writers. This is one weak episode in a season of weak ones. Joan returns, but Roland had an affair and so that threatens to keep them apart. Denise's job puts a damper on Frank's homecoming, and the other wives re-examine their relationships.
10) "Dirty Laundry." Come on. All of it's dirty. But this is military dirty laundry. A friend of Claudia's is going to testify at a Congressional hearing that her husband's death was caused by the U.S.
11) "Truth and Consequences." Joan finally finds out about the affair, Pamela gets a job with a radio station, and we learn more about Claudia Joy's past. Everyone does, in fact.
12) "Rules of Engagement." At the bar where Roxy works a fight breaks out that prompts Trevor to ask her to quit. Roland and Joan are still having problems.
13) "Goodbye Stranger." When weapons turn up missing, the post is put on high alert in anticipation that it might be terrorist-related.
It all comes down to the writing, though, and we get too many lines that seem hokey, overly familiar, or excessively laden with emotion so that it feels like an overselling of the character. Take Roxy, for example, who's supposed to be just a little on the redneck side. It goes a little overboard to have her saying of an embarrassing moment, "Well, if I didn't just serve up toe-jam on an idiot cracker." Why not just have her say "Whee-doggies" like Jed Clampett? Or when Joan says to a superior officer, "Can I ask you something? How long before everything starts to feel normal again?" and he replies, straight-faced, "It never does," you get an example of too corny/cliched of a line. It's enough to make you wonder what this should could have been like with less soap and more polish.
"Army Wives" has bright colors and a fair amount of detail for a DVD. It's presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and "enhanced" (i.e., stretched) for 16x9 televisions. No complaints here. The picture looks good enough to showcase better-than-soaper production values.
The audio is probably overkill, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mostly delivering dialogue and music. And there are times when you wish the music didn't keep playing in such clear, crisp tones. What's wrong with silence sometimes?? Subtitle options are in Spanish and French.
Kudos to ABC/Lifetime for including a feature on real army wives, who talk about the challenges and hardships they face on a daily basis. Plenty of anecdotes here, and the best feature. "Have at It" is a Q&A session with the cast that answers questions submitted by fans, who should like this because you get to see the actors out of character. There's another "Have at It" with the executive producers, who show up on the commentaries as well. There's an average blooper reel, deleted scenes, a deleted story line playable with or without commentary, and commentaries on select episodes: "A Tribe is Born" (two commentaries), "Independence Day," "Dirty Laundry," and "Goodbye Stranger."
The best of the bunch are the deleted story line and "Wives on the Homefront," which offers real wives and real stories. And yes, you see that maybe some of this isn't as soapy after all. But the writing and structure certainly are. You also get the sense that maybe the producers should have taken more of a stand on military life and the war, one way or another.
"Army Wives" was made for soap-opera lovers, and as such the premise and the characters will be enough to keep people coming back for more. But you really have to have a daytime soap mindset to do that, because clichés abound, there's an excess of melodrama (with long, lingering shots, drawn-out emotional moments, sad-faced music, etc.). And frankly, there are shows that do melodrama far better.