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The Disconcerting Familiarity of Fox’s ‘Enlisted’

The Disconcerting Familiarity of 'Enlisted'

The first episode of Fox’s Enlisted, which premieres tonight, is almost nothing but familiar notes. The half-hour sitcom, created by Cougar Town‘s Kevin Biegel, stars Geoff Stults as Pete Hill, a hot-tempered soldier who’s bounced from Afghanistan to a Rear Detachment (“Rear D”) unit in Florida after he punches a superior officer. There’s he’s unwillingly united with his brothers Randy (Parker Young) and Derrick (Chris Lowell), who like Pete followed their father into the service but unlike him have never risen far up the chain of command. Stults, who’s about 70 percent Timothy Olyphant and 30 percent Joel McHale, is, naturally, not thrilled with his new assignment, and is less so when he’s placed in command of a squad of misfits. There’s a hardass commanding officer (Keith David), a smarmy company-man civilian contractor, and a love interest in the form of fellow soldier Angelique Cabral. So far, so like hundreds of sitcoms we’ve seen before. The setting recalls such bygone programs as F Troop, and the brass flourishes in the music score explicitly evoke Stripes.

So why did it make me so uncomfortable?

For starters, there’s the opening sequence, a brief burlesque set in a hot zone in Afghanistan, with Pete taking RPG fire from a Taliban-like enemy. And the moment where Derrick, fed up with his older brother’s know-it-all act, quips, “I’m going to go watch The Hurt Locker to cheer myself up.”

After the unrelieved sanctimony of movies like Lone Survivor, or the grueling reality of documentaries like Restrepo, it’s positively disorienting to encounter a depiction of soldiers as largely lovable goofballs. You could argue, I suppose, that it’s a whitewash, an attempt to divert attention from the drawn-out conflicts in the Middle East, but that’s not the vibe here. David begins his audience with Stults by placing his artificial leg on the table between them — “My size only comes in white,” he explains — and there’s a brief reference, sure to be expanded upon later, to the fact that the brothers lost their father in combat. The humor’s mostly silly, verging on surreal, like the fact that Pete’s troops use “Bradley Cooper!” as their war cry, but for reasons that are hard to nail down after a single episode, it feels like it’s rooted in something real.

Although Enlisted ought to stand a good chance of hitting home with viewers — particularly in the vast, overlooked areas of the country where many people have relatives or friends in the services — Fox has scheduled it in a Friday night “death slot.” The flip side is that expectations are low, and Enlisted has the potential to surpass them with flying colors.

More reviews:

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times:

Though it allows itself the odd double-entendre, for which the speaker will usually express regret, this is as family friendly a show as you will find on the Fox network, soft and romantic at its core, in love with brotherliness. A family comedy and a workplace comedy, it could as easily have been set in a summer camp or a ballclub. But the (essentially apolitical) military theme works well, as it pays due respect to those who only wash and mow.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

The show’s creator, Kevin Biegel, comes from a military family, and a lot of the humor has a comfortably “inside” tone — like the tone you see in showbiz comedies by people who’ve worked in showbiz, or in school stories created by people who’ve worked as teachers or administrators. There are hints that M*A*S*H-like darker shadings might be unveiled later, including a moment that acknowledges that people are still being killed and wounded in two overseas conflicts and that it’s not a laughing matter.

James Poniewozik, Time:

There have been military comedies that satirized the army, bureaucracy, the idea of war itself — M*A*S*H, for instance. Enlisted, a charming and sneakily funny sitcom premiering on Fox tonight, is not one of those comedies. There have been military comedies that have had fun with the foibles of life on base: The Phil Silvers Show, or Gomer Pyle, USMC, or CPO Sharkey. Enlisted is sort of one of those comedies, but not entirely. What Enlisted is above all, and what makes it lovable, is a hybrid of the work-as-family sitcom and the family-as-family sitcom. 

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club:

Biegel and co-showrunner Mike Royce (of Everybody Loves Raymond and Men of a Certain Age fame) have chosen to make a show not about the military as a monolithic presence in American life, but about the kinds of people who are drawn to military careers, the guys whose fathers and grandfathers served and the people who have limited options otherwise. It’s a show that’s at times skeptical of what the military can do to people — one episode hinges on the question of whether it would be right to turn a sweet, empathetic kid into a stone-cold killer — while also understanding the value people get out of the camaraderie and brotherhood found there.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix:

What makes Enlisted different, and potentially very special, is that it has a sincere streak to go right along with its goofy side. It gets a lot of laughs out of life in the military while still demonstrating respect for the military and its soldiers, and genuine affection for its characters. 

Ryan McGee, BoobTubeDude:

It’s vital to understand that what Enlisted does isn’t just take the military seriously, but its characters seriously. These characters are silly, and do silly things, and are funny in various ways. But what creator Kevin Biegel and co-executive producer Mike Royce have done is ground this show in a reality that will disarm people even while driving them to spasms of laugher.

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