“I don’t think you have to deal at all with the politics of it,” Steven Bochco told Reuters about Over There, the first drama series to take on the Iraq war. A weaselly preemptive attempt to ward off criticism from the ultra-patriots, no doubt, but it’s pretty strange to announce one’s intention to exclude politics in a portrait of an ongoing, furiously protested conflict. What that leaves is mostly a visceral experience of war. A squad of combat virgins wanders around the orange dust haze of the desert, filmed with a surprising visual lyricism that occasionally reminds me of Claire Denis’s hallucinatory soldier film Beau Travail. The cameras sometimes seem to swoon with disorientation as these army privates march through the green fog of their night vision goggles or watch bodies moving toward them through a sandstorm. Plunked down in a strange place, they have no idea whom they’re fighting or where they are.
Despite Bochco’s protestations that the show is apolitical, Over There has a jaundiced air about it. A female soldier imagines herself as one of the dead being memorialized on Nightline. A likable central character gets blown up in the first episode, and the army forgets to inform his wife for almost a week. A whole squad waits outside a mosque like sitting ducks, unable to attack the insurgents inside because Al Jazeera is filming there. “We’re going to wait . . . while some general 75 miles away makes a decision about goddamn public relations, about how it would look if we did this or how it would look if we did that!” shouts a sergeant. The series aims to evoke the horror and ambiguity of war—one whole episode is dedicated to roadblock duty, with the rookies forced to decide among themselves whether to shoot potentially innocent people who bust through the checkpoint. It remains to be seen whether this kind of televisual “realism” will help us understand the war better, but the way things are going, Bochco should have enough grim material to last him many seasons.