Friday, January 9, 2009

Lifetime's Desperation could kill its cash cow, "Army Wives"

By Kristen Tsetsi
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 12:54 PM EDT

As Lifetime Network’s “Army Wives” is picked up for a third season, hailed for its accurate depictions of the lives of women living on an Army post, it might be unpopular to label the show as one lacking in accuracy and frantically clutching at dramatic straws.

But if the critique fits…

A recent episode of Army Wives contained such a gross inaccuracy for the sake of dramatic action that, had it been true, most Americans would no doubt skip work to protest the heartless military.

In the episode, which aired July 14, the character of a female sergeant is about to deploy, but her husband has eight months left in Iraq, and she has a daughter at home.

“Surely you have a backup in your family care plan,” says General’s wife Claudia Joy.

But she doesn’t have a backup. And when Claudia Joy tells her husband she fears the sergeant will refuse to deploy, the General — who really should know better — says that if she does, “She’ll get arrested.” Again: if the sergeant doesn’t abandon her daughter, the Army will arrest her.

In fact, the Army doesn’t want its soldiers to orphan their children. It even ensures a family care plan is in place prior to a deployment. In real life, under Chapter 5-8 of Army Regulation 635-200, a soldier in that position would have been given “Involuntary separation due to parenthood,” which is a general or honorable discharge. Or, as happens at the end of the episode, she might have her deployment deferred while she tries to find someone to care for her daughter.

But, never mind — the key is drama, and the storyline ends with Claudia Joy as a hero. Though as a general’s wife she’s not in the Army, she is repeatedly given incredible military influence in the show and, in this episode, is the one to make the sergeant’s deferred deployment possible.

This is but one example of “Army Wives” writers struggling to create conflict when there is already so much real-life strife inherent in today’s military climate. It would behoove the writers to trust their ability to use existing dramas without relying on wild contrivances.

Having been married to an Army officer who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, news last year of Lifetime’s new drama documenting the lives of wartime military spouses enthralled me. “Finally,” I thought. “Their story will be told.” I say “their” because by that time my husband was no longer in a position to deploy.

I was thrilled for this reason: In under five seconds, I can name more than six movies that offer insight into the soldier’s story (Platoon, Casualties of War, We Were Soldiers, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Thin Red Line, Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Blackhawk Down). The closest Hollywood has come to exploring the psychology and emotion of having a lover at war was the 1984 movie Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn. More recently, a few brief scenes were given to women left behind in We Were Soldiers. Otherwise, even HBO’s "Band of Brothers" and "Generation Kill" has, until Lifetime’s “Army Wives,” neglected the surreal and complicated experience of waiting for a loved one to make it through a war.

It was this inattention that led me to write Pretty Much True..., a novel that forces readers to experience the raw and intimate drama of a deployment through the unapologetic eyes of a young woman whose soulmate is sent to Iraq in 2003.

It was after the book published that “Army Wives” first aired, and I was excited that yet another medium was being used to propel the experience into the public arena. This year, each time I watch an episode I wince, hoping the writers have taken their time this time … that they’ve focused on the sublime torture of waiting and wondering that plagues every person caring for a deployed soldier … that the writers found a way to portray the intense pain of imagining a lover’s death, or the ease with which misunderstandings wreak havoc … that they didn’t twist another relevant storyline into something unseemly. And almost every time, the episode unfolds tainted by the common ploys Lifetime is guilty of using to excite its audience: affairs and male domination.

For example, in the July 14 episode mentioned above, Denise’s deployed husband Frank doesn’t like Denise’s sudden, uncharacteristic habit of “trolling around” on a motorcycle. He fears she’s becoming too independent.

In other words, he’s stuck in sandbox-limbo and is afraid his wife’s life is gliding along without him, if not ahead of him.

To create an understanding of what these people go through, the writers could have easily left it at that: Frank’s increasing frustration with what he imagines might be happening, and Denise’s hurt and frustration at having done nothing wrong and not knowing how to convince her husband otherwise. When any conversation could be the last, it is this need to be understood that causes incredible emotional friction.

Instead, the writers throw in an extramarital attraction. Next week, one of the wives will tell Denise, “I know what it’s like to have a husband away.”

Denise makes the third of five main characters to have an extramarital interest (last season it was Pam and Roland). As if an affair is the crisis apex of a deployment, as if the audience is too base to appreciate a more complex conflict.

Don’t misunderstand. I think “Army Wives,” for all of its faults, is an important and often entertaining show. I even have a favorite “wife” (Roxy). And at long last, television is recognizing a significant portion of the population involved in these Afghanistan and Iraq wars who were previously largely forgotten, except as yellow-ribbon stereotypes.

Perhaps I’m just angry after having expected so much.

Lifetime has a unique opportunity to do something substantial. The soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are real people who really are coming home dismembered, or really not coming home at all. The loves they leave behind often go from one day to the next experiencing incredible fear the person they love will die any minute. The pain of the loss is felt before it even happens, and is quickly replaced by passionate elation at the arrival of an email or an unexpected phone call. It’s disorienting and intense. And most of the negative emotions are compounded by guilt for feeling anything negative at all while living the “cushy” life at home.

If Lifetime wants to air a show about life on a military post during peacetime, then let it be trite and contrived. But not while something real wants to be written. Lifetime is throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give screen time to a story that’s been inadequately explored. So far, anyway. Because many Army Wives episodes seem to have been written the week prior to airing, changes could probably be made fairly seamlessly. Now that it’s been picked up for a whole new season, there’s still plenty of time for redemption. And if Lifetime can’t handle it, I’m sure HBO can.


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