Jun 23, 2014

Are We Still in the Army?: Goodbye, Enlisted

By Josh Oakley


Enlisted was kind of a miracle of a show. Making military life both humorous and honorable in 2014 seems like an impossible task. Creating a network sitcom that finds its voice immediately and flourishes that tone within only thirteen episodes is a rarity in any era of television. Assembling this cast, the precise balance of established voices and promising lesser-known actors is a stroke of both luck and genius. Yet Enlisted managed to overcome all of these obstacles. I hope that somebody has the wisdom and money to recover this show and keep it running for years to come. But as it stands now, Enlisted will be remembered as a triumphant, often powerful and constantly hilarious season of television.

The one-season wonder is a great title to hold in time, but when the final episode airs it can seem a bit backhanded. We’ll be talking about Enlisted for years to come, I believe, but at this precise moment it’s difficult not to mourn before awarding the honor. The thing about one-season wonders is that they often fall to hour-long shows, from Freaks & Geeks to Terriers. Not to diminish those great shows’ accomplishments, but both the elongated time and the more dramatic tone can be a bit easier to flesh out in only a handful of episodes. Far fewer are the number of sitcoms, especially network sitcoms, that can be considered classics with only a year under their belt. Hell, many of the great long-running sitcoms of all time wouldn’t be remembered so fondly with only thirteen installments. When it comes to figuring out the characters and what exactly the show will look like, that first thirteen can often only offer a promise that in the years to come something great will emerge.

Kevin Beigel, the creator of Enlisted, knew exactly what elements of his previous work, on Scrubs and Cougar Town, to port over to this show. The emotional strengths and specifics of military life drew clear influence from Scrubs, a show that could tug on heart-strings and is often considered one of the best television representations of the medical field. But one is hardly a carbon-copy of the other. Beyond a couple of sequences, including a radically delightful Donkey Kong homage, Enlisted rarely became surreal. The characters, especially the non-Hill brothers in Rear-D, were drawn to comical effect but not inhumanly so. Look at Chubowski (Mel Rodriguez), an oddity who spoke with an exact affect and found funny poetry at the most off-beat of times. In the end, his wish to meet Lori Loughlin was peppered with a speech about his sad upbringing. The scene wasn’t played completely straight, but it also didn’t ridicule the man. That may have been the most important thing Enlisted honored its minor characters with: it always felt that we were laughing with them or, at the very least, that others around them would laugh too, lightly poking fun. It was a crowded field, but Mort Burke’s work as Gumble (or, more delightfully, JaMort) may be my favorite of the group, with his every line seeming like a comedic revelation. But, of course, picking favorites is silly, as nearly every piece of the platoon got their moment to shine. 

Then we have the Hill brothers, Sgt. Major Cody and Sgt. Perez. They too were given a dignity that many lesser sitcoms may have shrugged off for a joke. Even in the show’s oddest moments, it never forgot or betrayed the truth behind, say, the way Perez (Angelique Cabral) looked to be respected alongside her peers. Keith David gave a monster of a performance as Cody, giving the character a gravitas that was knowingly alleviated with a genuine jovial spirit. His relationship with Pete Hill (Geoff Stults, finally, and too briefly, finding the perfect role for his talents) was such a unique presence on television, one constructed around the bonding over past experiences and uneven rank. As Derrick Hill, Chris Lowell knew when to smother on the sarcasm and when to subtly eek out the emotional cards. Parker Young had already perfected the role of loveable idiot on Suburgatory, but Enlisted allowed him to add an earnestness that shaded and deepened his goofier moments. The three Hill brothers had a magnificent chemistry from their first scene, all of their unseen past clearly influencing the present we, the audience, were privy to.

Of course, these great performances didn’t escape from a vacuum. Biegel and executive producer Mike Royce quickly constructed a world both loyal to the specifics of a military base and completely of their own making. The show could have characters scoff at the rules making hot-plates contraband, but pair those questions with the heaviness of PTSD. The latter of those may be the single most important thing Enlisted gave us. Pete’s history, having seen those beside him die in war, wasn’t ignored. Instead, the show integrated that reality into its very nature, having the impact influence the character in his most poignant and funny moments. And this show captured both of those tones beautifully, never feeling like a cheat when it shuffled from jokes to depth. There was a tonal consistency throughout, so an episode like “Vets”, the show’s best before the finale, could play a sitcom trope beautifully before powerfully subverting it at the end. Every character was not given an emotional core as strong as the leads, something that likely would have come in time, but they were all hysterical, and full of that aforementioned truth and consistency. Enlisted had a box of tricks that never felt like tricks, but instead came across as the actual humanity and absurdity of military life.

What other show could end on a moment featuring a triumphant cameo by Lori Loughlin, set to M83’s “Outro” and ending with two soldiers staring at each other with equal admiration and love before one is tackled by their foot-losing, Officer and a Gentleman-loving brother? No other show would think to do such a thing. I thank god we had this one, for however long we did, that knew that it was exactly what we needed. Hands on heads, brothers. It’s the only way to get through a goodbye like this.

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