Argument

Losing the Ratings War

Why "Enlisted" is the best show on television no one is watching.

Death had come to visit Kevin Biegel. He was a healthy 32-year-old on his honeymoon in Italy, and his heart suddenly stopped.

Perhaps it was a freak occurrence or a byproduct of the daily stresses he dealt with as a Hollywood writer and producer. It wasn't cocaine, as some might have guessed. Doctors plugged stents into his heart but couldn't install anything to keep Biegel from obsessing about his own mortality. Thought about death crept into his children's playtime, on the highway, and most significantly, into his creative universe.

An alum of the South Park writing room, Biegel, now 37, created the TBS series Cougar Town and wrote for Scrubs. The setting for Cougar Town looks much like his Florida hometown, but an important element from his life was missing: the military. His dad joined the Army just before the Vietnam War draft ended, and his grandfather served in World War II. While on the set of Cougar Town, he kept returning to an idea to swap out surgeons for soldiers: a workplace comedy in fatigues. A nagging insistence on authenticity drove him to write what he knew, which was how to be the oldest of three brothers who grew up in a military household -- and how trauma can suddenly have its own gravitational pull on our lives.

The result is Fox's Enlisted, one of the only military TV comedies since M*A*S*H and one that runs in a post-Vietnam age when veterans are lazily written into television and film as unstable psychopaths with weapons training. Goofy yet soulful, the show's view of life in and around a fictional military garrison is unique when compared with sensationalist portrayals of veterans in other programs. With the war in Afghanistan quietly humming in the background, Enlisted is a show about normal men and women in a workplace not many Americans know or understand.

It also confronts the duality of an American society that applauds 30-second beer commercial bromides of returning soldiers while admitting that fears of having PTSD-addled veterans in the workplace prevents some hiring managers from bringing on veterans and contributes to a relatively high unemployment rate for returning troops. Tragedies like the recent Fort Hood shooting also offer a reminder of the deep, ugly partitions between civilians and the military personnel, the latter recast from heroes to pitiable, damaged victims. American society tends to view its military through those binary lenses, and neither view easily lends itself to an acceptance of military slapstick.

Indeed, most portrayals of veterans on TV and in film are decidedly negative. In House of Cards, one war veteran is an opportunistic sadist, one discharges his weapon on a residential street, and another botches a suicide bombing. In Justified, maniacal Gulf War veteran Boyd Crowder menaces Harlan County, Kentucky, with a war buddy in a green Army surplus jacket, his service literally worn on his sleeve as a reminder. And in NCIS, Iraq and Afghanistan serve as backdrops to countless PTSD-fueled crimes.

Yet it took a comedy to quickly produce the most nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder in modern popular culture. Geoff Stults plays the swaggering but mentally struggling soldier Pete Hill, who brings a load of survivor's guilt home when soldiers in his unit are killed in Afghanistan. Enlisted is an ensemble comedy, but it is really Hill's show. The characters around Hill help soften the landing of their leader back home; these include his two subordinate brothers, Derrick and Randy (Chris Lowell and Parker Young, respectively).

Flip the channel to any other show, and war veterans are transformed into goons and monsters. On Enlisted, Hill is traumatized but capable, afflicted yet undoubtedly competent. A running gag pits Hill against Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral) to determine who is the most squared-away soldier in their unit. Hill leads the rear-detachment unit in drill and ceremony exercises for an upcoming parade in a recent episode, and in "Paint Cart 5000 vs. The Mondo Spider," his soldiers rely on his combat experience to win a training exercise.

Hill's soldiers know he deals with PTSD, but their conception of him as a leader is not affected by it. It's a groundbreaking way to illustrate the coexistence of professionalism and mental health challenges in order to erode the long-standing stigma of seeking help within the military.

"Post-traumatic stress doesn't mean you're a crazy guy with a gun," Biegel told me in an interview, alluding to the stereotypical depiction. "It's a natural response to trauma that can happen to anyone."

With that guiding principle, Hill's character was created to reflect the hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans combating the symptoms of PTSD, which is linked to the military's ongoing suicide problem. Enlisted has done that better than any other show on television. But disappointing ratings paired with a public burned out on war could kill the show before it moves the needle on damaging cultural stereotypes.

***

To even survive the pilot, Biegel knew he needed the military community behind him from the start. There was just one problem: Vocal members of the military and veteran community hated the first glimpse of the show.

It certainly wasn't the first project out of Hollywood to draw fire from the community. As The Hurt Locker became the critical darling of the 2009 festival circuit and earned Academy Awards for best picture and director, the reception among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans was far from glowing. Many veterans chastised anachronistic uniforms and nearly impossible decisions, like sneaking off base to roam Baghdad alone and splitting up on a night mission, because it further distorted what many civilians think troops do "over there."

So when the trailers for Enlisted made the rounds on military-themed Facebook pages last summer, the same sharp criticisms were launched. Veterans assailed images of goofball soldiers outside of weight and grooming standards and sporting poorly kept uniforms. Almost every moment carried a glaring technical error that proved once again that Hollywood was tone-deaf in the twilight of the longest conflict in American history.

It was a disaster unfolding over social media for Biegel. "The one community we needed on board was raking us over the coals online," he says. "A part of my heart broke."

Biegel gathered his cast and crew, fired his military consultants, and brought in a new team of former soldiers to work out the problems in the pilot. He gave them a mission: "Kick our ass on this." The main characters received a crash course at boot camp while Biegel buried his writers with contemporary war novels and memoirs. He even fired off tweets and emails to critical viewers and sent future episodes to influential military and veteran commentators to ask for another shot. Maximilian Uriarte, the creator of the comic strip Terminal Lance, which satirizes Marine Corps life, dropped by the set and commended their genuine effort.

As a sign of good faith, Stults appeared in a video asking the military community to tune into the pilot and spot all the mistakes in order to receive a challenge coin, which commanders typically give to troops who excel at their jobs. The video was front-loaded with military lingo as an explicit signal that Biegel and company were listening.

"We know it's wrong," Biegel recalls telling the loudest critics. "We're going to try to make it better."

The effort paid off, says Rob Ulrey, a former Army infantryman who served in Bosnia from 1996 to 1997. Ulrey launched critical barbs as the editor of Rhino Den, a widely read military and veteran blog housed by the Ranger Up clothing line. Biegel contacted him and shared rough cuts of future episodes to prove how far the show had come. Ulrey was suddenly a fan.

"If you look at what's on TV, nothing is remotely close to depicting military life," he says. "The military and veteran community is drawn to this show because it's a reflection of us."

Ulrey sees himself in Hill. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following an explosion in Bosnia but has never felt constrained by it. "The media has skewed PTSD into a monster that it's not," he says. "And that's why Enlisted is a major shift in popular culture."

There is no singular moment or dramatic spark to signal the beginning of Hill's mental troubles. Rather, it's an unraveling that begins early in the season as Hill realizes his destructive isolation. That's by design. "You can't have someone go through tough times and then it's over," Biegel says, describing "Pete's Airstream," an episode in which Hill sequesters himself in a trailer. He knows he's struggling but refuses to let his fellow soldiers (and his younger brothers) see his vulnerability. In a landmark moment of the series, they ask to remain at his side until he's ready for help, knowing well enough he may not ask at all.

Later in the season, Hill's platoon is tasked with escorting Korean War veterans around base as they gather for a buddy's funeral. An older veteran (Stacy Keach) skips out on the service. "You see things in war," Keach wistfully tells Hill. "Funerals just dredge up all those memories. Some things you just learn to live with." Keach is Hill's glimpse into the future if he continues to bottle his feelings up, a future in which he's destined to be alone and unable to cope when the war's unquiet moments return.

In the closing scene, Hill steps into a counseling center. "I have stuff I just don't want to live with," he tells the group, a rebuke to an earlier generation's idea of stoicism as a solution to mental health problems.

"He's not going to cure it; he's not going to get over it. He's just trying to figure out what's going on," Biegel says, describing the season-long arc. Serialized television shows usually bat around a PTSD narrative in between commercials and wrap it up at the end, but Enlisted provides a glimpse into a condition that may require management for months or even years.

The careful and authentic portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder brought Army veteran Kate Hoit into the fold. Hoit served in Iraq as a photojournalist and was among the legion of veterans who dismissed the show after its initial trailer.

"It went from a corny pilot to one of the best representations of Army life," Hoit says. "The show gets to the heart of issues like PTSD that dozens of journalists and TV writers have failed to reach. And it's really bizarre that is took a comedy to put a face on those who serve."

But that face might soon fade from view. Enlisted's ratings are modest even for a purgatorial Friday night airing, and Fox has pulled the show from the rotation, with four episodes left to air, as the network searches for a new time slot. Biegel points to one potential reason: Regulations restrict Nielsen rating boxes on military posts, which could undercount committed viewers.

They also don't get much help from Fox's marketing department, which appears clueless about how to promote the show. Its few dramatic moments define the series, but that doesn't shine through the zany jokes packed into prime-time commercials.

Comedies often struggle to define themselves in their first season, and Enlisted occasionally seems too reluctant to explore some of the absurdities of military bureaucracy. Strangely, the dramatic portions are fully realized; it's the comedy that needs refining. Many jokes come from character interactions that could take place on a used-car lot as easily as a military base.

Hill's emotional moments are a product of his military environment, and once Biegel fully taps that place for comedy, he could have a live-action Duffel Blog on his hands -- if Fox realizes Enlisted is a lot more than a serialized version of In the Army Now.

It may be too late -- the hiatus has sparked rumors of Fox's plans to cancel the show -- and that would be a shame. Americans have put the wars behind them, but Enlisted tells us one thing soldiers know that the rest of society must understand: War is like a boomerang you forgot you threw, and as Pete Hill knows, it will always return, in some form or another.

***

Even if it goes off the air, Biegel is happy Enlisted will exist on DVD and other formats, and it could help alter the perception of veterans for some time. In one think-tank survey, representatives of more than half of 69 companies were hesitant to hire veterans due to portrayals of PTSD in news and entertainment. Art can damage, but in Enlisted's case, it can also repair.

Sometime in the future, a hiring manger sitting across from a veteran might recall an old episode of Enlisted, one where Pete Hill struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder but remains a professional and capable leader. And maybe he'll tell her that she's hired because he thought of that show and not some other one. All because of a honeymoon heart attack and a guy who stood up to death to make a joke.

Photo courtesy of Fox

Argument

A Friend in Need

Why Israel should count itself lucky to have a straight-talking pal like John Kerry.

John Kerry is Israel's best friend. Seriously. He's not the kind of friend whom you're going to call to play Frisbee with in the park, plan your bachelor party, or be there for you after a nasty breakup.

Israel has lots of those kinds of friends. They're the ones who tell it what it wants to hear or come to its defense when other people say harsh (but true) things about it. These people call themselves the "pro-Israel community."

Kerry's a better friend than that.

He's the kind of friend who will cut you off at the bar when you've had enough to drink or who will step in and prevent you from getting in a fight. In the case of Israel, he's the friend who's not afraid to speak some unpleasant truths about the dark future that could be facing the Jewish state -- as the U.S. secretary of state did this weekend in raising the specter of Israel becoming a virtual apartheid state if no peace agreement with the Palestinians is achieved.

Alas, with the deadline for the Kerry talks to end having now come and gone, Israel has failed to heed the wise counsel of its good friend. In the process, its leaders are making a historic and catastrophic mistake that will quite possibly doom Israel to a near-term future of isolation, delegitimization, and violence.

Things did not have to be this way.

Nine months ago, when Kerry's quixotic peace effort began, Israel could not have been in a better position: a weakened Palestinian national movement helmed by a leader more committed than any other in Palestinian history to a two-state solution, a neutralized Hamas, a decline in support among Palestinians for armed struggle, and an Arab world willing, even eager, to end the conflict. After the constant drumbeat of suicide terrorism in 2002 and 2003, Israel is enjoying a rare period of sustained peace and security. While Israelis remain skeptical about the potential for a permanent solution, a large percentage of the country continues to support a two-state solution and -- as poll after poll shows -- are willing to make concessions in the pursuit of peace.

Perhaps above all, the Israelis had a friend in Kerry willing to bend over backward to pacify Israel's security concerns.

Yet the response of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not to embrace the possibility for peace, but to consistently and flagrantly undercut it. For example, the United States convinced the Palestinians to put aside their demand that Israel end settlement construction in the West Bank as a precondition to begin talks and instead accept the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. What was Bibi's response? According to a report from the settlement watchdog group Peace Now, the Israeli government has, since the talks began, approved the construction of 14,000 more settler homes in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Netanyahu seemingly has gone out of his way to stick a sharp pencil in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's eye (while also standing largely silent as members of his own cabinet publicly disrespected Kerry).

Public conciliation efforts by Abbas -- like floating the idea of an extended Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, publicly waiving his own right of return, or last week recognizing the unique horror of the Holocaust -- should have been welcomed by Israeli leaders. Instead they were trivialized, denigrated, or ignored. No serious effort was made by Bibi to prepare the Israeli public for the possibility of peace, as is constantly demanded by Israelis of Palestinian leaders. Instead, Netanyahu and his right-wing minions continuously disparaged Abbas as a partner for peace and put more and more obstacles in the way of a potential deal.

While Abbas's decision to seek international recognition and later strike a unity deal with Hamas had the nominal effect of throwing a monkey wrench in the negotiations, he has made a far more serious effort to find common ground. Netanyahu's apparent strategy has been to wring as many concessions -- no matter how minor -- out of his Palestinian interlocutors while offering nothing but bluster in return. It's zero-sum peacemaking, and it has blown up in his face -- because unlike in the past, there isn't going to be any question about who will get blamed when yet another round of Arab-Israeli peace talks falls apart.

Indeed, one of the more striking developments over the past few weeks is how much more nimble and effective Palestinian diplomacy has been in comparison to that of Israel. For much of the past year, Abbas was forced to withstand Netanyahu's constant humiliations, wary of being blamed if talks fell apart. But in March, as the prospect of the failure of the talks increased, U.S. pressure on Israel grew, and Netanyahu refused to abide by previously agreed-upon commitments to release prisoners. Abbas responded aggressively. He sought entry into 15 international organizations; he reached a unity deal with Hamas; he refused to walk away from negotiations, even going so far as offering to meet Bibi "at any place and at any time." "We salute the American efforts," Abbas reportedly said, "but Israel is procrastinating."

Abbas clearly was not content to sit on his hands. Instead, he has run diplomatic circles around the flat-footed Israelis, who have responded by rolling out the same, barely credible talking points blaming the Palestinians for "unilateral moves" that doomed the talks (as if unceasing settlement construction builds trust between both sides).

All of this leaves Israel in a terrible spot.

Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition -- which could, ominously for Israel, include the International Criminal Court -- are going to create a diplomatic wildfire for Israel. The United States has long carried water for Israel in international forums like the United Nations, but this could prove increasingly difficult. As President Barack Obama recently noted in an interview with Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg, "If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction … if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited."

Obama's words are another harbinger of troubles ahead for the Israelis. When one factors in Obama's inclination to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran (against the strident opposition of Israel), the declining influence of AIPAC in Washington, and the evident frustration among American diplomats over the apparent failure of the current peace talks, we seem to be entering a period of frostier U.S.-Israel relations.

Far worse for Israel, however, will likely be the economic fallout. Over the past year, a movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) Israel over its policies in the West Bank has gathered steam. It began in July 2013 when the European Union offered new guidelines that prohibit EU money from partnering with entities that operate east of the 1967 lines in occupied Palestinian territory. A number of European companies have followed suit. Notable academics such as Stephen Hawking and musicians like Roger Waters and others have also heeded calls to boycott Israel. It's hard to imagine the BDS effort not ramping up if the talks officially break down.

As Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid noted earlier this year, a "European boycott" will affect Israeli trade relations with its largest trading partner and mean a higher cost of living, a reduced national budget, and potentially up to 10,000 lost jobs.

Then there is the security side. For the past several years, the Israeli government has outsourced security in the West Bank and administration of the occupation to the Palestinian Authority, which has by all accounts performed admirably in preventing renewed violence against Israelis. How long will that continue in the absence of any negotiating path toward a Palestinian state?

For Israelis, there is a widely held view that the status quo can be maintained ad infinitum. That may very well be true -- until it's not true anymore. Yes, it's possible that in the near term nothing much will change: that Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel will fail, that the BDS movement will crash and burn, that the U.S.-Israel relationship will remain unchanged, and that Israel will somehow be able to maintain its democratic character even as it rules over a majority population of Palestinians who lack full political rights.

Or, it will no longer be possible -- and if that happens, Israel will be desperately seeking a friend to help it out of the hole it has dug.

Indeed, it's precisely this possibility and the uncertainty of what happens next that should be most worrisome to Israelis. A peace agreement right now -- no matter how painful to accept -- is the most certain path for the Jewish state. That's what Israel's best friend has been trying to tell them for the past year. Kerry has given Israel an exit ramp -- and the country's leaders have ignored it.

When all is said and done, John Kerry may face personal embarrassment at the failure of his peace process gambit, but it's Israel that will experience the real tragedy.

Photo by Yonatan Sindel-Pool/Getty Images