Test Pilot #57: The Unit
Debut date: March 7, 2006
Series legacy: Professionally made CBS procedural
Hey party people. Welcome back to Test Pilot. Hopefully you’ve enjoy this theme thus far (if you haven’t yet, please check out the files on Sleeper Cell and Over There). There are only four entries (as opposed to the now-fairly standard five) so we are more than halfway through our look at War on Terror television.
The War on Terror means a lot of different things to a lot of different people (and again, I hope that those different ideas or ideologies come out in these pieces) and for good reason: It’s a somewhat vague and blanket term for an expansive, complicated–and some would say convoluted–and expensive (both in finances and in life) string of events, actions, groups of people, etc. If we move forward with the assumption that the War on Terror began with the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001, this thing, whatever it is, has been going on for more than a decade now and it has certainly had a dramatic impact on all of our lives in both the macro and micro sense.
And yet, despite the War on Terror’s influence on daily life, we haven’t seen much of that translate to the small screen of television. While a number of shows have used bits and pieces of War on Terror stories or headlines to power individual episodes, very few shows have been directly about the War on Terror, its place in our culture or the people wrapped up in it. Throughout this theme, I hope that we can highlight some of the series that actually did engage with the WoT and the rhetoric surrounding it, but also think about or discuss why so few did/do and what that has meant for the medium and even for viewers at home.
We continue the exploration of War on Terror television with our first look at a commercially successful entry, CBS’ The Unit. Adapted from a book by former real-life Delta Force member Eric Haney by David Mamet and guided by Shield and Terriers EP Shawn Ryan, The Unit followed the elite and secret special operations arm of the military. Although the series was perhaps not as explicitly interested in the kind of complexities that our previous subjects Sleeper Cell and Over There, likely because of its presence on CBS, The Unit still attempted to dive deeper than the typical CBS procedural by focusing on both the operatives and their families. The Unit faced some interesting circumstances in its time on the air by beginning as a mid-season replacement and finishing much earlier than intended in season three because of the WGA strike and was somewhat surprisingly canceled at the end of its fourth season despite doing pretty well on the ratings front (CBS and those high expectations). Still, four seasons and 69 episodes is better than both Sleeper Cell and Over There combined. Today, my guest and I will try to discuss why The Unit worked a little better, at least for general audiences.
Joining me today is Julie Hammerle. Julie is, according to Klout, an expert in the areas of both Morgan Freeman and glasses. Her writing can be found at Hammervision, and you can holler at her on Twitter as well. Julie, take it away:
Prior to viewing the pilot of The Unit, I knew nothing about the show, other than a) it had something to do with The War on Terror (I feel I need to write that word in all caps. TERROR. That’s better), and that b) Scott “Noel Crane” Foley and Dennis “President David Palmer Allstate” Haysbert were the stars.
I assumed this show wouldn’t be my cup of tea because, despite my inexplicable love of NCIS, I am not a crime procedural kind of girl. And my tolerance for shows that scream “Yay, America!” is also quite low. So, The Unit had some work to do to catch my attention, is what I’m saying.
Scott Foley helped. I’m not gonna lie.
First, looking at the show on an entertainment level, I appreciate that The Unit took the time to work on developing characters and establishing storylines that would seemingly continue beyond episode one (including one Unit wife’s affair with the colonel. Scandalous!). Having watched every pilot of every procedural drama the networks have thrown at us over the past few years, that kind of heavy lifting was refreshing. Usually it’s something like, “This lady remembers stuff. Don’t worry. Just go with it.” In this pilot episode, The Unit is already working on some pretty substantial world building. There’s a secret Army “unit” (just in case you forgot which show we’re talking about here) that fights the bad guys and does the dirty jobs nobody wants to do and is basically Ghost Protocol. Nobody knows about this unit. Because it doesn’t even exist. This business is deep, dark cover.
The men (and they’re always men; more about that later) go on secret missions all over the world, all the way from Iraq to Idaho, stone cold killing living beings, from humans to mules. For freedom.
But these guys are not just cold-blooded terrorist mule fighters, y’all. They are also family men. They have wives and daughters. No sons. For some reason, the writers felt like they needed to highlight this point in the pilot, which leads me, as a viewer, to wonder, “Is the Army doing something to the guys to make them only reproduce females? Is this show just as freaky and sci-fi as Fringe or The X-Files? Are the men’s testicles magic sentient beings that can will themselves into never having a male baby so that said male baby can never grow up and join the Unit?”
Because another thing I learned from watching the pilot of The Unit, is that, in the Unit, women are personae non gratae. The Unit is man’s work, people. The 51% of you out there with lady bits? You just keep pushing out those babies and keep your mouths shut and live on the Army base even if you expressly do not want to. That’s your job in the Unit.
And that’s where I feel the show really missed the mark. The women in this show were completely marginalized. To be fair, there was one token lady working in the Unit control room, miles away from the action, like the year was 1936 instead of 2006.
The fact that this show aired in 2006 is an important point, I think. That was five years after the events of September 11, 2001, three years after the war in Iraq started, two years into George W. Bush’s second term. The country was divided among People Who Were Still Gung-Ho About Fighting the War on Terror, People Who Felt Kind of Squeamish About How Frakked This Whole War on Terror Thing Had Become, and People Who Were Counting Down the Days Until the Premiere of American Idol.
And with the pilot of The Unit, CBS seemed to be playing directly to the members of the first group. Like Mitt Romney and his elusive 47%, CBS decided not to even try to entice people beyond their base…er…regular viewership. They completely gave up on the people who wanted a little more nuance with their War on Terror stories. And forget about the Idol fans. The Unit was never going to get them anyway. Unless it booked Taylor Hicks in a guest spot.
Unlike Homeland or even, to some extent, 24, The Unit is not interested in exploring the gray areas of the War on Terror. It barely gives a name, face, or personality to any of the villains (who, at this point, are all Arab, by the way). The guys who had hijacked a plane were bad. No question about it. No backstory for them. No seeing things from their point of view. The men in the Unit are always in the right, and no one – not terrorists, not the frugging FBI – will stand in their way. And I found that level of stubborn self-righteousness a little hard to stomach.
The pilot is chockablock with one-liner after one-liner about duty and destiny. “The universe has been conspiring, if you think about it, to put you right here, right now.” There’s a lot of camera trickery just waiting for a collective audience fist pump. The scene were Dennis Haysbert finally takes down the terrorists on the plane goes from slow mo to fast mo to every other kind of mo you can think of. My jaw dropped watching it. In disbelief that the guy who directed An Inconvenient Truth showed so little knack for subtlety (but then I IMDB-ed Davis Gugginheim and saw that he also directed an episode of the new Melrose Place. So.)
(I also really need to point out that the plane hijacking in this episode took place in Idaho. Randomly. When the two main characters happened to also be in Idaho. Randomly. In a giant country full of hundreds of airports, Noel and President Palmer just happened to be a stone’s throw away from the action of the day. In Idaho. Poor believability, losing out to convenience again.)
All this said, I couldn’t help thinking that this would’ve been a much better, more interesting show if the Scott Foley character (the new Unit recruit) had been a woman, and if the woman’s husband would’ve been left to fend for himself amongst the Unit wives. And not in the Maria Bello/Prime Suspect kind of way where the agent’s gender is called to attention at every moment. The Unit should’ve just put a lady on the squad, no big deal, this woman is the best man for the job. It’s 2006; deal with it.
Or is that thought just too terrifying when we’re already dealing with a War on Terror?
And now, my thoughts on The Unit:
As I’ve moved through the series in this theme, I have gotten closer to conventional storytelling and further away from complicated themes or character development. Compared to Sleeper Cell and Over There, The Unit has a much more obvious and appealing hook. The Unit is, for better and for worse, a better representation of most contemporary television. It is probably the best pilot of the three and definitely is the most entertaining. But with all those things comes a more straightforward (some might say diluted) take on the subject matter. This is a simplistic point but a fairly valid one as well: The Unit is a broadcast network show about a complicated subject. With that come big differences from Cell and Over There, two cable shows about said complicated subject.
Julie did a wonderful job of pointing out many of the things that The Unit does that make it such a conventional and somewhat problematic pilot. While I appreciate the opening episode’s attempt to make the wives’ story important, that attempt doesn’t hold up after just a few moments when Audrey Marie Anderson’s Kim Brown incessantly claims that her family won’t be living on the base, despite everyone telling her that she has to. One reading of those scenes might be that Kim is simply standing her ground but the episode repeats that one beat so many times in this opener that the character is not only immediately annoying and unsympathetic, she’s also stupid.
Similarly, the pilot’s treatment of “the enemy” is about as general and unspecific as possible. The convenience of the whole plot is silly enough in its own right but more troubling is how little time is spent on those concocting the plot, or even those in danger. The episode makes it clear: The bad guys are BAD and AMERICANS need help. And instead of detailing those two factions, almost the entire pilot’s running time is dedicated to establishing how heroic, strong and masculine these men are for being part of The Unit and how no other person–or branch of law enforcement–can stack up. The cocky machismo that runs through this episode isn’t necessarily surprising but does reflect a clear perspective on the black and white distinctions between right and wrong and good and bad. Julie mentioned the weirdly-shot and edited “save” on the airplane but it’s also worth noting that the pilot includes a few Heroic Team Walks as well, just in case you were unsure about how freaking awesome these dudes are.
In general, at least at the pilot stage, The Unit doesn’t really have much to say. The procedural elements are central to the story being told and although I think Julie is correct to identify the specific kind of audience for the series, I would also say that it doesn’t really have much direct connection to the time period that it is set in. It’s not as if much of the episode is dedicated to discussing post-9/11 politics, or even how military forces have changed in light of the (then) new wars. The bad guys make their play on a plane, that’s about as close to the War on Terror as the pilot actually gets.
Here’s the thing though: The Unit is still entertaining. The pilot moves at a fairly crisp pace, outside of those record-scratching moments that occur when the focus returns back to the ladies on the base, Mamet’s style of dialogue fits well enough into the procedural framework and Dennis Haysbert is wonderfully cast as Jonas. And again, we cannot forget where this pilot and series aired. As a CBS procedural pilot, The Unit stacks up pretty well.
Maybe I’m giving the pilot too much credit but let’s say there is an imaginary world where Mamet and Ryan wanted to tell a sharper and more intricate version of this story, the pilot still might have looked a lot like this and that’s because it’s a premise pilot. Many of the characters already know one another and the Unit is already established but our entry point into the world is through the eyes of Bob (Scott Foley) and Kim Brown, the newbies. There is a lot of talk here about what the Unit does or does not do and what they can or cannot share with their wives. As the new guy on the team, Bob has to prove his worth to Jonas and — gasp — ultimately does. The Unit isn’t powered by a “high concept”-type premise but it still features a world that is different enough that it needs explaining — particularly to stand out on the crowded, procedural-heavy CBS schedule.
And unlike both Sleeper Cell and Over There, this pilot actually helped attract audiences well enough that The Unit survived for a few seasons. Based on my research, viewings of random episodes and discussions with people who saw most of the series (hey dad!), Mamet and Ryan certainly addressed more complicated and troublesome subject matter.
However, there’s still something to be said for the differences between this pilot and the previous two that we discussed in this space. Although neither Sleeper Cell or Over There made for particularly great television, they were willing to immediately approach somewhat controversial material in slightly different fashions. The Unit is typical, conventional television and apparently engages with controversies later, yet spends all of its pilot’s running time avoiding them. There is no reason that the shows that tackled this material head-on had to be mediocre, nor did shows have to dance around it to be good. They should not have been (or be) mutually exclusive. These three examples just seem to break down that way.
But again, it is telling that those first two series failed to connect with audiences and this one found some viewers (upwards of 18 million[!] in the first season). It would be misguided to say that The Unit succeeded solely because it shied away from really digging into the War on Terror and its aftermath and instead embraced the obvious, overly American and exceptionalistic portions of it. Yet, it feels pretty safe to say that the series worked at least somewhat for those reasons. That’s not really The Unit‘s fault, nor is it necessarily the audience’s fault. It just is.
Conclusions on legacy: Entertaining, though conventional, but not particularly complex either