Movie Reviews

Half-Ass TV Review: Generation Kill (Jul 22)

Remember when HBO used to be awesome? Back in the days when they used to have an ongoing rotation of The Sopranos, Oz, The Wire, and Six Feet Under? And then they’d throw in Curb Your Enthusiasm every so often? Well, four of those five shows are gone. Deadwood never got the chance to become their new flagship show, and now their only continuing series are Big Love, Flight of the Conchords, Entourage, and Curb. None of those shows have delivered new seasons on anything resembling a regular schedule, so HBO now goes for long stretches without airing episodes of an original series.

But now, for the first time in months, there’s a reason to subscribe. Generation Kill, a seven-part miniseries developed by Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns, is set in 2003, the early days of the Iraq war. Based on a book by embedded journalist Evan Wright (also a writer on the series), it details the day-to-day life of a Marine division and the Rolling Stone writer attached to their unit (a fictionalized version of Wright, played by Oz’ Lee Tergesen).

Much like The Wire, Generation Kill tells a story set against a backdrop with which most of its viewers will have only a cursory familiarity. The drug corners of Baltimore and the desert outside Baghdad are the focus of existence for a huge number of Americans, but so many of us only know them from the news and our own preconceived stereotypes. That’s the kind of storytelling Simon and Burns excel at, bringing to life a type of existence that many can only imagine, and presenting it without judgment.

The cast is made up largely of unknowns, other than Tergesen and James Ransone, who played Ziggy in Season Two of The Wire. So, for what it’s worth, this means it’s a show full of people I’ve never seen before and then two guys whose penises I’ve seen on other HBO shows. But then, The Wire was full of unknowns and people who were only recognizable to people who’d watched every episode of every previous HBO dramatic series. (Population: Me) This is not a bad thing – the lack of stars creates something of a documentary feel.

Generation Kill creates a portrait of the current war that’s unique in popular entertainment. It’s not about the specifics of war or the big, sweeping societal changes. It’s about the guys on the ground, and how they pass their time. It’s about what happens between the fights, when they’re reading their mail and being berated by officers for petty infractions. It’s about guys whose fates are being decided by powerful men who will never even know their names, and are just trying to get through the day in the best way they can. And really, it’s about how important Jennifer Lopez is to the US Marine Corps. (It turns out, more than you’d think.)

In the first episode, we see very little violence. Although these men are stationed just outside Baghdad, the reality hasn’t hit them yet. They’re hot and bored and miserable, they drive across the desert in Humvees with roof-mounted machine guns, and they have a front row seat to rocket attacks, but at least in the first episode, nobody’s shooting at them. The threat is constantly in the air, but instead we see the Marines running maneuvers and trying to pass the time.

Whether the writers are trying to tell a story about people who are on the outskirts of the violence, or whether they’re building the characters so that we see them as people and not action figures by the time the fighting begins. Either way, one of the things that really comes through in the premiere is how much these guys want to be fighting. They’re desperate for something to shoot, and they openly mock the fourth-graders who sent them letters hoping that they come home safely.

In a way, most of the characters are unlikable. They’re petty, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, and sometimes they’re just kind of disgusting. But that’s the way David Simon tells stories. The hero of The Wire was a mean, cheating drunk (Who, in the last season, created a fake serial killer to justify overtime.), who we loved anyway. Drug dealer Bodie began as the most unsympathetic character in a series full of unsympathetic characters, and his death still ended up one of the most tragic I’ve ever seen on TV. In David Simon’s world, there are no heroes. There are only people. And even when they are capable of great courage or heroism, they can still be spiteful, small-minded, and brutal. That doesn’t make their accomplishments any less important.

What’s especially interesting to me is that Generation Kill isn’t particularly interested in making you buy into any particular philosophy. Sure, Simon and Co. clearly have strong opinions on the war and how it’s been handled, but this isn’t a propaganda piece. Whatever your feelings, there’s something here that will make you think. It may change your mind, it may make your convictions even stronger, and that’s an impressive achievement. What they’re doing is presenting big chunks of verifiable facts (the difficulty military units have faced in regards to getting supplies and armament on a regular basis, for example), populated the story with characters who feel real and represent a variety of backgrounds and opinions, and let it play out. You’re not being preached to here – one could even argue that Generation Kill gives the war less spin than most of today’s news reporting.

And of course, it’s entertaining. The drama is suitably gripping, the humor is legitimately funny, and the dialogue is, as we’ve come to expect from this creative team, perfect. There’s one diatribe in particular from Ransone’s Cpl. Person that’s the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino would kill to be able to generate on a regular basis.

Generation Kill is the sort of smart, quality entertainment that HBO used to bring us every week. Unlike the recent spate of preachy Iraq movies, it tells a story that’s both compelling and respects your intelligence. And really, if this turns out even half as well as The Wire, it’ll still be one of the best shows of the year.

Score: Five Beans

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