TV series 'Over There' dramatizes Iraq war

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The ground is hot, the air is stifling, even the swirling dust burns. But USMC Staff Sgt. Sean Thomas Bunch, a veteran of the current conflict in Iraq, stands straight under the sun of a cloudless day, undeterred in his military fatigues, even as the sweat rolls off his shaved head. Unmoved by the 102 degree F. temperature, he is focused on the task at hand: giving technical advice on the set of a new drama. "Over There," which premières on basic cable July 27, is a new FX series about the Iraq war from TV veteran Steven Bochco.

"Getting it right," Sergeant Bunch says, is his only goal. "I just want to make sure that none of the soldiers who are over there fighting would be embarrassed by what we do."

Mr. Bochco, the series creator, points out that this will be the first TV drama about an ongoing conflict. Despite the daily flood of TV news images, he says, the show does not have a "ripped-from-the-headlines" format. It's about the individuals in the conflict.

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"It always comes down to individual stories about courage, the failure of courage, making the right decisions, and how those decisions have an impact on everyone," he says, "even those at home."

More important, he says, "Over There" is not about politics. "The moment you take a political position, then you are providing answers, not questions," says the creator of such television milestones as "NYPD Blue," and "Hill Street Blues." Art, he adds, is about asking provocative questions, not providing answers - which half the audience would disagree with anyway. He hopes the show will get people to think about their assumptions. "I'd just like people to ask questions when they gather around the water cooler."

The show's casting choices reflect a determination to challenge stereotypes, says Omid Abtahi, an actor of Iranian and Arab descent, cast as an Arab-American who enlists in the Army in the aftermath of 9/11. "This was one of the most sought-after jobs for an Arab actor in this town because it's a positive role. And these days, nearly all the jobs for Arab actors are negative things like terrorists and militants," says Abtahi.

The series follows a team of men and women through the brutal and frightening process of learning the terrain and then fighting the war (see review, page 14). The show benefits from being on cable, allowing for a grittier use of language and more realistic depiction of war than would be possible on a broadcast network. But beyond that, the show is a window into what FX Networks president John Landgraf calls "our contemporary American reality." While some military families have voiced concern over the challenges of capturing an ever-changing conflict, Mr. Landgraf says the network has a commitment to tackling current problems. "If we were going to do something about the issues that are at the heart of American society today," he says, "we have to face the fact that we're at war."

American television hasn't had a primetime dramatic series about war in nearly 14 years, says Landgraf. So much has changed about the way the country fights its wars that he maintains a show such as "Over There" is long overdue. "There are new battle tactics, we have women in the military, and the whole cultural milieu has changed," he says. "This is something we need to to be thinking about as a country."

War is a natural topic for drama, says executive producer and co-creator Chris Gerolmo. "It has all the drama of 'Law & Order,' the action of '24,' and the blood of a 'CSI,' " he says.

Back on the set, tucked into the rolling hills of this Los Angeles suburb - where US Army humvees are parked beside crumbling hovels and the debris from bombed buildings collects in corners - crews re-create scenes for each episode in painstaking detail. Authenticity is crucial, says foreman David Smith.

"We have blueprints and research photos for everything we do," says Mr. Smith, a career regular from previous Bochco back lots, having just finished a 12-year stint on "NYPD Blue." He says the team is a stickler for details. "We don't just blow the buildings up for a war scene," he says. "We have blueprints for just the way they want it to look after it's been bombed. And that's the way we build it."

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