Tuesday, January 14, 2020

TV REVIEW: Paramount's '68 Whiskey'

Paramount Network will premiere its new original drama series 68 Whiskey on Wednesday, January 15 at 10/9c. The drama stars Sam Keeley, Gage Golightly, Jeremy Tardy, Cristina Rodlo, Nicholas Coombe, Derek Theler, Beth Riesgraf and Lamont Thompson.

Read on for my thoughts on the new series after screening its first three episodes.

It has proven difficult for the television industry to produce a scripted look inside the lives of military officers serving overseas. At times, the genre can be quite effective by embracing the brutality of those making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of defending one's country. However, it's much more difficult when a show aspires to do more with its tone. That's what Paramount Network's new drama 68 Whiskey wants to do. Based on an Israeli format, the show plays around with tone. So yes, there are moments where the Army medics are rushing into a battlefield to save the lives of their fellow soldiers. It's just like any other medical procedural in that regard where they have to speak up and be respected in order to save as many people as they can. Things are fraught because they are incapable of saving everyone especially when it seems like every day is a battle for survive in a dangerous part of the world. However, the show also embraces the whimsical by showcasing the various hijinks that the officers get into when they are just bored on the base. They stage fights in the hopes of making a ton of money by betting on the victor. They get drunk and high together. They form emotional attachments to the local animals. However, it's also clear that the show has a fair amount of contempt for the system and why these officers are currently posted in Afghanistan. It doesn't entirely have a strong political message about what these soldiers are fighting for or against. It just wants to present the nuances of the system. As such, the Army medics face off with a private security firm also stationed in the area while trying to make deals with a local Afghan warlord. It's tonally all over the place. As such, the burden becomes immediately placed on the characters and the audience's ability to invest in what is happening in their personal journeys. After three episodes, it feels as if the show is still trying to figure things out. That's not an encouraging sign.

In fact, a lot of problems from the show extend from how scattered the protagonist actually is. Irish actor Sam Keeley plays Cooper Roback, a field medic who is often getting into trouble with his commanding officers on this base. On one hand, he is a rambunctious troublemaker who could easily get thrown out of the army if he pisses off the right people but largely survives because they view him as a necessary evil for maintaining base unity. On the other hand though, he is a psychopath who commits heinous acts in the name of fun while destroying the lives and reputations of others. It is a lot to handle. The show frequently goes back-and-forth on whether the audience should like Roback. It's a character without a clear understanding on his purpose. He is certainly driving the main story forward. He is the person always propelling the plot into motion. That is his purpose within the narrative. He exists as an open question though. The audience doesn't know how to perceive him which makes it hard to trust the rest of the ensemble when they have their minds made up about how trustworthy he can be. Chief among them is his best friend, Mekhi Davis (Jeremy Tardy), who is always loyally by Roback's side despite the trouble it frequently gets him into. Roback is given a complicated romantic story as well. The very first scene is him having sex in a supply closet with Grace Durkin (Gage Golightly). They do that frequently throughout these first three episodes. However, Durkin is underdeveloped as a character because she is largely seen through this dynamic. The third episode begins to offer her some new depth but it's still mostly defined through the changing nature of this relationship, which is somewhat hard to invest in because it's all so new and forced. Again, a lot of this will be based on how the viewer reacts to Roback. If you love him, then this show will be for you. If not, then it will be an agonizing annoyance that won't get any better.

That may be a difficult assessment. However, it's fair because it's the way in which the creative team commits to the material. It does have an outwardly political story in which fellow officer Rosa Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo) is a DACA recipient who is being threatened with deportation based on her recent actions on the base. That is the one story where the political gets insanely personal for how it can disrupt the lives of those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Most of the time though, the show is fairly cynical in saying that the people who serve overseas are simply running away from something back home. Major Sonia Holloway (Beth Riesgraf) may be in charge of the medical unit but she is also fantasizing about the sexual exploits she could have with her patients instead of being home with her husband and two kids. Meanwhile, Derek Theler is asked to be stoic and physically intimidating. That's it. That seems like a waste given the comedic skills he has shown in the past. Instead, the majority of the levity in the proceedings comes from youngest cast member Nicholas Coombe, who also gets thrown into an absurd situation right away. So, the balance doesn't quite seem fine tuned at the moment. It may get there eventually. But the show is still withholding some clear answers from the audience in the hopes that the mystery will create a sense of intriguing character work. It rarely works that way though. Most of the time the mystery isn't as engaging as the creative team believes it to be. That's unfortunate because this show could be a fun viewing experience that also addresses some serious issues. Right now, it's unfocused nature keeps it from being anything beyond a surface level pleasure. A game cast can't make that all that entertaining either because they too are just trying to find a consistent through line that they can hopefully sell to the audience. That may never come though.