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The Careful Balance In TV Military Dramas


On this Veterans Day weekend, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans considers how those who have served and seen combat are portrayed on television. He looked at several new military dramas and found that most try to balance tales of individual heroism with the complexities of patriotism and the brutal realities of war.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Netflix's new series from the world of comic books is Marvel's "The Punisher." It features Frank Castle, a former Marine turned vigilante who kills the criminals who murdered his wife and kids. But after he plows through the bad guys, Castle feels no relief. He reveals his fears to a friend that, somehow, something he did as a Marine got his family killed, and he was too damaged from his time overseas to see it coming.


JON BERNTHAL: (As Frank Castle) Truth is, Curt, I was past caring. And Maria - she knew it. She knew it. The kids knew it. Sometimes, I'd catch them, and they'd be looking at me. And they have this look. Look at me like they didn't even know who I was.

JASON R MOORE: (As Curtis Hoyle) Come on, Frank. You didn't kill your family.

BERNTHAL: (As Frank Castle) What if I did?

DEGGANS: "The Punisher" may be the most extreme example of a TV show that embodies America's conflicted reactions to its fighters. We admire their heroism, bravery and sacrifice but struggle to face the brutal consequences of what the job often asks them to do. Today's military theme shows often focus on the heroism of an individual resisting corrupt or inept institutions. In "The Punisher," a villainous superior helps turn Frank Castle into a walking revenge fantasy. Those themes are even referenced in the show's trailer.


BERNTHAL: (As Frank Castle) Things over there were different. What we were doing was wrong.

MOORE: (As Curtis Hoyle) You did what you were supposed to do, right? The only person you're punishing is yourself.

DEGGANS: National Geographic's eight-part scripted series "The Long Road Home" offers a different story of heroism. Based on a book by former NPR and current ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz, the limited series depicts a 2004 ambush in an Iraqi city which killed eight Americans and wounded 65 soldiers. The story features average guys who expected to do routine jobs in a safe area. Some of them hadn't seen combat before. The best moments come when the series zeroes in on the soldiers' experience - for example, the mix of elation and horror that comes when a soldier saves his unit by gunning down a young boy with a weapon...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Modell (ph) just got himself a head shot.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hell yeah.

DEGGANS: ...Or the fear that comes when an under-equipped rescue team is sent out to retrieve a unit pinned down by attackers.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I know a lot of these vehicles still do not have radios. So I need you to maintain visual contact with the convoy. This is a skilled a highly prepared enemy who has coordinated a citywide attack. So I say let's be ready for anything.

DEGGANS: The show tries to offer nuance. But because it's all from the soldiers' point of view, the perspective of Iraqis gets short shrift. Sometimes, there's a bit of wish fulfillment in these depictions. This fall, network TV offered three new shows based on military themes, mostly centered on white, male leaders with expert training and certain moral compasses. CBS's "SEAL Team" is the most successful of these, glorifying the mostly male units' salt-of-the-earth, working-class-hero culture. For example, one team member criticizes another when he sees she's looking at an application to officer's training school on her laptop.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) What is this about?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Oh, nothing. My friend Gina from admin was asking, so I thought I'd do a little investigation for her.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You ain't a good friend if you're helping her become a cake eater. Officers are a bunch of do-nothing politicians whose only purpose is dreaming up new ways to get us killed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: And that is precisely what I told her.

DEGGANS: Here, overeducated bosses and symbols of political correctness draw suspicion and ridicule. It feels like a clumsy nod to red-state viewers wrapped up in star David Boreanaz's hunky appeal. In a post-draft country where less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military, depictions in TV and film take on more meaning. They reveal how America wants to see its fighters and how it sees itself. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.