There’s a lot of ways to approach reviewing television shows, but the best ways are always the ones that come most easily to mind. In reality, criticism is about articulating a personal response while employing some modicum of detached perspective. The ratio between the two inevitably varies between show to show and critic to critic, which is why having a variety of opinion about a variety of programs is a feature, not a bug, of this particular industry. All of which is to say it’s all fine and well for me to say that “Enlisted” (premiering Friday, January 10, at 9:30 pm EST) is the best comedy of the 2013-4 season, but it’s far more important for me to say why I feel that’s true. Simply stating something is the job of sycophants or haters. Explaining that statement is the important aspect.
That’s an awfully serious start to what seems like an awfully silly show (especially if you are only going by the rather atrocious FOX promos while seem dead-set on torpedoing the show before it even airs). But it’s vital to understand that what “Enlisted” does isn’t just take the military seriously, but its characters seriously. These characters are silly, and do silly things, and are funny in various ways. But what creator Kevin Biegel and co-executive producer Mike Royce have done is ground this show in a reality that will disarm people even while driving them to spasms of laugher.
The pairing of Biegel and Royce is key here, the latter groomed in the writers’ room of “Scrubs” before co-creating “Cougar Town” with Bill Lawrence. Royce’s resume includes “Everybody Loves Raymond” but also the underappreciated “Men Of A Certain Age,” and the synergy of Biegel’s personal passions and open-hearted character approach married to Royce’s rigorous comedic structures as well as dramatic beats turns “Enlisted” from a “Stripes” knockoff into that singular entity: a comedy with depth of feeling. There are plenty of things that will tickle your funny bone, but what no one is really prepared for are the moments of not only earned pathos but a glimpse into the sacrifices that soldiers have made so people like me can snark on the interwebs without fear of recrimination from anyone other than Twitter trolls.
It’s impossible for someone like me not involved with the day-to-day activity to understand precisely where Biegel’s contributions end and Royce’s begins. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the alchemy onscreen, which has much to do with a specificity of character as it does with the rather amazing cast they have assembled. Casting three brothers to hold down the emotional core of the show would make or break this project, and the three that “Enlisted” cast are known commodities if not exactly household names. But whereas most comedies take at LEAST a half-season (if not more) to figure out the core chemistry of their casts, “Enlisted” hits the ground running with the combination of Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, and Parker Young as the eldest, middle, and youngest brother, respectively. It helps somewhat that Biegel drew upon his own family dynamics in order to find these three actors, but that’s also something of a crutch: Rather than turning into a self-serving vanity project, Biegel understood what would make these brothers work in this fictional context and cast three actors that instantaneously feel like they share a multi-decade bond.
That helps the comedy, to be sure, as Stults’ straight man bounces off Lowell’s sarcastic slacker and grounds Young’s manic man-child. But where “Enlisted” truly shines isn’t in the moments in which sibling rivalry rules the day on a fictional Florida camp for the Army’s Rear Detachment. Rather, it’s when that façade of friction melts away and the three men are faced with what they have lost. It’s not just the military father that they all looked up to as children. It’s also the man Stults’ character Pete Hill was before his deployment to Afghanistan. “Enlisted” doesn’t ever mention the words “post-traumatic stress disorder,” but it’s baked into the show’s very DNA, even if it’s indulging in plotlines about prank wars or a series of lectures about the dangers of sinkholes to the families of those on the base. Stults has one of the hardest jobs on the show: It’s not as showy as those in supporting roles, and Pete is often defined by what he can’t say rather than what does. But it’s another strong performance for an actor that’s had something of an unlucky streak when it comes to landing long-lasting shows.
But if you want to point to a breakout performance, you have to talk about Parker Young, who often stole the show on “Suburgatory” and does so again here with a performance that only LOOKS easy. But what Young does is so specific, so precise, and often so brilliant that it’s sometimes hard to remember this is a show that also features Keith Freakin’ David as the base’s Sergeant Major. Young will make you laugh until you cry, and then he’ll just make you straight up cry. This holds especially true in the episode “Pete’s Airstream,” in which “Enlisted” as a whole goes from “this is pretty great” to “Jesus, this is something special”. It’s an episode that’s too good to spoil, but brings out the best in every character and solidifies the show as having something to actually say about family, brotherhood, sacrifice, and how difficult it can be to help someone who doesn’t even know how badly he/she needs help. It’s a gobsmacking episode that few dramas even attempt, nevermind comedies, and it’s a mission statement for “Enlisted” as a whole. It’s the only episode of television in recent memory that made me want to call my brother immediately after watching it and tell him I love him.
That’s not a particularly “critical” approach to television, but I’m not sure what the point of television is other than to make the viewer feel something. Plenty of viewers get excited about pop culture references, titanic performances, intellectual puzzles, or snazzy turns of phrases in dialogues. I love all of those things as well, but above all, I love shows that make me forget I’m watching a television program and just let me live in that world for a bit. I can talk all I want now about how great Young, Stults, Lowell, David, and Angelique Cabral (as Sergeant Jill Perez) are on the show. But I’m not thinking that while watching “Enlisted”. I’m thinking about how great these characters are and how interesting it is to spend time with them. I can talk all I want now about how great the secondary ensemble is, how incredibly diverse the casting for this ensemble is, and how quickly they transform from one-note stereotypes into full-fledged people with unique perspectives. But I’m not thinking that while watching “Enlisted”. I’m thinking about how this base has a living, breathing ecosystem filled with people I want to learn more about. There’s life in every frame of “Enlisted,” even if the spectre of death hides just off-frame. There’s not a lingering shadow perpetually hanging over this show by any means. But the comedy of this show doesn’t negate the seriousness. Rather, it serves and dignifies it.
In the way that shows from “Scrubs” all the way back to “M*A*S*H” depict characters deploying humor as coping mechanisms, “Enlisted” demonstrates how that humor has a place in environments not always known for having a funny bone. But that humor sits atop a deep reservoir of respect that not only these characters have for one another, but that “Enlisted” itself has for those onscreen. The show is silly, sweet, sad, and ultimately life-affirming without ever descending into maudlin slop. It’s earnest, open, and wears its big, beating heart on its sleeve for all to see. Make sure to see it when it premieres this Friday.