It’s always fun to watch shows make “the leap,” even thought what constitutes that leap can be difficult to pinpoint. Usually a show makes “the leap” somewhere in the second season, after a full year of the program as a whole finding its feet and recognizing its strengths while still having oodles of story to tell. (See: “Parks and Recreation,” “Arrow,” and a few hundred others.) And what pushes the show from “good” to “great” is in the eye of the beholder: What feels like augmentation to one feels like denigration to another. All of this is a way of saying that I’ll understand why you don’t think “Pete’s Airstream” is “Enlisted” making “the leap,” but it certainly feels like the first time that the show put everything together and discovered its full potential. Yes, we’re only three episodes into its first season. But damnit if it’s not going to be hard for the show to top this anytime soon.
What pushes this episode above the pilot (which was great) and “Randy Get Your Gun” (which was even better) lies in the show’s subtext turning into text without becoming overly preachy, political, or maudlin. “Enlisted” has a extra-fine tight rope that is has to walk each week in trying to produce a comedy about the military that doesn’t produce laughs at the expense of the military. But it also has to convey the sense that everything that happens at Fort McGee takes place in the world as we know it, and that world involves those not in the rear detachment risking life and limb all across the world. “Pete’s Airstream” is a screamingly funny episode when it needs to be, and then breaks/fills your heart when you least expect it.
The seeds for “Pete’s Airstream” are really planted in the pilot, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in which Pete is alone for the first time at the Claymore, when he silently tips his beer to the memorial on the wall behind the bar. It’s the first, though not last, example in the pilot in which it’s suggested that Pete is wrestling with demons that a conversation with Keith David’s Sergeant Major wouldn’t completely eliminate. “Airstream” posits Pete’s desire to find a place of his own as an understandable desire to get some peace and quiet away from his ragtag band of troops, but turns into something else the moment he sprays the party outside his airstream with a fire extinguisher. One gets the impression from Geoff Stults’ expressions and body language that if he had something more violent on hand, he would not be afraid of using it.
It’s a different Pete than we’ve seen up until this point, and it’s a different Stults, who can do breezy comedy in his sleep but also has the gravitas to pull off scenes that suggest part of Pete never left Afghanistan. It’s not the only new side we see of characters tonight, ranging from Perez’s alter-ego “Lone Wolf” getting a test run during a night out with the women of Rear D to Randy getting to be the sober voice of reason after starting to understand the depths of Pete’s PTSD. Parker Young is rightly getting the majority of the attention in these early outings, but it’s also worth seeing how Chris Lowell sells the surprise in Derrick’s face as he realizes he doesn’t have to step up and admit to others that his brother isn’t the superman deep down he always assumed. Sure, Derrick’s a sarcastic fuck-up, but his respect for his brother has always been there, which makes the moment pop more powerfully coming from him than Randy. Randy’s an open wound, constantly primed for emotional punishment. The fact that Derrick is so shaken is what gives the entire endeavor context.
But it’s not just about the emotionally powerful final act: “Pete’s Airstream” is a great example of how the show’s writers have pretty good ideas about how the ensemble as a whole works. Having Pete spend one-on-one time with Dobkiss (Kyle Davis) and Gumble (Mort Burke) moves those two past human punchline delivery systems into characters with specific viewpoints. Putting Perez (Angelique Cabral) with Park (Tania Gunadi) and Robinson (Michelle Buteau) doesn’t just give the ladies a chance to shine, but also the show’s diversity as well. (Perez’s kiss-off of the Caucasian girl that walks past their table is just another example of how FOX casually turns its casts into some of the most ethnically diverse ones on network television.) Sure, there’s no Jamaican rabbi named “JaMort” on the show, but that’s about the only ethnicity NOT depicted in a meaningful manner. That’s not just smart casting, but accurate, given the demographics of the armed forces as a whole.
It’s only by given this much depth to those besides the brotherly trio at the center of “Enlisted” that makes the last scene so meaningful. It’s why the best comedies aren’t star vehicles but ensembles, providing a way to have a single event ripple through a small social circle in varied but related ways. If a dozen people we know suddenly appear in silent solidarity with Pete outside his trailer, that moment still works. But it truly lands because we understand a little about everyone there, what makes them tick, and what it means for them to be there. “Enlisted” hasn’t come close to completing our understanding of these characters, but in three episodes has already provided enough information for us to recognize what that moment means for everyone onscreen. It’s as if the show has reached out and put its hand on our head, welcoming us into the fold.