Review: Enlisted, “Brothers And Sister”

If “Pete’s Airstream” serves as what “Enlisted” can do when actually digging into the core trauma of life in military service, then “Brothers And Sister” serves as an example of how this show can function on a week-to-week level as a celebration of difference between people of fundamentally different temperaments. That’s an insanely pretentious way to describe what a nominally silly show like this is doing on a weekly basis, but while “Airstream” is probably a better episode, it’s not necessarily one that “Enlisted” can do every week. Pulling at the heartstrings is something we know the show can do. But it need not do that all the time, nor should it: After all, it’s hard to earn those emotional moments if they are deployed like clockwork three minutes before the end of each episode.

enlisted.jpgPut another way: if the quiet celebration for Pete Hill’s return at the end of “Airstream” shows the toll buried beneath the frivolity, then the two scenes featuring the three Hill brothers and Sgt. Perez tonight serve as a solid foundation the show can more reliably depend upon for episodes (or, hopefully, seasons) to come. “Brothers and Sister” was the fourth episode filmed, which is why some of the continuity tonight seems off. (Honestly, at this point, Christopher Nolan is looking at the non-linear approach FOX is taking with airing this show and shaking his head in jealous disgust.) But put aside the fact that Derrick seems to be meeting the bartender that he’s already dating back in “Homecoming,” and you get the fact that Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, Parker Young, and Angelique Cabral developed insanely good lived-in chemistry just a few episodes into the show’s production cycle. The emotional moments “Enlisted” aims for just don’t work if we don’t care about these characters in the first place, and it’s great to have an episode in which there’s no Big Lesson or Big Trauma that punctuates the action. It’s only these characters pinging off each other in interesting and surprising ways.

The Core Four, as I’ll call them from now on, are named explicitly in the episode’s title, and serve as the bedrock for the episode. Most of the episode features them paired off into separate storylines, but it’s the two scenes in which the Core Four are sitting around talking smack (once in the Claymore, another in the mess hall) that linger after a few viewings. The tendency in network comedy lately is to throw as many jokes as quickly as possible with the greatest volume as possible and call that “humor”. “Brothers And Sister” might feature the most nimble script to date, with wordplay upon wordplay dealt out almost effortlessly. (“You’d be surprised what you CAN Afghanistan.” “We were bonobos, but now we’re no more bros.”) But the dialogue never seems forced or frantic, because the Core Four establish a sense of calm, collective synergy in which no one is particularly competing for the spotlight. Pete’s dating style might be like a rock song with a tasty guitar solo, but the Core Four work not unlike a jam band, each part aware of each other and contributing to the whole.

Both of the plots involving the Core Four had highlights galore. The Pete/Jill storyline acknowledged the slight sexual tension between them, but really served as another “instruction” storyline not unlike the one Derrick and Randy had in “Randy Get Your Gun.” The difference here? While we knew what Chris Lowell could do as Evil Instructor, I’m not sure we knew what Cabral could do in this role. Perez was something of a bland, blank slate in the pilot (by design, which focused almost entirely on the brothers), but the writers have found a way to give her unexpected quirks without turning her into Manic Pixie Dream Sergeant. Her coaching Pete while simultaneously flustering him was a great showcase for Jill, and suggests that romance need not be the end goal here to keep this dynamic fresh and interesting.

Meanwhile, The Derrick/Randy storyline would have been fun just having Randy be upset that Derrick didn’t “like” the photo the former posted of the latter puking in a wastebasket. But Chris Lowell’s attempts at smiling was one of the funniest damn things I’ve seen in a long time, even if it was simultaneously the stuff of nightmares. I have expected him to ask Jill, “WHY SO SERIOUS???” Erin’s easy-going nature makes it easy to understand why Derrick would let his guard down for her, and everything involving Randy’s obsession with his wildlife cards was comic gold. (Proposed new Show: “Parker Young Can’t Lose”.)

The “American Idol”-themed storyline involving Keith David’s Sergeant Major Cody never quite came together the way the show intended. The USO show itself was choppily edited, and the Kid ‘n Play cameo never quite worked. Still, Cody’s self-centered attitude was a hoot, as was the seemingly never-ending series of one-liners for the secondary cast. A few episodes in, we now understand the basic archetypes of these characters, but Dobkiss still can shock with his nihilism (“It was dead when we found it!”) and Dark Park can still shock with her disdain for things like “birthday husband stuff.” (I don’t want to know. And yet, I want to know.) Mort’s cameo as the “doctor” treating Cody was probably too cartoonish by half, but still funny as hell all the same.

From his time on “Cougar Town,” creator Kevin Biegel learned how to harness the natural idiosyncrasies of actors and put them into his shows. (I doubt that Kyle Davis is the pyromaniac that Dobkiss is, but I’m willing to wager the show leaned into his comedic strengths rather than impose new quirks upon him.) That type of approach not only adds to the comfort level of those performing, but also creates an immediately lived-in world that the show now occupies. From The Core Four down to the rest of Rear D, Fort McGee feels like a real place. And it’s one I hope to visit as often as possible. The ratings aren’t where they need to be to secure that second season just yet. Let’s hope this post-Olympics run sees a boost, since I selfishly want a lot more episodes of this show on my television.

A few stray observations:

  • Loved the “fade out” montage, with its ever-escalating technology references and a reminder that Y2K was a thing we once all thought would end the world. (Over on the aforementioned “Cougar Town,” it led to some serious Jules/Ellie groping, apparently.)
  • Randy’s wildlife cards reminded me of the Weight Watchers cards found here, information which HAS in fact made it on the internet.
  • “I say: Teach the controversy.” My favorite Randy line of the night. Let’s get him talking evolution on FOX News, stat.
  • I like the Pete/Jill dynamic so much as is that I hope it never goes fully to the romantic place. Maybe that will work out just fine if that’s where the show is going, but there’s a nerdy, screwball aspect to the current vibe that really works.