“Enlisted” Review: “Army Men”

Let’s review “Army Men” by looking at two faces.perez.png

Look at that face.

That’s the same face that just last week professed the joys of “Randy’s Candies,” the same face that expressed frustration when Pete kept falling for her role-play tricks, and the same face that howled at the moon atop an airstream. But here, for maybe the first time, we truly see Jill Perez.

derrick.png

Look at that face.

That’s the same face that didn’t know how to smile upon command while first meeting his soon-to-be girlfriend, once featured a moustache made out of his brother’s pubic hair, and generally can’t pretend not to be annoyed by everything the Army forces him to do. But here, once again, we truly see Derrick Hill.

I bring these two faces up because they form the spine of the overall silliness of “Army Men,” other excellent episode of “Enlisted,” but also because they serve as two prime examples of what makes the show resonate far beyond most half-hour comedies on television right now. It’s of a piece with “Pete’s Airstream,” “Parade Duty,” “Vets,” and even last week’s “General Inspection” in terms of foregrounding funny workplace comedy within a serious context without selling either out in the process. Those faces might be the “real” ones for Jill and Derrick, but that doesn’t make their silly antics any less real by comparison. Rather, “Enlisted” displays both sides as equally viable aspects of the same individual.

In other words, they are human beings.

Jill and Derrick aren’t smiling in those photos. Were you to show these pictures to someone that had never watched “Enlisted,” they would be hard-pressed to identify the program as a comedy. It’s easier, perhaps, to list out the three dozen things in this episode that made me laugh (Chef Mort making an exploding noise followed by “Food!” during the mid-ep montage; anytime Randy ran away in terror, the very concept of “lap pasta”). But those laughs are enjoyable but ephemeral without something to ground them. The best comedies know this, but most comedies shy away from anything remotely serious for fear of isolating or upsetting its audience. The military setting for “Enlisted” couldn’t be any more serious, but the program has simultaneously deconstructed the notion of the “typical American soldier” (think “Pete Hill without the PTSD”) while also depicting a much more realistic version of armed forces that celebrates rather than denigrates those serving. “Yes We’re Soldiers” isn’t a defensive retort but rather a mission statement for the entire program.

By taking that approach, the slow-motion salute in “Vets” or Dobkiss feeling like a real soldier in “General Inspection” isn’t a cheap way to produce emotion, but rather the entire purpose of “Enlisted” in general. It’s one thing for Perez to follow Cody around during “Rear D Day” for enrollment in the Advanced Leader Course. It’s another to see her emotionally break down when faced with The Devastator. One is played for laughs, one for drama. But both are part and parcel of the same arc, and augment rather than cancel each other out. “Enlisted” doesn’t play in binaries, much in the way that “Scrubs” used flights of fancy to display the coping mechanisms some doctors need to survive the spectre of death that constantly surrounds them.

But while “Scrubs” literally played out life-and-death scenarios all the time, “Enlisted” tries to figure out what makes life itself bearable when death is far from the picture. That can take the form of Pete coping with his time in Afghanistan, Jill fighting institutionalized sexism beneath a veneer of supreme confidence, or Derrick simply giving enough of a shit about another human being to risk actually being emotionally devastated in the process. “Enlisted” doesn’t equate these three journeys, but links them under the same roof (or, to be more precise, within the same fort) all the same. It would be easier to milk drama through depictions of front-line warfare. But its depictions of what happen far from the field of battle show what happens when soldiers actually have the luxury of time to think. Like those of us not in uniform, they can do plenty of damage to themselves and each other without firing a shot.

What makes “Army Men” cathartic is the way in which it sides with comraderie over isolation, even if that choice doesn’t ensure happy endings all around. Perez ringing The Devastator’s bell is a great moment, one aided by (but not simply made possible by) Randy and Pete putting aside their squabbles to support a fellow soldier. But Derrick’s devastation at realizing Erin will be moving to Washington state is only possible because he let his ironic veneer down long enough to let a single person inside in the first place. But it’s still a positive move for a man who only last week seemed more concerned about soup than troops. In an ideal world, we would have seen more of these two together (and in an even more ideal world, see this relationship play out in actual linear order), but Chris Lowell and Jessy Hodges have enough chemistry to sell the episode’s final moments in an appropriately heartbreaking manner.

Without giving much away about the finale (which screened at the ATX Television Festival last week), “Enlisted” is very much interested in exploring how certain obstacles are never truly defeated, but rather incorporated into every day objectives. Pete will never truly be the same man who left for Afghanistan, anymore than Cody or countless other soldiers will ever be the same. But that doesn’t make him a broken man. Perez conquered the obstacle course, but will have countless other things to overcome before achieving the post she so richly deserves. Derrick might very well have his heart broken in the short term, but is a better person (and soldier) through the simple act of loving Erin. Life moves on, sometimes mercilessly so.

When the tide of life threatens to swallow you whole, it’s good to know someone can lend a hand to lift you up. And when things are oppressively awful, it still feels pretty good to have someone’s hand suddenly on your head. “Enlisted” delivers moments of grace like this on an almost weekly basis, and it will be a damn shame if last week is truly the last time we’ll see those notes play out.