MUSIC, "MASH" THEME UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: History is shaped not just by historians or journalists, especially when it comes to war, our perceptions often hinge on how conflicts are portrayed as screen entertainment. TV shows like Combat and Rat Patrol reduced World War II to episodic heroic adventures. Then there was MASH, which portrayed comic absurdities in a Korean War field hospital to implicitly criticize America's involvement in Vietnam. But no TV series has explicitly portrayed an ongoing U.S. military conflict, until now. Next week the FX Network will premiere Over There, a new series produced by Steven Bochco of NYPD Blue fame, set on the front lines, and the home front, in the Iraq War. James Poniewozik is a columnist and critic for Time Magazine. He joins me now. Jim, welcome back to OTM.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Thanks a lot, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You've seen the first few episodes of Over There. What do you think?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: It's very graphic. The violence is that sort of stylized chaotic "Saving Private Ryan"-influenced violence. But really the power of the show doesn't come so much from any sort of inherent artistic goodness as a TV show--in many ways the script and some of the characters are kind of lacking--as it does from this external knowledge that we bring to it, that even as you, Mr. and Mrs. America, are sitting on your couches watching, all this ugly stuff could be happening to your neighbor's kid or your kid right now.
BOB GARFIELD: The risk of doing that, of course, is to trivialize the horrors and the complexities of war. Based on the first three episodes, do you think Bochco's done a pretty good job of avoiding those traps?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: I don't think he's trivialized the war at all. I mean, it's a very serious show. Its message, insofar as it has one, is really just that war is hell. It does a very good job, just sort of technically on the battlefield, of just showing the confusion. I hate to fall into this trap, by the way, that critics often do, of talking about whether a war movie or a TV show is realistic or not, since, you know, I have not myself fought in Iraq.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: But, having said that, it definitely portrays war as a really morally gray and ambiguous thing.
ACTOR: I was going home after a year in this shithole [TONE], and yesterday they tell me I'm stayin' 90 more days. [MACHINE GUN FIRE IN BACKGROUND] And takin' on a squad of virgins! 'Cause what? The sergeant you trained with had to have his tonsils out!
ACTOR: His appendix.
ACTOR: Shut up-- [SOUND OF GUNFIRE]
BOB GARFIELD: Now Bochco has made a point of saying that this show will be apolitical. But isn't there something in this very portrayal of a commander on the verge of losing it that is commentary about this particular war?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: While the show seems to really take pains not to argue for one political side or another, that doesn't automatically mean that you can just write political issues out of it. The whole question of soldiers having their deployments extended, that is something that came up in the presidential campaign last year. And that is a definite political wedge issue. And so, I think that the show really tries not to, say in the manner of MASH, put political speeches in the mouths of its characters, but it can't entirely bleed things political out of the show. And if it did, it would seem really bogus.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now I swear to you, this is a question. I actually have no opinion on this subject. But I am wondering do you think viewers will get some sort of bad taste in their mouth to see the fictionalization of a war that is taking many, many lives in real time?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: You know, I think that there are some viewers that will be offended by this. But I really think that we, as a society, have moved toward more of an acceptance of seeing extreme events dealt with quickly and dramatized quickly. There's almost this fetishization in our culture now of the authentic. The people who want to watch it will be drawn by those very things that offend other people, which is their sense, at least, that they're seeing what's going on right now.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think it's possible that this show, fictional and apolitical as it is, could actually raise political consciousness and the hackles of a viewing audience about a war that hitherto they'd learned about only from actual news?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: It certainly is probably going to be more raw, more visceral than what people are seeing, you know, on say the evening news. Whether that's good or bad, I don't know that I'm wise enough to say. But I would say if you have a show that's really involving people in a war that's going on, it's probably, whichever way they end up breaking, less likely that they'll stop caring about it so much.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well Jim, as always, thanks very much.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Sure. Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: James Poniewozik is a columnist and critic for Time Magazine.