Tuesday, September 22, 2009

'Army Wives' Monday, er, Tuesday: As Time Goes By

*Warning: Spoilers ahead from the recent episode of Army Wives.*

I’m all for taking a show and putting a new, unexpected twist on it. But if you’re going to be moving viewers out of their normal comfort zones or employing a technique not usually used on the show, you’ve got to make sure it’s executed well. If you’re thinking about having your show’s characters, say, go back in time, maybe have them play people from another era, there should be a reason for it, shouldn’t there, maybe to progress the overall series plot a little?

An example of this done well was the season two premiere of thirtysomething, “We’ll Meet Again.” Hope and Michael were debating whether and when to try to have another baby while Hope was mulling whether/when she should return to work and how a second baby would factor into that. While working on a piece about household Radon levels for an environmental magazine, Hope discovered a trunk filled with photos, letters and a journal, kept by her home’s previous owner. She became obsessed with the love story between a young woman, who had lived in the house with her family, and a soldier with whom she met, fell in love with and married, in short order, before he went to serve in World War II. Hope read in the journal that the woman had a miscarriage not too long after finding out that her husband had been declared MIA. Once the husband returned, they planted roses in the backyard, which were still thriving.The poignant flashbacks to the World War II era featured other actors -- not actors from thirtysomething -- and were linked to Hope and Michael’s current situation, as the stories intertwined beautifully at the end of the episode.

This is my long-winded way of saying that while I laud the effort and notion of having a show about Army spouses pay tribute to the Greatest Generation, Army Wives could’ve done a much better job at folding the tales of the Fort Marshall World War II Army spouses into the episode. Despite the great costumes and music, "As Time Goes By" felt, to put it bluntly, ham-fisted. Having current characters in flashbacks playing OTHER characters whose life situations don't have any relation to the current characters made for somewhat muddled TV.

Pamela and Roxy met two World War II Army wives, Elsie and Virginia, and struck up a conversation about the older ladies’ experiences, which led to tales about the women's friends and spouses circa the 1940s. All of which was fine until the flashbacks to the women’s younger days, dramatized by the current cast of the Army Wives. (I'm betting it was better on paper than in reality.) While the tales of the World War II Army wives were compelling, because there were so many cast members to whom they had to assign stories, the portrayals wound up feeling shallow, like little CliffsNotes nuggets about the World War II era. And there was little that these flashbacks did to illuminate the current characters' stories.

It was as if they tried to do too much, with too many characters in a single episode: Tackle racial discrimination in the military, wounded soldiers coping with their post-war injuries, pregnant war brides losing their husbands, the rise of Rosie the Riveter and women in the military. They had Claudia Joy, complete with head scarf, working in a production plant while her husband became wheelchair-bound due to war injuries. Pamela played the pregnant war widow who'd been a newspaper photographer. Roxy, incongruously, was a New York socialite married to a soldier and was initially viewed as a lace-wearing snob. Denise was serving in the women’s branch of the Air Force, while her husband, former Air Force, ran a bar, what would later become the Hump Bar, the scene where her husband was knifed to death. Joan was a waitress/dish washer at the bar and was married to a perpetually angry Roland who was serving in the Army.

All valid stories, yes, but the way in which they were executed on Army Wives made them feel extremely uneven to me, which was too bad, because that era has so much potential which Army Wives could’ve mined more in depth. In fact, I could see an Army Wives-World War II spinoff (think of the wardrobe) really getting into these meaty issues, similar to the way in which Mad Men is a dramatic time capsule for the 60s. Considering that the networks have spun off NCIS, CSI and a bazillion Law & Orders, why not a 1940s Army spouses drama?

Next week, according to the previews, Army Wives will be back to the 21st century and the contemporary gals’ woes.

So what was your take on the Army Wives' time traveling back to the 1940s?

Image credit: Lifetime.

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