'SEAL Team': TV Review

Proficient, if not special.
9/27/2017

David Boreanaz is a confident leading man in CBS' new military drama, which should play well for the network's core audience, if not for critics.

It's easy to underestimate David Boreanaz. By virtue of his 20 consecutive years fronting a broadcast series, we know he's a TV star; still, since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Bones were all hits, but not necessarily Top 10 phenomena, perhaps we impose a cap of some sort.

To me, Boreanaz is one of the biggest TV stars of 1975.

Like, you'd probably put him below James Garner, but if you think he's less than a Robert Wagner or Robert Urich, the mistake is yours. Boreanaz's persona is one of a gruff-but-charming man's man. It just happens that if Hollywood were casting a David Boreanaz-type today, directors would think they had to look to Australia or Great Britain.

Premiering Wednesday, CBS' new drama SEAL Team is a tribute to two things: Boreanaz's ability to carry an otherwise bland and forgettable military procedural and CBS' awareness of its brand and its audience's appetite for a certain kind of bland and forgettable military procedural.

SEAL Team may not be a good show, but it's one that knows what it wants to be and achieves its goals far better than NBC's The Brave or The CW's Valor. So maybe it's just not a show for me, and that's OK.

Created by Benjamin Cavell, SEAL Team is about, yes, a team of Navy SEALs, but as the opening crawl explains, "The U.S. Navy SEALs are one of the most elite special-operations forces on Earth. But even they have an all-star team."

The all-star team is headed by Jason Hayes (Boreanaz), a veteran warrior who has always put his squad ahead of his family and is fraying at the seams after a tragedy involving one of his men. The team also includes Ray (Neil Brown Jr.), Sonny (A.J. Buckley) and, doing logistics, Lisa (Toni Trucks). Barking out briefings and mission objectives is CIA analyst Mandy (Jessica Pare). And eager to join the team is Clay Spenser (Max Thieriot), a versatile second-generation SEAL whose father's legacy comes with some baggage.

The pilot's mission, which includes a high-level ISL target and an incursion into Liberia complicated by Boko Haram, comes dangerously close to directly plagiarizing History's Six, but it's hard to know how many viewers are going to come in having watched each of television's recent efforts to honor our troops. SEAL Team also adopts a framework that is very similar to what History used in Six, balancing on-the-ground military actions periodically intercut with whatever's happening with the wife and kids back home. The action is sturdy and unremarkable, with lots of intimate video game-style POV shots to mask a lack of budget when it comes to scale. Unlike The Brave, this has no gritty cinematic pretensions.

Both of the first two episodes sent to critics employ the "But will Soldier X make it back from their international conflict in time for…" structure. In the pilot, it's a piano recital. In the second, it's the birth of a child. I can only assume that soccer games, an important anniversary dinner and a bar mitzvah will be plot points in upcoming episodes, because SEAL Team is determined to get a lot of mileage out of not just what these [mostly] men do in the field, but also the manipulation of who they're doing it for back home. If you're not in tears by the end of episodes of SEAL Team, it's probably not the show for you and since I wasn't, I know it probably is not, but I can also respect that many people will be.

The politics of SEAL Team are probably best described as jingoistic-lite, which is a tremendous improvement over the "Every foreigner is a rapist, murderer or corrupt official" ideology of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Every so often in the early episodes, somebody implies something slightly misguided about American foreign policy before the "Our country, right or wrong" message slips in. More broadly, the show fits with CBS' general "Men being men" conservatism, peaking on the second episode in which Thieriot's Clay explains feminism to a grad student he's trying to pick up at a bar and adds, "Even in 2017, a guy's gotta be able to buy a drink without it being considered a hate crime."

With this attitude, it isn't a surprise that the women are underserved in SEAL Team. The first episode lets Mandy and Lisa be active participants in the mission and they almost feel like real characters, but the second episode leaves them in a conference room somewhere, so the best I can say is that they both deliver exposition believably. I'm a big enough fan of Pare's Megan Draper character on AMC's Mad Men that I want to see the actress do much more, but my fear is that when a show like this decides to give a female character a major arc, it usually involves them getting kidnapped, so I can wait.

Thieriot, who grew into such an asset on A&E's Bates Motel over that drama's run, is the standout of the supporting cast, somehow even making that aforementioned bar flirtation seem mostly unobjectionable. Brown has good emotional moments in the second episode, and I briefly learned his character's name and everything.

It's Boreanaz who carries SEAL Team perfectly for its chosen aspirations. His isn't the kind of tormented, nerve-exposed performance Walton Goggins gave in Six, but that's not the battle scarring Jason carries. Boreanaz shows Jason's fatigue and his disappointment at his failed marriage in the form of defensive snarkiness and stubble, while concentrating on playing a man other men would willingly follow into a gunfight.

I think many viewers will be prepared to follow Boreanaz and his team into weekly skirmishes. I won't, but I was able to appreciate how competently SEAL Team does its job. Now as for CBS' Wisdom of the Crowd

Cast: David Boreanaz, Max Thieriot, Neil Brown Jr., AJ Buckley, Toni Trucks, Jessica Pare
Creator: Benjamin Cavell
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)

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