'Six': TV Review

Six S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HISTORY
Both militaristic and humanizing, it may tick everybody off.

Walton Goggins, a late addition to the cast of History's SEAL drama, proves to be the best reason to watch this awkward brew of fact and fiction.

Joe Manganiello was originally set to star in History's Six, but he was forced out due to a medical issue which, thankfully, has apparently been resolved. Surely one would never call this the "best thing to happen" to the eight-episode military thriller, but from the safety of Manganiello's renewed health, it must be said that his replacement Walton Goggins is easily the best reason to watch Six, a strange mixture of fact and fiction that never consistently stays on the right side of the line between patriotism and jingoism.

It isn't that Justified and The Shield veteran Goggins is necessarily a better actor than Manganiello, but he's surely a different kind of actor than the True Blood co-star, who would have been yet another wounded, studly alpha in a show of wounded, studly alphas. Goggins gives a performance of crazed, strung-out intensity, offering an unconventional version of leadership and conflicted heroism that's so much more interesting than everything around him. Audiences eager for a gung-ho, but not pragmatism-free, look at military heroes probably won't have their interest in Six impacted by reviews, but for the kind of viewers who seek out critical approbation, Goggins will be the show's biggest draw.

Goggins plays Richard "Rip" Taggart, leader of the military counterterrorism unit known as SEAL Team Six. You know the real version of SEAL Team Six from such operations as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, but this particular group of fictionalized warriors has been intimately involved with a long stretch of America's longest deployment. As we initially begin in 2014 in Afghanistan, Rip has been in-country for too long and, still smarting from the recent end of a relationship, he's lost his moral filter, which doesn't bother trusted right-hand Joe "Bear" Graves (Barry Sloane), but gives pause to Alex "Apparently No Nickname" Caulder (Kyle Schmid). An operation goes pear-shaped and a possibly innocent (but possibly not) man is killed, leading to future ripples.

Two years later, Rip has become a private contractor in Nigeria when the oil company he's protecting runs afoul of Boko Haram, which attracts the attention of both his former squad and a terrorist with a personal motivation for vengeance. Who will get to Rip first? Well, that's the plot of the show, which comes from creators David Broyles and William Broyles.

As a story giving the human side of men who are generally depicted in one-dimensional terms, Six works reasonably well. The guys have been given only one or two points of personal shading — Sloane's Bear is grieving the loss of his young daughter, Juan Pablo Raba's "Buddha" is struggling to keep his family financially afloat and chafing at his wife's decision to return to work, Schmid's Caulder is awkwardly reconnecting with the teenage daughter he's mostly ignored, Edwin Hodges' Chase is new and went to Harvard — but the thin material is played with sincerity. There are also surprisingly effective performances in limited screen time by Brianne Davis and Nadine Velazquez as a pair of SEAL wives. The main actors get to switch between macho and sensitive and even if there's a sameness to all of their performances, they're all quite fine in those two modes.

It's just my assumption that that's what Manganiello would have done as well, but that's not how Goggins works. His Rip is stretched past the breaking point, nervous and twitchy and tortured by the things he's done, and I'm reasonably sure that the things Rip has done will alienate many viewers who want the treatment of these military figures to be pure and idealized. The martyrdom of Rip Taggart takes place across a White Savior arc that's entirely without scripted subtlety — see, he thinks he's saving young Nigerian women from being raped and sold into slavery by Boko Haram, but they're really saving him, which is verging on repulsive at times — but Goggins adds Rip to his résumé of men whose redemption we root for even if we suspect they've passed a tipping point into irredeemable. He's alive and compelling in every moment of a storyline that mines sexual assault for flimsy tension and turns its villains into caricatures of savagery that shouldn't be exempt from charges of bad writing just because the real-life organization is monstrous.

The real/fictional divide is a small nightmare for Six, because if you aim for grounded humanity on the domestic front and use the names of real terror organizations doing the things that real terror organizations do in real countries, but then treat those bad guys like third-tier black hats from a bad season of 24, everything around it is weakened. It becomes a clash between "This part we were able to research and we were eager to honor" and "This part we're including because otherwise the show is just dudes training and drinking and trying to keep their wives from divorcing them"; every time the show cut to Dominic Adams' scheming Michael, my brain went elsewhere.

In addition to Goggins, the big elevating factor in the series' first four hours sent to critics is Lesli Linka Glatter's direction of the first two episodes and Kimberly Peirce's work on the third. Peirce's episode is particularly effective at selling big emotional beats through evocative montage, while Glatter offers the latest reminder that there are few better at pivoting from action to quieter, personal scenes. The fourth episode, directed by Mikael Salomon, has the same strong visual sense as the rest of the series, but also on-the-nose religious iconography that the show just can't support.

The performances and the above-average directing team may lure some viewers who will then get irked by the rah-rah "America, hell yeah" bellicosity and those who come for the "America, hell yeah" bellicosity will probably get ticked off by all the pesky feelings, and by the suggestion that sometimes soldiers do bad things in war. Perhaps Walton Goggins will become the thing that unifies our nation.

Cast: Walton Goggins, Barry Sloane, Kyle Schmid, Juan Pablo Raba, Edwin Hodge, Brianne Davis, Nadine Velazquez
Creators: David Broyles and William Broyles
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (History)