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Writer Roberto Benabib has guts.
The Weeds veteran’s last TV creation was HBO’s 2015 dark comedy The Brink, as close to a TV adaptation of Dr. Strangelove as we’re likely to see attempted. Despite a star-studded cast, The Brink was a shockingly unfunny disaster, but it was a gutsy disaster.
AIR DATE Jan 15, 2020
Benabib’s new show is Paramount Network’s 68 Whiskey, a military dramedy that’s based on an Israeli format but very, very clearly is aiming to be a M*A*S*H for a new generation. Even in our age in which everything is fodder for remakes or reboots, M*A*S*H is probably the sort of sacred text most writers would steer away from, so doing a show that almost invariably has to be compared with M*A*S*H is nothing if not gutsy.
It happens that, while not wholly successful, 68 Whiskey is a show with some potential and it happens that the parts of the show that work best are the parts that are most reminiscent of M*A*S*H. The series has too many other things going on and, to paraphrase the Coco Chanel quote, 68 Whiskey could stand to remove several narrative accessories. But there are aspects here that I like.
The series focuses primarily on a team of medics working out of a NATO Coalition base in Afghanistan. When Cooper Roback (Sam Keeley) and Mekhi Davis (Jeremy Tardy) aren’t choppering in and out of combat zones as part of the U.S. Army team, they’re working angles and hustles to try turning war into something profitable. Their tiny schemes and rule-breaking cons are set in stark contrast to the well-paid mercenary force financed by an entity known as SecCorp.
Roback and Davis’ convoluted plans often involve or are abetted by fellow medic Rosa Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo), a DACA recipient worried about her military status, and Grace Durkin (Gage Golightly), who enjoys secretive sex with Roback in a supply closet even though she’s in a relationship with the gigantic — in every way — mercenary known as Sasquatch (Derek Theler). Watching with varying degrees of disapproval are base commander Harlan Austin (Lamont Thompson), icy doctor Sonia Holloway (Beth Riesgraf) and Captain Hazara (Usman Ally), who’s British Forces and only cares about certain behaviors.
When it’s blending wacky get-rich-quick hijinks, high-stakes military drama and secretive sex, 68 Whiskey is entertaining. I’d go so far as to say that through three episodes sent to critics, Benabib has a much better sense of Catch-22-esque war absurdity than the recent Hulu adaptation of Catch-22. This is not a high bar, but it’s not nothing.
Irish actor Keeley — “Like Jason Dohring if Jason Dohring were unavailable,” my notes say — makes for a reasonable All-American iconoclast, sarcastic with a heart of gold, and his accent only wavers when Roback gets too emotional. Though there’s a lot of Hawkeye in his DNA Roback is a pastiche of references, right down to a scene that has him bouncing a baseball against the wall of the brig, Steve McQueen-style.
Tardy has the more interesting character, but deserves more screen time to match. Rodlo, who made a vivid impression as a key catalyst in The Terror: Infamy, is even better here, providing wide-eyed humor and actual emotion in a story that doesn’t always come by those emotions as honestly as it should. And Golightly is strong and sometimes funny, fighting through a character whose love for sexual profanity is too frequently forced. Ally and Thompson get chuckles as key authority figures and Nicholas Coombe steals some scenes as the ultra-innocent Petrocelli — basically Radar, in M*A*S*H terms — whose friendship with a possessed goat was perhaps my favorite part of the early episodes.
There are so many decent and occasionally provocative dynamics to play out between these characters, and with a few native Afghani characters, that it becomes increasingly frustrating that 68 Whiskey, despite being a show with apparent swagger, has so little confidence in itself. It isn’t enough to just be M*A*S*H 2020. This show wants to be Kelly’s Heroes 2020 (or Three Kings 2020) and several other unnecessarily heightened variations. I know prestige cable requires thinking of yourself as serialized, but you know what the serialized element in a show like this is? The war. Anything else runs the risk of overkill.
I’d much rather watch the Army and independent contractor characters clashing over authentic and grounded wartime situations than pretending to invest in some bigger, “What are the contractors excavating in the desert?” mystery. I’d rather watch Roback and Davis deal with their financial issues in micro than have them figure out how to move a vast quantity of hashish. There’s plenty of interest in Roback’s ordinary backstory without what appears to be a murder.
Pilot director Michael Lehmann knows from dark comedy and tone balancing. What he can’t do is invest unconvincing storylines with heft. There are too many of those here and they’re taking time that could have been used to invest 68 Whiskey with themes deeper than “Civilian contractors in war zones are creepy” and “American immigration policy is unjust” and “That war in Afghanistan has gone on too long.” Maybe part of the problem is that 68 Whiskey, unlike M*A*S*H, is directly tackling a current conflict without room for retrospect. It’s not bad satire — The Brink was bad satire — but it’s more superficial after three episodes than it should be.
I’m amused enough to watch another couple episodes to see if either the bigger plotlines get more compelling or the comic targets tighten up a little bit. It’s the least I can do to reward this gutsy, imperfect swing.
Cast: Sam Keeley, Gage Golightly, Jeremy Tardy, Cristina Rodlo, Nicholas Coombe, Derek Theler, Beth Riesgraf, Lamont Thompson
Creator: Roberto Benabib
Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Paramount Network, starting Jan. 15.
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