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'Enlisted' embraces the suck

Jan. 10, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Enlisted: Behind the Scenes
Enlisted: Behind the Scenes: Military Times staff writer Jon Anderson got a behind-the-scenes look at the set of Enlisted, a new comedy centered on Army life.
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'Enlisted' cast members from left: Keith David, Parker Young, Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell and Angelique Cabral. The new Fox comedy premieres Jan. 10. (Jeff Lipsky/Fox)

“Enlisted” premieres tonight 9:30 p.m. Eastern time on Fox. How many mistakes can you find in the pilot? The producers want to know. Check the show’s website to find out how to enter their “Spot our SNAFUS” contest for a chance to win the show’s challenge coin.

Kevin Biegel cringes at the thought of you watching the pilot of his new show “Enlisted.” Set to debut tonight on Fox, the comedy follows the antics of three brothers in arms, who also happen to be brothers, trapped serving in the hell of a “rear D” unit in Florida.

Biegel begs you not to judge the show too quickly.

We’re on set at his bar, the Claymore. Camo netting hangs from the ceiling. An old parachute billows over a beat-up pool table.

The stout hardwood bar looks like it’s been stained a deep brown from years of soaking up spilled brew.

The Claymore, like the barracks room and military offices just outside the door, as well as the sprawling motor pool nearby, are all part of the massive set filling the warehouse-sized “Stage 8” on the 50-acre Fox Studios lot near Beverly Hills, Calif.

Also known as the Will Rogers Stage, hits from “Charlie’s Angels” and “L.A. Law” to “The Sound of Music” and “Die Hard” were filmed inside these 35-foot walls. Before it became one of the longest-running, highest-rated TV shows in U.S. history, the movie “MASH” was filmed right here at Stage 9.

Of course, “MASH” is the comparison yardstick for Biegel’s show.

And for good reason. “Enlisted” is the first military sitcom since Hawkeye Pierce said goodbye to the 4077th in 1983.

Like that classic show, “Enlisted” pits lifers against misfits in a wartime military. Biegel says “Enlisted” will try to strike a similar balance between bringing the funny of everyday life in uniform while also respectfully going to the darker, harder places that can come with military service.

Steep learning curve

“That show was so amazing,” Biegel says of “MASH,” but he’s uncomfortable with the comparison. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m writing a book, and I’m going to be like Shakespeare.’ ”

Instead, he prefers to compare his show’s tone to the likes of “Scrubs,” “New Girl” and “The Office.”

“The feel of the show is joyous, completely uncynical,” he says. “I’m kind of tired of snarky comedy, personally. I want it to be this big, inviting thing.”

Still, he wants “Enlisted” to capture that same air of authenticity and attention to detail that “MASH” did. He wants it to feel real.

And that’s why he’s cringing.

Biegel first made his bones as a writer for “Scrubs,” eventually becoming co-producer.

“It was great because doctors would actually tell us how realistic it was on the medical stuff. We really did our homework to get that right,” he says.

And for anyone who knows the military, Biegel acknowledges his first episode of “Enlisted” is full of distractions. Uniforms are jacked. Hair is too long. They call a Bradley a tank — a ridiculous pint-sized Bradley at that. The list goes on. And on.

That’s why Biegel wants you to go ahead and judge that first show anyway. List the mistakes, send them in, and you’ll get an official show challenge coin. Call it his first lesson learned in how to embrace the suck.

An untapped market

“I have a lot of family and friends who have served,” Biegel says. “It always seemed weird to me that there are no shows on TV that are about that world at all. There have been some dramas that have done it recently, but there certainly haven’t been any comedies.”

There used to be. Before “MASH” ended, “Private Benjamin,” another movie adaptation, enjoyed a successful three-season run and racked up a handful of top awards.

But the golden era of military comedies came in the wake of World War II, with standouts from “Hogan’s Heroes” and “McHale’s Navy” to “F Troop” and “Gomer Pyle, USMC.”

No doubt, military life can offer an often wacky, and always witty, well to draw from.

“This is an interesting, fascinating job, full of people that I love, who sometimes love their jobs, [and] who sometimes the job makes them friggin’ crazy,” Biegel says. “To me, that’s conflict. That’s comedy.”

But for reasons that escape him, a decade of war has made Hollywood reluctant to bring that to the screen.

“There’s been a real feeling from writers and maybe even the executives and networks that you can’t talk about that. You have to treat that with kid gloves. To me, that’s treating a giant section of my friends and family not like human beings. We can write about everybody else, but we can’t write about that? Crazy.”

The “Enlisted” pilot helped him make the case. That’s because despite the many details that make you want to hate it, there’s some good stuff in there. If you can’t laugh at mud-surfing behind a Bradley and two noncommissioned officers talking about rubbing their privates together, you need to lighten up, Francis.

It gets better

Whether it’s your brand of humor, this much is certain: It gets better. (Producers gave OFFduty a sneak peek at later episodes.)If nothing else, all those military fails won’t be nearly so distracting as the season progresses.

In large part, that’s because after the pilot, Biegel hired recently retired Army Lt. Col. Greg Bishop and his small, veterans-only production company to help make sure everything is dress-right-dress.

Of course, authenticity will take detours.

“Authenticity is trumped only by story,” Bishop says. “There are times when you need to take creative license. We tell them what right looks like, and they can make the creative decisions from there. We’ve got to keep the funny, but we can still make it authentic, and that’s the heart here.”

Before leaving the Army, Bishop was one of the Pentagon’s liaisons to Hollywood, helping review and approve scripts, coordinating assistance and often working on set when producers needed military help with a project.

Of course, the military doesn’t help everyone who asks.

If you noticed “Army Wives” make a turnaround in the attention-to-detail department, you can thank Bishop, who was among those ordered to help straighten out the series after the Army initially refused to cooperate with the show.

The Army also refused to formally support “Enlisted,” officials say. Bishop says that’s understandable, based on what officials saw in the pilot script.

If the lead actors seem transformed in the episodes following the pilot, you can thank a small cadre of NCOs at Fort Bliss, Texas, who put the actors through a four-day mini boot camp just before the show went into production this summer.

“It was the most humbling, impactful experience of my life,” says Angelique Cabral, who plays Staff Sgt. Jill Perez, leader of the squared-away platoon. “It really prepared us for this show and the seriousness of the subject matter.”

Drill instructors seized contraband — cellphones, laptops, books, food — it all got bagged and taken away.

“I’m strong, I work out, I run marathons. I know I’m fit, but the obstacle course was eye-opening,” Cabral says.

Parker Young, who plays Pvt. Randy Hill, the youngest of the three brothers, says he was ready to sign up for the military by the time they were done.

“When you do anything this much, it becomes a part of who you are,” he says.

Producer Chris Plourde says that trip became a crucible for the lead actors.

“They came back with a different headspace about who their characters are. It changed everything,” he says. “The show is now 30 or 40 times better than the pilot.”

Asked if he’s concerned some may find the show disrespectful, Plourde says, “Soldiers are people. You’re not either broken goods or a super soldier. There’s a lot of world in between. The humanity in soldiers is the humanity in everybody else. Bringing that, I hope, is not disrespectful.”

Human bowling

Neil Arnote is another veteran working on the show.

A former Army infantryman with 13 years in uniform before leaving active duty in 2009 to try his hand at acting, Arnote is now back in uniform playing a supporting role in the misfit platoon alongside the three lead brothers.

Ask him if his old military buddies will like the show, and he says yes with an undeniable enthusiasm.

“There have been several times when we’ve been filming some particular ridiculous thing — say, human bowling — and I’ll share a look with one of the other veterans,” an unspoken, ‘Yeah, I’ve done that,’ ” Arnote says.

“We’ve all lived pieces of this show,” says former real-life Marine Antwan McKelvin, who plays a sergeant in the squared-away platoon. He’s unequivocal: “I know this show’s going to be funny.”

“But it also has heart,” Arnote adds. “There is underlying truth in it. Geoff’s character is definitely going through some things, and they handle it really well in the show.”

He’s talking about Geoff Stults, who plays Staff Sgt. Pete Hill, the eldest of the three brothers.

Growing up in Colorado Springs, Colo., Stults was immersed in military culture. Both of his grandfathers are veterans, and both of his college roommates are now in the military.

Before he agreed to take the role, he asked his best friend, a Marine major, to read the pilot script.

“I’m know I’m probably not supposed to do this, but he reads all the scripts now,” Stults says. “I get back lots of notes.”

Giving birth in a minefield

Keith David plays the stern but fatherly Command Sgt. Maj. Donald Cody. He patrols the set like the real thing. If actors had titles, there’s no doubt his would be Senior Actor in Charge.

For good reason. With an acting career spanning more than four decades, his military roles are legion, with credits ranging from “Platoon” to narrating Ken Burns’ “The War.” “Halo” fans will recognize Cody’s deep baritone as the voice of Arbiter.

“As many military roles as I’ve played, this is my favorite. I’m not just saying that,” David says. “Besides being a workplace comedy, it’s kind of an homage to the military. It’s about what happens to the people who are left behind, including the soldiers.”

Without skipping a beat, maybe even unaware that he’s doing it, he slips into character as he’s talking. “That’s the grandest importance of our job. We make sure those guys know, ‘Hey, you’ve got some place to come back to. Your family here is being taken care of, so you don’t have to worry about that. Do your job.’ ”

Back in the Claymore, Biegel says he hasn’t slept in 48 hours. The crew is midway through production of 11 episodes to air during the first season of “Enlisted.”

He’s a got a new baby at home, but here, he’s giving birth in slow motion. It’s clear he’s treading carefully. Like giving birth in a minefield.

“I know it’s risky, because at the end of the day, we can’t get everything right. Half of my friends who are in the military talk about “The Hurt Locker” like it’s amazing, and half of them are like, ‘That movie is full of crap.’ ”

But he wants to risk it — to go to the hard places.

“I am adamant about not doing the stories of the guy on the front lawn who’s shouting at the world. I can’t. I know that exists. But I also know that PTSD, especially with my friends ... ”

He stops to collect himself. He blames the lack of sleep and cracks a joke about just as easily getting emotional over “Iron Man 3.”

But it’s not true. This matters to him.

He will delve into post-traumatic stress and other sticky subjects, he says. But with respect and not playing to the extremes.

“That’s more important than making people laugh sometimes,” he says.

“MASH” didn’t shy away, either. It was also nearly canceled in its first season due to low ratings.

“That’s what was so cool about ‘MASH’ — they could go to those darker spots. There’s a ton of comedy here. If you’ve got some real heavy stuff that you’re anchoring it with — well, to me that makes it all worth it, and it’s not just a bunch of jokes.”

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