Suffering from box-set withdrawal and scrabbling around for something that didn't involve retarded members of the public being patronised by three mismatched and almost entirely unqualified arbiters of talent (although I did watch that too) it was time to sign up for the latest from David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of The Wire. If, as Ed Burns asserted, The Wire was a programme made for the cops and the pushers of Baltimore then Generation Kill is for the soldiers in Iraq or perhaps more accurately, the Marines. If like me you aren't exactly clear about the differences between a Marine and a Soldier then don't expect to have it explained so much as made very clear that there is a difference and that the Army are idiots and the Marines are cold, hard killing machines (at least according to them) especially The 1st Recon Marines.
As you might expect if you've seen any of The Wire there is no concession made to the viewer who doesn't understand military jargon, procedure or politics. You'll need to keep that finger near the pause button for a breather every now and then or revel in the barrage which ranges from profanity to poetry. The credits roll to a soundtrack of radio communication, a familiar crackle of static and codewords for those Wire viewers. This is also another programme whose strength is in its ensemble, and whose storylines are legion. Based on the book written by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright we ride with him, embedded with the Marines spearheading the invasion of the most recent Iraq war. Before the action we see the troops sparring with each other both physically and vocally, this is a tight knit group who revel in mocking each other, and Wright is immediately targeted as a Left-wing hippie faggot until they learn that he wrote Beaver Hunt for a pornographic magazine. Kudos!
A documentary about the making of the series shows the actors involved attending a boot camp where they were drilled by Rudy Reyes and Eric Kocher, both Marines and both acting in the series. Reyes is particularly extraordinary, built like some kind of Greek god/movie star, a highly trained killing machine and yet filled to the brim with zen-like calm at all times. What the training has clearly helped the actors to do is bond as a unit and get as close as possible to portraying the reality of men in conflict. These are men of a generation interested in pop music and video games and yet also interested in reading Chomsky and debating race relations. The big mistake would be to assume that they're stupid. Even at their most profane they manage to extend they insults to Shakespearean levels of intricacy. James Ransone as the driver Person is particularly hilarious; fuelled by uppers his riffs on everything from patriotism to global instability are worth the price of admission on their own.
Humour plays such an important part in the daily lives of these men so that moments after being engaged in firefights they are cracking jokes. There are longer running gags too like the reporter's photo of his girlfriend which he is constantly trying to relocate as it passed around by the men. The officer class come in for some stick too with 'Encino Man' taking stupidity to alarming levels and the perfectly dubbed 'Captain America', with his hysterical and alarmist responses to just about any situation, becoming a danger to his own men. That is how the programme develops it serious themes, not through the po-faced seriousness typical of TV drama in this country but by making the audience complicit; laughing one moment at the antics of an officer who later will become a liability, perhaps even a war criminal.
The skill to take a subject like the Iraq war and make a programme which remains un-judgemental and impartial is the really impressive thing. Because the programme isn't about the Iraq war, it's about the Marines, it's about these men and through them, through the presentation of the reality of their situation you are exposed to ideas and opinions which you then have to make your own judgement on. We see the fatal results of what seems at first to be a comical episode involving a young recruit shooting at a camel in a desperate bid to fire his weapon in anger. We see the results of nervy men at a checkpoint without a clear strategy for stopping vehicles. We watch with the Marines as they observe a village, contenting themselves that it contains only civilians before a decision taken by their superiors somewhere else takes the mater out of their hands. But no judgement. In one scene, when inspecting the body of someone they have shot, they discover his passport and the fact that this is a jihadist from Syria, someone who crucially came into the country to fight the Americans only after they had invaded; a shock to all the Marines. Knowing now the extended horror following the end of 'combat operations' it is interesting to see the first hints that America was not prepared in any way for what they found when the crossed the line into Iraq.
Comparisons to The Wire are pointless for many reasons and unimportant for just one. David Simon and Ed Burns are committed to giving you the chance to see something you haven't seen before (unless you happen to be a Marine or drug cop). It's then up to you to decide what to do with that. It makes for fascinating TV which also happens to be provocative, funny, well made, impeccably acted and well worth seven hours of your time.