This is a nervous time of year if you’ve just written the next “Friends”, “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad:. Each spring, major American TV studios commission pilot episodes, selecting only a handful among hundreds of applications of scripts for production into full TV comedy or drama series.
Before production goes ahead however, there is one last hurdle – a successful pilot. Those pilots will be aired in felt-lined private cinemas to shrewd executives.
If they are liked well enough, network executives will invest the millions required to put together a major TV series. Fame and fortune follows not long after.
American TV pilots aren’t just about the small screen though; they’re about gauging the zeitgeist of the nation. There are more whimsical fads that pilots go through; a focus on space sci-fis, or time travel, or vampires, have all been strong themes.
This year however – especially given the war-mongering President Donald Trump – the theme is a bit chilling. Military dramas are in.
The Hollywood Reporter calls this trend “among the less subtle” tonal shift for this year’s pilot season. Military dramas are “an appeal to Trump’s America,” it concludes.
All the big studios have at least one military drama in contention. CBS has managed two, with a remake of the 2003 Samuel L Jackson film S.W.A.T., and a currently unnamed entry which “follows the lives of the elite Navy SEALs as they train, plan and execute the most dangerous, high-stakes missions our country can ask”.
Fox, whose news broadcasters are fulfilling their expected duties as war propagandists for the Republican Party, are of course lapping up the military theme. They’re piloting a “distinctly patriotic” proposal called Behind Enemy Lines, loosely based on the distinctly average 2001 movie of the same name.
This “military soap thriller” promises to follow a group of American soldiers stuck behind enemy lines, intelligence officers in Washington, and commanders on a nearby aircraft carrier. The original was based loosely on a very real act of extraordinary bravery during the Bosnian conflict, in which an American pilot was shot down enforcing a no-fly zone curtailing the activities of genocidal Serbs.
When 21st Century Fox made the film, however, they forgot to ask the pilot for permission. He was irritated they had transformed him from a highly professional and disciplined operator, into a disobedient, cussing renegade which Fox hoped would be more appealing to cinema-goers – and he sued. Hopefully, the same fiasco will not happen again – but the profit motive to glamorise rather than respectfully record American war heroes is still very much there.
Then there’s “For God and Country,” which bills itself as “a heart-pounding look into the complex world of the country’s bravest military heroes who make personal sacrifices while executing the most challenging and dangerous missions behind enemy lines”. (It seems fighting for God is OK, so long as he isn’t called Allah). The producers know the territory well – they also made Homeland.
When Deadline, an industry magazine, wrote about NBC commissioning the pilot, they said that the project also “fits into the mood of the country”. Another industry blog, Season Zero, jabs at the corny title (“No, it’s not a joke.”) before adding, “It’s unsubtle, overly direct, the most on-the-nose title ever created. It doesn’t leave room for any possible doubt: This is a patriotic show, specifically designed for a Post-Trump America and blue-collar audiences.”
ABC Entertainment chief Channing Dungey recently acknowledged that “the rise of Trump and his blue-collar support” had forced her to question whether her programming was “too focused on upper-income brackets”.
Apparently, gung-ho American military thrillers are deemed the route to the working-class heart – and so Dungey’s studio has its own light-hearted takes on war. “Unit Zero” bills itself as an “action-dramedy” featuring “a brilliant but unassuming CIA engineer and single mom as she leads a team of desk jockeys into the field as secret agents. Overlooked in the workplace, their invisibility makes them perfect for the CIA’s most covert missions”.
Another ABC show, Charlie Foxtrot, follows “a cautious, lovable dentist stationed at Fort Bragg who promises to look after his brother’s impulsive fiancée and her two misfit teens while his brother is deployed in Iraq.”
Glamorising conflict has always been an American cultural speciality. When the “mother of all bombs” was dropped on the Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan last week, Fox & Friends soundtracked the footage with Toby Keith’s jock friendly rock anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (Angry American).”
“That video is black and white, but that is what freedom looks like,” anchor Ainsley Earhardt salivated. Hollywood and the Pentagon have a financial relationship going back more than a century.
Now it’s the turn of TV dramas. With a president who seems to have realised the connection between dropping bombs and improving ratings – this is a very dangerous concoction.