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'Over There': A Look at Soldiers on the Ground in Iraq

TV critic David Bianculli reviews Over There, the new Stephen Bochco series about a U.S. Army unit arriving in Iraq for its first tour of duty. It premieres Wednesday night on the FX network.

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Other segments from the episode on July 27, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 27, 2005: Review of the television show "Over there;" Interview with Stephen Bochco; Obituary for Edward Bunker; Review of Bob Feldman's new album "Triplicity."

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DATE July 27, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Review: Critic David Bianculli reviews the upcoming TV show "Over
There"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Stephen Bochco, whose long list of ground-breaking TV shows includes "Hill
Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue," launches a new series tonight, his first for a
cable network. It's a war drama called "Over There" and it focuses on the war
in Iraq through the experiences of eight American soldiers and their families.
In a few minutes, we'll speak with Bochco about making the series, but first,
our TV critic David Bianculli has looked at the first three episodes of "Over
There." He says he's happy to report that Bochco has done it again.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

Stephen Bochco, over his long career, has been only as good as his
collaborators, but when he gets good ones and improves their games as well, he
hits home runs and changes the rules of television. He co-created "Hill
Street Blues" with Michael Kozoll and drastically re-energized the TV cop
show; then did it again with David Milch in "NYPD Blue." In between, with
Terry Louise Fisher and then with David E. Kelley, he shook up the TV
courtroom series with "LA Law."

For "Over There," Bochco is working with co-creator Chris Gerolmo, and the two
are doing something no one's ever tried before. It's Bochco's first series
for cable so, of course, he's pushing the envelope a bit when it comes to
language, graphic imagery, violence and sex, but the real precedent here is
that "Over There" is set in Iraq. It's the first time in the history of
television a TV show has dramatized a war while that war was still being
fought. You don't get any more current or topical than that because you
can't. "Over There" does not take a political stance. Its characters don't
either, whether they're soldiers or the loved ones back home. They're too
busy just simply trying to survive. "Over There" isn't anti-war or pro-war;
it's just war.

Three episodes were sent for preview, and each is exponentially more gripping
and disturbing than the last. The first episode, tonight's premier,
introduces the raw recruits who make up the unit assigned to a desolate and
dusty area of Iraq. The second episode has them guarding a roadblock and
looking for an escaping insurgent and the third has them involved with the
interrogation of a prisoner. In structure, "Over There" is surprisingly
similar to "Combat," the classic World War II series from the early '60s that
followed a particular unit as it fought in one risky campaign after another.
In both shows, most of the faces are young and unknown and the threat of being
wounded or killed isn't just a threat. Characters get hurt; characters die.
And in "Over There," many of them do or witness some very disturbing things.

Tonight's pilot introduces all the characters in a quick blur, then throws you
and them directly into combat in a foreign land. It's after that first
baptism of fire when the members of the unit are rewarded with an opportunity
to record a video e-mail to send back home that "Over There" really kicks into
a higher gear. And once it does that, it never turns back.

Here's Lizette Carrion as one member of the unit, a female soldier nicknamed
Doublewide. She's recording a video for her baby and husband back home and
what she doesn't tell them about the horrible details of her first battle is
just as meaningful as what she does say.

(Soundbite from "Over There")

Ms. LIZETTE CARRION: (As Esmeralda "Doublewide" Del Rio) Pooky, honey, this
is mommy. Are you doing what daddy says, honey? Are you being a good boy?
Mommy's at work and everything's fine. Everybody's OK and Mommy's doing a
good job so far. She's dirty and she smells bad and she's been eating food
tastes like Silly Putty, sweetheart, but in every other way, she's fine, and
she misses you and your daddy real bad.

BIANCULLI: It's a very small moment but a very telling one. "Over There" not
only gets you to know these characters as they engage in or recover from
combat, it gets you inside their heads, even inside their dreams and
nightmares. Erik Palladino, as the veteran nicknamed Sergeant Scream, is an
early standout among this large and largely unknown cast, but the entire
company of actors is impressive. Getting to know them all is part of the fun;
watching what happens to them is part of the tension.

There's also a lot of artistry at play, from the way the story lines are
rolled out episodically to the innovative way that the major credits and the
show's theme song come at the end of each episode, not the beginning. The
show works hard to create its own reality and doesn't even want to remind you
of its cast list until it's over. It's a gimmick, sure, but it works. And
believe me, "Over There," from episode two onward, is lean-forward,
hold-your-breath exciting. It's the kind of show you watch intensely and
can't shake for days afterward. In other words, it's terrific television.
Add it to your list of appointment TV shows and don't miss that appointment.

DAVIES: David Bianculli, guest TV critic for the New York Daily News.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Stephen Bochco discusses his upcoming TV show "Over
There"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Stephen Bochco, the co-creator of "Over There," is no stranger to controversy.
Before "NYPD Blue" even hit the air, it was under attack from Christian
evangelists for its language and violence. I spoke with Bochco yesterday
about making "Over There" and some of the sensitive issues it raises.

Well, Stephen Bochco, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. STEPHEN BOCHCO (Co-Creator, "Over There"): Thank you very much.

DAVIES: When you were first asked by FX to do a series about troops in Iraq,
what was your reaction?

Mr. BOCHCO: Initially, when FX asked me to do this show, I was reluctant
because I'd never been in the military, for one thing. And, of course, they
pointed out that I'd also never been a cop or a lawyer and...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. BOCHCO: ...I've have some success with those shows. So I thought that
was a legitimate comeback. But I think my real concern was that in such a
politically charged environment, I wasn't sure immediately how to go about
doing a dramatic show that wasn't, you know, a political position paper, if
you will. And I didn't want to do it under those circumstances because I've
always, for myself, personally believed that politics has no place in
entertainment.

DAVIES: So how did you resolve that issue and decide to go ahead?

Mr. BOCHCO: Well, as we talked about the idea, it very quickly, you know,
came to me that really like any good drama, you're talking about individuals
faced with crises, with conflict, with challenges and you know, for every
young man or woman in uniform in Iraq, there's a husband and a wife or a
mother or father, friends, loved ones, children, at home, frightened to death
for their loved ones in harm's way. And to the extent that you can frame the
drama not only from the point of view of those in the war but those at home,
you know, having to deal with the dislocation of their lives because their
loved ones are at war, you know, you have the framework for really complex,
interesting, very personal drama.

DAVIES: Right. This series really follows, I guess, about eight Army GIs and
their families, as they...

Mr. BOCHCO: That's correct.

DAVIES: ...cope with their experiences. Let's listen to a cut from episode
one of the new series, "Over There," and I'll explain to our audience
this--what's happening here is that this unit, which is brand-new to Iraq, is
quickly involved in a firefight where they're dug in behind a little mound,
battling with insurgents who have taken cover in a mosque, and the voice we
hear is that of the unit commander, who bears the nickname `Sergeant Scream.'
He's explaining what's happening to his green troops.

(Soundbite of "Over There")

Unidentified Man #1: We're awaiting orders. We're taking fire outside a
mosque. Looks like a goddamn storage unit in Tijuana, and instead of being
able to go in and blast the (censored) out of the bastards, we're dug in,
awaiting orders! You know why?

Unidentified Man #2: Why?

Unidentified Man #1: Because they got a goddamn Arab TV journalist in there
with them. Al-Jazeera's got us on the goddamn TV news right now. Understand?
You have any idea what that means? It means we're going to wait here, taking
fire for some general 75 miles away to make a decision about goddamn public
relations, about how it would look if we did this, or how it would look if we
did that! That sound like war to you?

DAVIES: And that's from the new series "Over There." The co-creator is my
guest, Stephen Bochco.

What did you do to get the feel of this subject, to provide the kind of detail
that would really give it the right setting?

Mr. BOCHCO: Well, I wish I could tell you that I went to Iraq and was
embedded with a combat unit there. I did not, nor did my collaborator,
co-creator, Chris Gerolmo. What we did do, which is what most responsible
writers, I think, do, is we did a tremendous amount of research, reading. We
located expert technical advice for ourselves. And if we do have any single
goal, ultimately it's that the men and women of our armed forces will look at
this show and say, `Yes,' you know, `there's a reality to what I'm seeing and
there's a reality to the spirit of what I'm seeing.'

DAVIES: What kind of advisers did you consult? Were there ex-military
people, were there...

Mr. BOCHCO: Well, we have a wonderful young staff sergeant, a Marine Corps
staff sergeant named Sean Bunch, who did two tours in Iraq, and he keeps us
pretty honest and he's got a group of young men who work with him who were all
in the armed forces, you know, who work on the show, and between them all, you
know, we get some pretty strong input about attitudes and on a more basic
level, just, you know, behavior and weaponry and stuff like that. And we also
have advisers, you know, about Iraqi culture, Arab culture in general, so that
over the course of a full season, we hope to do more with our Iraqi characters
than simply present them as, you know, the bad guys.

DAVIES: Was there--I'm wondering, when you consulted with Sergeant Bunch, can
you think of a--kind of a detail or something that really caught your eye or
ear that said, `Yeah, that really is going to help me--help us get this
right'?

Mr. BOCHCO: Well, it wasn't specifically with Sergeant Bunch, but on our
first day of preproduction, we were having a sort of a welcome back lunch for
cast and crew, and there was a television monitor in the corner of the room
and the pilot was--the first episode of the series was playing quietly. And
Sean Bunch and several of his guys were watching the show. And there's a
rather gruesome image in the show where an insurgent gets blown up and these
guys really reacted. They almost came to their feet, and said, `Yeah,' you
know, `I recognize that, and that weapon will do that,' and this and that.
And we started talking about how that kind of experience impacts on a
soldier's psyche. And one of these young guys said, `You know what? You
know, you don't think about that stuff.' He says, `You'll think about it when
you're talking to your shrink.' And I think what he meant by that and what
really made an impact on me is that when you're there and you're in battle,
the toughest times are the down times when you actually have time to think, and
the way that you survive those times is by not thinking. And what this young
man was saying was if you're lucky enough to get home alive, work out your
problems at that point.

DAVIES: Well, I read that there was a soldier's wife in Kentucky who has
initiated a protest campaign of sorts, and her complaints seem to be that the
images particularly if they are violent and graphic would be very upsetting
for family members who worry daily about what their servicemen and women are
facing in Iraq. How did you confront that issue?

Mr. BOCHCO: Well, I'm very respectful of that concern and, you know, the good
news is that, you know, this show is not, you know, a wolf in sheep's
clothing. I think everybody knows what this show is and people who feel that
they will have a problem watching this ought to avoid it. That said, no one
has ever said to me, `Don't do a police drama because there's an ongoing day
in and day out urban war that's being fought every day,' which arguably
victimizes thousands more people, you know, murder victims, rape victims,
assault, molestation, you name it. And, you know, we're minting fresh victims
in this country at an alarming rate and yet nobody is saying, `Gee, don't do a
cop show about that,' even though watching one of those cop shows might, in
fact, be very disturbing to people who've been recent victims of crime or who
have had loved ones who are recent victims of crime. I understand. I'm not
cavalier about it at all. I understand that those things can be very
upsetting and what I would simply say to that woman or to any individual who
feels that this material may be too close to home, `Don't watch it.'

DAVIES: My guest is Stephen Bochco. He is the co-creator and executive
producer of the new drama "Over There."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Stephen Bochco. He is the Emmy Award-winning
producer of "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and other programs. His new
project is "Over There." It's about an American combat troop in Iraq.

I want to play another cut from "Over There." This is in episode two and it's
a moment at which the Army unit which we're following has lost a soldier and
the replacement has arrived, and to the surprise of some of the GIs, he's
actually an Arab-American.

(Soundbite from "Over There"; vehicle)

Unidentified Actor #1: AFC Tariq from Syria reporting for duty, Sergeant.

Unidentified Actor #2: Say what? You've got that Arab?

(Soundbite of vehicle)

Unidentified Actor #2: Yo, man, are you Arab?

Unidentified Actor #1: I'm an American.

Unidentified Actor #2: You know what I mean, man. Where your people from?

Unidentified Actor #1: Detroit.

DAVIES: That's from the series "Over There," co-produced and co-created by my
guest Stephen Bochco.

You know, in your career, you were noted for being willing to take on racial
issues in your cop dramas and this is an interesting kind of element of some
of the story lines we see here in this particular episode. You find that the
guy who's particularly nasty and suspicious of the American is a black soldier
and the guy who's friendly and welcoming him is a white guy who happens to
have an Ivy League education. Are there racial issues you wanted to explore
as these story lines develop?

Mr. BOCHCO: I think in any working environment, there are always racial
issues, you know, between blacks and whites, blacks and Arabs, whites and
Arabs, Arabs and Arabs. I just think that exists almost everywhere you go.
If you look at Iraq and you look at all the different, you know, religious
factions and the conflicts within those groups, you know, it's just a fact of
life, no matter where you are or who you're dealing with. And so when you're
doing a drama about a group of men and women in sort of a military environment
or in the case of a cop show perhaps, you know, a paramilitary environment,
you're always going to have those kinds of tensions. And rather than turn
your back on them, pretend they don't exist, I find it's very interesting to
dramatize those and to let those tensions play out in the context of a show as
people begin to learn about each other little by little, incrementally bond to
the point where they become a cohesive team.

DAVIES: You've done three episodes that we've seen. Have you taken any of
the story lines directly from tales that you've heard from veterans of Iraq?

Mr. BOCHCO: Not directly. Not yet. You know, my experience with these shows
is that in the first season of the new show, the stories tend to really come
very easily. They tend to suggest themselves fairly easily. Everybody's
fresh. Everybody has ideas. None of us have done nine different versions of
this in the past, but as time goes on, the value of specific incidents and
anecdotes really increases, you know, so that you don't find yourself doing
the same thing over and over again.

DAVIES: And, you know, you've spent so much time talking to vets, immersing
yourself in this project. I'm wondering since you've been involved in
producing this series about Iraq, do you look at the news that you see from
Iraq with a different kind of insight or sensibility?

Mr. BOCHCO: I don't know if I look at it so much with a different insight or
sensibility. I just look at it more. I look at it more specifically. I'm
struck in ways that I wasn't before by how many stories I see in the paper
that are similar stories we've already done on the show, you know, which
actually is a good sign for me. It tells us that, you know, our story
sensibilities are pretty accurate. So I don't read that stuff casually and it
really is because of the show that we're doing I pay very close attention.

DAVIES: I hear you're working on a new series about minor-league baseball,
right?

Mr. BOCHCO: Under the heading of, `Keep doing it until you get it right, I
guess.' You know, years and years ago, I did a one-hour drama about
minor-league baseball which is right up there with "Cop Rock" in how long it
lasted, you know, but I think one of the problems with that show was that the
subject wouldn't support a one-hour dramatic treatment of it whereas I think a
half-hour comedy about minor-league baseball is a good marriage of form to
content. And so I'm looking forward to doing it very much.

DAVIES: Well, Stephen Bochco, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. BOCHCO: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: TV producer and writer Stephen Bochco. His series "Over There"
debuts on FX tonight. You can see clips from episodes of "Over There" through
our Web site freshair.npr.org.

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Coming up, an interview from our archives with Edward Bunker. The
ex-convict-turned-writer has died at the age of 71. His debut novel was
published while he was still in prison and was the basis for the film
"Straight Time." That led to writing and acting work in Hollywood, including
the role of Mr. Blue in the Quentin Tarantino film "Reservoir Dogs." Also,
jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD from tenor sax player Bob
Feldman.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Bob Feldman's "Triplicity"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Tenor saxophonist Bob Feldman was born in New York and lived in San Francisco
in the 1970s. He recorded with the rock band Sopwith Camel, had a bit part
in Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Conversation" and wrote music for
playwright Sam Shepard before heading back East. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead
likes Feldman's recent trio CD and his drummer, in particular.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

Tenor saxophonist Bob Feldman and bassist Ken Filiano gyrating on Feldman's
tune "Further Notice." It's from his CD "Triplicity," on the One Soul label,
a record less about tricky pieces than giving the players plenty of room to
run. The trio's starter pistol is drummer Walter Perkins, making what's said
to be his final appearance on record a year before he died in 2004.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Drummer Walter Perkins came up in the 1950s in Chicago where he
co-led a crisp hard-bop quintet, the MJT+3; MJT being the Modern Jazz Two,
Perkins and bassist Bob Cranshaw. In 1960, they moved to New York where the
band proved too good for its own good. It disbanded after its members kept
getting scarfed up by other leaders. Bob Cranshaw began his long-running
association with Sonny Rollins back then.

In New York, Walter Perkins recorded with Charles Mingus, Carmen McRae,
Rahsaan Roland Kirk and others before fading from the scene. He returned in
the new millennium, backing free-jazz stalwarts like bassist William Parker
and saxophone dynamo Peter Brotzmann, but Perkins was no basher. His art was
about a fleet rhythm feel, not showing off power chops.

On the track "Triplicity," a light attack on snare drum and ride cymbal is all
he needs to swing the trio. That frees up Ken Filiano to pick up the bow and
make his bass sing almost like a horn.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: On tenor sax, Bob Feldman's burly tone and swaggering rhythm are
conspicuous assets. He even gets a good sound on the bamboo flute he trots
out from time to time, breathing life into old blues licks.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: The flute numbers aside, Feldman's extroverted tenor sax and the
bare-bones trio format inevitably echo vintage Sonny Rollins. Bob Feldman's
not that good. Nobody is. And "Triplicity" is a little uneven. It doesn't
always maintain the razor sharp focus of its best moments, but its exuberant
spirit is a fitting memorial to Walter Perkins, an old master who made every
band sound like it was having a good time.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American studies at the
University of Kansas and he's a jazz columnist for EMusic.com. He reviewed
"Triplicity" on the One Soul label.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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