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Dead Tree Alert: Army Wives, Mad Men

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My Culture Complex column this week looks at how Lifetime’s hit Army Wives has managed to deal with the impact of a war that’s still being fought, even though two years ago, the Steven Bochco Iraq drama Over There had people in a tizzy:

The analysis was that it was too risky to dramatize a war in which people were still dying. Yet when Army Wives ran up the flagpole, nearly 4 million viewers a week saluted. Why? It’s studiously apolitical–“Their battle goes beyond politics, beyond religion, race or gender,” a wife says about soldiers now at war–but so was Over There. It’s soapy, but Over There was too, with affairs and home-base family dramas along with the IED blasts.

Army Wives, created by Katherine Fugate, may be more effective precisely because it’s a domestic drama on the network “for women”–the same reason, perhaps, that it hasn’t been taken seriously enough to be controversial. There is something a little obvious–a little male, maybe–about assuming that telling truths about war has to mean showing battle.

It might seem strange for me to do a column on Army Wives when I panned it just a few weeks ago. But for that matter I didn’t think Over There was very good either. What interests me is why these two military dramas–which actually have pretty similar dramatic flaws–have been received so differently. [By the way, coming up on July 22 is Spike’s The Kill Point, an eight-episode series about an Iraq veteran who takes hostages in a bank robbery–the war coming home in a different, and distinctly more testosterone-y, way.]

The most obvious part of a critic’s job is judging whether something is good or bad, but that’s often the least interesting and the least useful. It’s more challenging and fruitful to look at why a show works or doesn’t, what its ideas and assumptions are, and what its reception says about the audience. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

That said, I also did some plain old is-it-good-or-is-it-bad reviewing this week, a Downtime page blurb about AMC’s advertising drama Mad Men. (Spoiler: It’s good.)