The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is coming up in two months, and there will be no shortage of tributes and specials designed to remind us how far we have or haven’t come since then. (I just received screeners for the final season of Rescue Me, one of the signal post-9/11 series, which is timing its finale to the anniversary.) But in a weird way, maybe the most significant sign on TV of how much has changed over the decade is Combat Hospital, airing on ABC this summer.
Once upon a time, it was shocking to set a TV show amid a war that the U.S. was presently fighting; the war on terror gave a frisson to 24, and FX’s short-lived Over There scandalized some people by showing death in Iraq while soldiers were dying in Iraq. But Combat Hospital has accomplished what a few years ago I would have thought impossible: it has made the dramatizing of an ongoing war boring.
Set in an international medical unit in Afghanistan, the drama is essentially a generic hospital show that happens to be set in the theater of a present-day war. (Albeit an earlier time in that war; the season takes place in 2006.) Yes, there’s combat drama and trauma, but—compared with, say, M*A*S*H four decades years ago—the bigger-picture complications and controversies of the war are not the centerpiece. You might think that the reason for the show’s tepidity is that an American network and American producers want to steer clear of offending American viewers’ sensibilities. But Combat Hospital is actually a Canadian production, its characters drawn from Canada, the U.S. and other allied countries.
Instead, the otherwise unremarkable show seems most remarkable as evidence that the war has become just another setting for a “doctors in _____ setting” premise. Through the journey from 9/11 to 24 to Army Wives, the representation of the war has been normalized, to the point where here, Afghanistan is more or less scenery and local color, like Latin America in Shonda Rhimes’ Off the Map from last season. (In fact, Hospital, which feels like a watered-down, less witty Rhimes show in many ways, could have used her touch.) You could move the setting anywhere in the world and not lose most of the core conflicts—say, last night’s subplot about the planning of a morale party for the unit.
In itself, Combat Hospital is so lukewarm that it doesn’t bear a lot of attention, but it’s at least interesting as proof of a TV principle. In primetime, history repeats: first as tragedy, then as scenery.