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E-Ring: What If They Had A War and Nobody Watched?

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E-Ring, NBC’s new drama about the Pentagon, debuts at 9 p.m. tonight. As it’s scheduled against ABC powerhouse Lost, there is every likelihood it will be canceled by 9:15. But it’s worth looking at, anyway, if only as a case study in how TV can take a fascinating subject and work really hard to make it as boring as possible.

There’s the monumentally undescriptive title, of course, which sounds like something you need to fix your bathroom faucet. There’s the casting: handsome, dull Benjamin Bratt as an idealistic Pentagon staffer, opposite Dennis Hopper, playing yet another baby-boom cliche (here, the ex-’60s-child turned authority figure). There’s the fact that the show, however sexy the military is, it’s about bureaucrats—which means that, in the pilot, when it comes time for a unit in the field to spring into action, the stars have to monitor the action remotely. Yes, sir, there’s no more riveting TV than watching someone listen to a radio.

But here’s the real problem. The show is set in the Pentagon. Is the Pentagon engaged in any interesting activities right now? Any action, say, in a Middle Eastern country starting with an "I"? (No, not that one. Not yet, anyway.) Well, you’d never know it from watching the pilot, which deals with a standoff with… China. Now I’m no political scientist. I don’t discount China as a growing potential adversary. And it would be fine to make it a heavy if the show were set in, say, 2015. But focusing on it as opposed to Iraq—or North Korea, or stateless terrorism—is not just gutless, it’s bad entertainment. Who’s the next enemy? France? Japan? The Austro-Hungarian Empire? 

Of course, start writing scripts about Iraq, where we’re actually fighting a war, and you risk offending people. And that violates a big-network rule: God forbid you should engage your audience with a topic they actually care about. I had my problems with FX’s melodramatic Iraq drama Over There, but at least it set out to get viewers involved. The only passionate question E-Ring will have you asking is, "Is it too late to turn Lost on?"