So first, a full disclaimer.
I did not see the first season of Lifetime's ratings juggernaut, Army Wives. Like most women who watch television with a critical eye, and I like to think we're a rare breed -- especially in this post-Desperate Housewives television landscape -- I see a large female-ensemble cast now and immediately cringe. If Housewives was a domestic rip-off of Sex and the City, then Army Wives -- with its Botoxed 40-something cast of familiar faces, looking way too 30-something for its own good (but we'll get to that later) -- must be another sad imitation of SATC, this time with army barracks to house their malaise instead of Carrie's apartment, and man problems centered not on "He didn't call," but "He may not be coming home. Ever." My callous heart, for whatever reason -- maybe too much death in the news? -- didn't even want to give Army Wives a chance.
But it's back for a second season, and a clear ratings winner for Lifetime (which you may know it better by its full name: "The Meredith Baxter-Birney and Tori Spelling Network for Women in Peril"). I mean, heck, among female viewers, it even outranked my favorite show of last year, Mad Men, which I thought it was one of the most cleverly disguised feminist works of art in recent memory.
So, blame our forthcoming July 4th holiday, but I decided to dip my toe into season 2 of Army Wives with an open mind because, well, it's my patriotic duty to at least give the show a chance, right?
Well, after sitting through the first three eps of season 2, I can say now with some authority say that it's as bad as I expected.
One, I simply can't get past the notion that I'm watching a scripted drama on Lifetime. What is it about this network that drapes every frame of its movies and shows with a strange Barbara-Walters-fuzzy-lens-sheen that makes everything seem like it was shot in some sketchy soundstage in Ottawa? Call me snobby, but production value ranks high on my list of reasons to keep tuning into a show, even when I'm bored out of my mind (paging J.J. Abrams ).
Two, the show is set on an Army Base in South Carolina, yet none of the characters actually looks like she's living on an Army Base in South Carolina. Kim Delaney, long a favorite of mine since her NYPD Blue tenure, is so waxy and plumped up, it's all I can do to not think, "My God... those lips. I can't look away!" And Catherine Bell, that erstwhile JAG-sexpot, well, is simply too hot for Army life. I mean, it's not to say I need my army wives missing teeth or anything, but a little earthiness would be nice. Felicity Huffman infuses more "real woman" believability in one scene of (the otherwise fantastical) Housewives than I saw in any of Army's wives, all of whom are actually pretty darn solid actors.
Three, and this is one that really gets me, is that this show, and Lifetime, had a real opportunity to get to the heart of the agonizing monotony of being the ones left behind. And to its credit, this season is touching on compelling subjects beyond the obvious (pregnant officers considering abortion, for one), but it has such a soapy approach, and has drawn such melodramatic and cliched portraits of its protagonists (the abused one! the drinker! the poor one!), that the show is distracting itself from what should be the real conceit.
It's the simple notion that the bonds between women are strong enough to sustain anything.
And for a network that was founded on this notion, Lifetime would have been wise to adopt a grittier approach and a more believable cast. But since it's too late for that, I guess all we can hope for this show is that its basic message -- that we are still at war and profound suffering isn't limited to those wearing the uniforms -- is transmitted and received loud and clear by a public that, clearly, still cares.