By: Emily YahrThe Washington PostIt had been years since TV had taken a chance on a military comedy, but in 2014, there was “Enlisted“. The new series – which aired Fridays at 9:30 p.m. on FOX — was about a sergeant (Geoff Stults) who messes up while serving in Afghanistan, and is sent back stateside to a small Army post in Florida where his two younger brothers (Chris Lowell, Parker Young) are stationed. Of course, the sibling trio is surrounded by a group of lovable misfits and wacky situations.
What was different about this Army series? It was set at a rear detachment unit (“Rear D”) where, as Stults’s character complains, “Those guys aren’t even soldiers!” But as he learns, though Rear D’s main tasks are to maintain the base and support families of deployed soldiers, it’s still a very important job — even if your top priority of the day is finding a family’s lost puppy.
Though the pilot caught some flak for mistakes (for example, it’s called a Bradley, not a tank), there are military advisers on set every day to help in future episodes. Producers screened the comedy across the country for veterans, and have heard lots of positive feedback from members of the military. That’s likely because, as the actors have been reminded by real-life soldiers, despite a brutal job, “You still laugh, you still tell jokes, you have fun, you goof off,” Lowell said. “It’s nice to remind people that your humanity still exists.”
Stults, Lowell and Young recently visited The Post newsroom, where they talked with TV critic Hank Stuever and Style writer Emily Yahr about the reaction from veterans; why it’s been so long since there’s been a military comedy; and the tale of four very long days at a boot camp in Texas to train for the roles. Here are some excerpts:
(This interview transcript has been edited and condensed.)
On the show finding a balance between ridiculous humor and genuine emotion:
Lowell: One thing that [creator Kevin Biegel] does … is put the heart into the show. He’s that guy. He doesn’t swear, he says things like “knucklehead” and “you dummy.” He’s like an “Archie” comic … It’s great because there will be episodes that seem like, “This is too cheesy.” Then we’ll start shooting and it feels pretty powerful.
Stults: [The writers and producers] have done a great job when it wasn’t clear they were going to go that direction. They’ve done a great job of going for the funny, trying to respect that we are portraying men and women in uniform, and then also trying to find a balance with the heart and dynamic between the three of us.
On the reaction when military members hear the comedy is set at Rear D:
Lowell: What’s crazy is when we’re talking to soldiers, and they’re like, “So, what’s this show about? Is it about rangers?” And we say, “No, it’s about the Rear D.” All of them are just, like, agog. You watch and they’re like, “What? You’re doing a show about Rear D?”
Stults: “Those dudes?”
Lowell: I mean, there is definitely a reputation within the army.
Stults: … It’s interesting, what we did learn, and it’s cliché to say, but there’s no job in the army that’s more important than the other. It’s all part of the machine.
Lowell: We were worried when people find out it’s a comedy, soldiers would get a little bit –
Stults: And it was the other way, like “Oh! You know what, you gotta try this, try this.” Everybody had an idea.
On the trio going to boot camp in El Paso, Tex., to prepare for the roles:
Lowell: I think we were under the impression that boot camp was sort of going to be “actor’s boot camp.” They said, “Here’s what’s going to happen. We’ve got a hotel, and in the morning, we’re going to do exercises. In the afternoon we’re going to do history of the army, we’ll meet and greet. And then at 6 p.m. we’re off the clock.”
Stults: Go into town, buy some drinks at the bar with some soldiers, shake some hands, take some pictures.
Lowell: So then we show up – and literally, that was the itinerary that the producers had created – and there’s this military consultant.
Stults: He just did this: (tears a piece of paper in half)Lowell: We’re doing one-liners, trying to be funny: “Let’s get a bite! Who’s thirsty? Who wants a drink?” Literally, they take all of our stuff. They’re like, “Empty your contraband!” … They take our phones, they take everything, they put them in black garbage bags, throw them in a van that drives away. Then we put on PT gear and start doing push-ups.
Stults: And it was for four days. That’s another part of the boot camp experience, there’s 40,000 people at this base, it’s a city. And two percent of them knew about this, that we were there.
Lowell: Bear in mind, we’re in uniform, in the chow hall like anybody else. People are coming up being like, “You gotta get to the (expletive) barber, your hair is not to code.”
Stults: There’s no way to explain to some guy that doesn’t know about our TV show, “Oh no, I’m actually not supposed to be here.”
On keeping military details realistic:
Lowell: I think for [Kevin Biegel] who worked on “Scrubs,” which is obviously a broad comedy about hospitals and doctors – more often than not, people often refer to that show as being the most medically accurate. Ironically, even though it’s a big, broad comedy, they got it right. And I think Kevin really takes that as a point of pride. So for us, when it came to the military, especially after the pilot, that was something that was like anytime we can get it right, we have to get it right. That became a priority to him.
Stults: If we watch the pilot, if we see scenes from it, we’re like, “Whoa, that’s rough,” in terms of military things. It’s the small stuff.
Lowell: Like, how my jacket’s unzipped.
Stults: Things you would never think about until we went to boot camp.
Lowell: And they make sure you know every little detail.
Stults: It was Kevin’s idea, about a month ago we put together a video where I just say in a nutshell, “Look, I know we got a lot of things wrong in the pilot, we made great efforts to fix those in future episodes but we want to be held accountable. Watch our pilot, see if you can spot our snafus.” Like, our hair, or who calls a Bradley a tank. We got 15,000 responses on that.
On why it’s been decades since someone has made a military comedy for television:
Stults: I think people were afraid to.
Lowell: In a post-9/11 world, there’s such a sensitivity and fear around mocking or laughing at any sort of public service – I think that’s part of why Kevin is so hell-bent on making sure the military know we’re laughing with them, not at them.
On an unexpected perk of being on this show:
Lowell: I think the thing I loved about it, the one thing that boot camp reminded me of, is that I do not have what it takes to be a soldier.
Stults: Aww, no way.
Young: There’s very little creativity.
Lowell: But also just the experience alone of having that vantage point is one of the rewards of what we do for a living. A civilian calling an army base and being like, “Hey, can I go through the ropes with you guys for a few days?” So it’s great to have that that experience.
Stults: (laughs) “Can I go through the ropes with you guys? I got a couple days off.”
Lowell: “Just ignore me, we’re going to have a great time.”
Stults: “Trying to drop a couple from the holidays…”
On whether soldiers could really get away with couch surfing on the back of an Army vehicle, like characters do in the pilot:
Stults: Would that happen? They do whatever they get away with. These are long, monotonous days. They play when they get the chance.
Young: And you can’t get away with much. So they’ll even find ways to wear their hair, like, “I gotta have this, but I can get this an inch longer…”Stults: They say, “You have to follow the rules if you don’t know how to break them right.” If you’re an idiot, you’re going to get in trouble for this. But if you do it right – I mean, we’re not talking about escaping. They just all find the way to bend the rules and make the day a little bit better.