'Army Wives': It's like your life, only better

Kim DelaneyThe Army Wives fanbase is getting restless. Here now, a quickie smattering of reader comments from the last two episodes:

"Too forced." ... "It seriously is forcing the drama too much." ... "The story lines are getting ridiculous." ... "We're already in overload." ... "Enough with the over-dramatics." ... "Seems so forced it's coming off as horribly fake and played purely for shock value." ... "Now it is just a bad soap opera with no thread to reality left." ... "This season you can almost forget about reality." ... "Beat us all over the head with over-the-top dramatics." ... "This is beyond soap opera. It's a caricature and it's almost absurd." ... "This show used to be so much better."

So what's the problem here? Everybody's up in arms about the sudden abundance of melodrama, but isn't TV supposed to be about high drama? Isn't the bulk of TV drama predicated on larger-than-life situations and tense conflicts that are supposed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats? So why does an uptick in tense drama on Army Wives correlate to an angry fanbase? Isn't intense drama what people want?

To get to the heart of that question, we have to take a step back. This isn't just a question about what Army Wives viewers want. What we really need to ask first is what television viewers in general want. The predominant school of thought in the television industry is to think of TV as an escapist medium. The majority of the viewing audience looks to the shiny box as a diversion from everyday life. And that's even more true than usual in times of war and times of a crappy economy - in other words, now. In harsh economic times, viewers just don't gravitate to shows that try to depict reality, because ... well, because reality kinda sucks for many people these days.

Marketers and economists often speak of the concept of "aspirational brands." These are brands that most people can't regularly afford, but which they wish they could afford. In the entertainment industry, aspirational branding is most commonly manifested in magazines - think GQ or Esquire on the men's side, Glamour or Vogue on the women's side. If you were to read through one of those magazines, both content and advertisements, you'd think the target audience for the magazine was super-rich people. After all, only super-rich people could actually afford to live the kind of lifestyle modeled in those pages. But the target audience isn't really rich people in those cases; it's the larger audience of people who wish they could live that sort of lifestyle.

Most television works in the same way. It's not the life you have; it's the life you wish you had. Chances are you're not a super-intelligent detective who solves every case, or a hero with supernatural abilities, or somebody with supermodel looks who has regular flings with other people with supermodel looks, or part of a rich family dynasty that can throw a lavish party every week. But those shows dominate television because the viewing audience dreams of how great such a life would be. And in those rare cases where a show is predicated on "normal" people - a show like Army Wives - there's a constant urge to glam it up. It's not enough to tell stories about normal people; you need to tell stories about normal people in glamorous and thrilling situations.

But none of this is exactly breaking news. So why is the Army Wives audience so turned off by this kind of storytelling, when it seems to be the normal course of action everywhere else on TV? It's my belief that the answer lies in the fact that Army Wives is a unique show in that its core audience is the same population as the people it depicts. Perhaps no other show on TV has that type of symbiosis where the characters depicted on the show reflect the core constituency watching the show. "Chiefs of medicine at major hospitals" are not the core audience of House. "Burned former spies" are not the core audience of Burn Notice. "Escaped prisoners" are not the core audience of Prison Break. And so on and so on. But military families are such a vital part of the core audience of Army Wives.

That's what separates Army Wives from most other shows on TV. That's why it's so important that the writers of Army Wives make an effort to "get it right." And that's why viewers react negatively to over-the-top storylines. If Army Wives goes overboard on stories, they're not just being annoying and too much like every other show on TV. They're being downright offensive, in that they're coming right out and saying that the real lives of their core viewers just aren't interesting enough. And there's a trickle-down effect in play, in that even viewers who are not themselves from military families see other such viewers as opinion leaders. Lots of shows go way over-the-top in the realism of storylines - given enough time, pretty much every show is bound to do so at some point. But Army Wives viewers will be angrier about it than viewers of other shows, because realism is simply more important to the Army Wives audience than on most shows. For these viewers, real life is not something to mess around with.

So this episode? This was a very nice change of pace from the chaos of the last few weeks. It's probably unlikely that this heralds some kind of sea change in the overall tone of the show - some further giant trauma is probably inevitable leading up to the end of the season - but this was a welcome refresher, a reminder that there was a reason people were able to relate to these characters in the first place.

Sterling K. BrownWhat I especially enjoyed about this episode, aside from its lack of overdone melodrama, is that it went back to what I've said is my #1 draw of the series, its ability to depict a really close community that is very unlike what you can find elsewhere on TV. Several of this episode's plotlines deal with the concept of perception and judgment within that close community. Denise for the first time realizes how her recent actions may be judged by the larger community, Roland deals with his personal and professional identity and the fact that it conflicts with traditional roles, and the arrival on post of a new Army wife sends shockwaves through the natural order.

The general theme of this community is that these people are united by their shared experience, and so they will always have each other's back. Of course, the real truth is a little trickier than that - there is backstabbing, gossiping, and cliquishness as well. Maybe that community can't always be trusted with everything. It's no coincidence that while the last episode ended with Roxy and her friends, this time Roxy ends the episode with a group of anonymous strangers at a support group for family members of addicts.

Roxy only gets there at the end, but Trevor is there from the start. Trevor has dutifully begun going to his own addiction support group meetings, without voicing a single complaint about it. Trevor's in pretty good shape here in this episode. Roxy, on the other hand, struggles. The recent stress of Trevor's ordeal, combined with her regular responsibilities with the bar and with the kids, eat away at her both mentally and physically, until she finally snaps one night at Betty's.

"I know. I was over the top," Roxy admits later, perhaps speaking not just for herself but on behalf of the entire show over the last several episodes. Roland puts on his psychiatrist's hat and tells Roxy that she should get some help of her own. Trevor had actually mentioned a support group for families at the beginning of the episode, but Roxy wasn't listening then. But after talking things through with Roland, Roxy goes to her own meeting at the end of the episode.

Roland's dealing with his own issues. His mother arrives in town, and that hasn't worked out all that well when it's been Roxy's mom and Claudia Joy's mom arriving. Vivian Burton is a controlling mother, and she immediately starts taking charge of how to handle the baby. It's not that Joan was having any trouble - she's out of the hospital and calm, happy and quickly getting used to the motherhood thing herself - but Mrs. Burton is just pretty controlling.

She's also pretty old-school, and she starts browbeating Roland about an issue which will always linger below the surface in the Burton clan. Mrs. B declares that the husband is supposed to be the breadwinner in a family and the wife is supposed to raise the children, but Roland has always sacrificed his career for Joan's. Vivian proceeds to passive-aggressively note that Roland is wasting his medical school education for the duration of the episode.

The whole issue of whether Roland is really sacrificing his career and underachieving may never really go away. But Roland is content with his life's choices, and by the end of the episode he's back feeling comfortable about everything. The ability to help Roxy went a long way towards that, as Roland knows that he doesn't have to sit in an office to be a really helpful therapist to people he cares about. Joan also tells him that even though Vivian may not always show it, she certainly respects and admires what her son has become. Every time Roland helps somebody out, it's a reflection of his own mother's wisdom and compassion.

There's not a whole lot happening with Pamela here in this episode. Chase arrives back in town, and Pamela immediately tells him everything about her recent ordeal. Their only conflict is Chase trying to be protective and telling Pamela to lay low, something Pamela is not necessarily going to be good at. But I doubt that Pamela or Chase need to worry about any new danger situations. If Pamela is put in peril again before the end of the season, I'd be willing to bet that it's an old demon coming back to the surface, like a re-emergence of "Tim"/Dean or a reappearance of that gun that Pamela acquired.

Meanwhile, Claudia Joy inadvertently tips Michael off to Denise's semi-affair with Getti, and Michael is aghast. Michael calls it the deepest betrayal that a person could do to somebody serving overseas. "He's over there risking his life ... you know how I feel about this," Michael huffs to Claudia Joy. We're not seeing firsthand how all of this is affecting Frank, but at least via Michael we're able to get a little bit of a glimpse of insight into what Frank's current mental state is probably like.

And knowing that Michael is our arbiter of moral authority around these parts, if he reacts so disgustedly to Denise, we can only imagine how others in the post community would react. Claudia Joy tells Denise that she needs to be ready for that sort of possible backlash. Not that many people will know the truth, hopefully, but if the truth does start to trickle out, people could have some very nasty reactions. Denise decides to stand up for herself to Michael. This was a strange scene; I just don't see generally timid Denise being confrontational with Michael, the post's commanding officer, under any circumstances. Maybe this is supposed to be a reflection of the "new Denise," but it was a little jarring. Mind you, it's no less jarring than what happens at the end of the episode, as Denise decides to get a tattoo. At least she gets a couple of Sanskrit characters, rather than Chinese characters. With the series creeping toward overwrought clich és of late, there are few worse clich és than getting a tattoo of Chinese symbols.

Mayte GarciaIn the episode's most interesting development, there's a new arrival on post. The hated Evan Connor has a wife, but she is only now arriving at Fort Marshall, as she's a career woman who had to spend time wrapping up loose ends at her old location before moving. The character is welcome under any circumstances. I've actually been wondering for a while whether Evan had an Army wife of his own. It has to be such a very different experience for this Army wife in comparison with the Army wives we have come to know. Everybody else has this common experience to bond over, the shared experience of fear when spouses go abroad, but Jennifer Connor would never share in that experience, since Evan has never gone off to war. You have to imagine that it would be impossible for Jennifer to ever bond with other women on post in the way that the primary characters on the show do. Her experience as an Army wife is just totally different from what everybody else goes through. For that reason alone, I'm fascinated by this new character, because she represents a completely different model of what an Army wife might look like after we've spent the better part of two seasons getting this other idea.

If Joan inherently distrusts Evan because he's a career soldier who's never actually gone to battle, then it stands to reason that family members might distrust the Connor family as well. They're just not "one of us." There is a definite cliquishness to life on post. People accept their peers, but they also might not be so welcoming of outsiders who don't share the same experiences.

It's noteworthy that nobody voices such skepticism of Jennifer at the beginning. In fact, there's no hate-by-association going on at all. Given Evan's prickly nature, you might wonder if people would automatically not like Jennifer. But instead, none of the other wives really seem to have any feelings one way or the other about Evan - Joan obviously keeps her dislike of him limited to Roland and occasionally Michael, which certainly makes sense with Joan's character. But because Joan is not a gossiper, it means nobody else on the post really knows anything about what kind of guy Evan is.

But everyone on post quickly forms opinions about Jennifer, because the other wives are far more loose-lipped than Joan. The gossip industry, a dimension to post life which hasn't been seen all that much this season, roars back into high gear. Everybody instantly starts sharing their opinions about Jennifer and whether or not they like the new girl. There's a little bit of cattiness going on here, but that's OK. It's not really positive, but it's normal and realistic to think that people are talking about the new girl behind her back. It's just what people do.

Somebody like Jennifer would never be in the FRG, I would have assumed, given that Jennifer might be shunned by the other women. But no - the women might talk about her behind her back, but that doesn't matter because Jennifer's a take-charge leader who wants to be out in front of everybody anyway. It turns out that Jennifer was actually the leader of the FRG at her old post. And Jennifer immediately makes her presence known in Claudia Joy's FRG. Jennifer suggests a fundraising calendar of Hot Army Wives, but the conservative Claudia Joy tampers the idea down from something sexy to suggesting that they show whole families and slice-of-life shots. So that's the calendar that the group ultimately goes with. But Jennifer continues to rock the boat afterward, telling Roxy and Pamela how she understands that Claudia Joy has a vice grip over everyone else and nobody seems to ever question the den mother.

Claudia Joy organizes a photo shoot for the slice-of-life calendar, which is bizarre in that the scene is backed by the Decemberists' song "16 Military Wives." It's a good song, but did the people picking the music on this show ever actually read the lyrics to it? That song is a total condemnation of war and the prominence of the military in American culture. It would seem to be the least appropriate song ever to play on this show. In any case, Jennifer organizes a competing calendar of women in glamour shots. Roxy, Denise, and especially Pamela consider it to be an act of war, with Jennifer betraying their beloved leader Claudia Joy. This sets up an interesting little endgame for the end of the season, with Jennifer and Evan Connor, the pseudo-villains who are opposing our main characters. Neither Jennifer nor Evan are really villains, a few flaws in their people skills notwithstanding, but they both embody a change from the way people think post life is supposed to be. Evan and Jennifer are both nontraditionalists doing things their own way, and rocking the boat in doing so.

Unlike Claudia Joy's FRG, we appreciate the contributions of everyone here. What did you think? What's your instant reaction to Jennifer, and how do you think things will play out between her, Evan, and the other characters? Is Michael's proxy argument for what Frank is going through enough, or do we actually need to see Frank? Are you surprised that Joan seems to have taken so smoothly to motherhood? Doesn't Roxy deserve to scream at some drunk frat boys from time to time? And what about the larger question? In tough times such as these, do you gravitate toward more escapist entertainment on TV, or do you want shows to better reflect reality, no matter how bleak or mundane real life may be?

P.S.: Here's my own little aspirational branding message. I aspire to the hope that you will join me for discussions of Eleventh Hour on Zap2it starting Thursday. The subject matter couldn't be any more different from what we talk about on Army Wives, but we'll have the same type of discussions going.

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