Judge Daniel MacDonald thought this was a character drama about a condo complex—boy, was he wrong!
Covert warriors. Unsung heroes.
Created by writer/director David Mamet (Glengarry, Glen Ross) and executive producer Shawn Ryan (The Shield), The Unit proves itself one of the most intense, clever, and addictive shows currently on television. Its mix of frontline military espionage and home-front domestic drama explores the nooks and crannies of life as part of an elite and secret cadre, illuminating character through action rather than explanation. With each episode, we see a different talent set put to use with confidence and unflagging attention to detail, often with dire consequences at stake. Sounds like compelling television—does the execution live up to the concept?
Facts of the Case
Members of the 303rd Logistical Studies Group are desk-bound enlisted men who work standard hours and come home to their wives and girlfriends each night safe and sound.
Fortunately for us, that's just a cover. Those on the inside know that these men are actually a super-elite counter-terrorism unit, performing covert missions of a clandestine nature that often border on saving the world, never able to take credit for, or even admit to, their involvement.
While this is tough on the men of The Unit, it's almost tougher on their wives, who know very little about what their husbands do all day, and what they do know they can't talk about with anyone. It's for everyone's safety, but that doesn't make it easier when their husbands keep disappearing with no notice and no set return time.
We follow Alpha Team, made up of Bob (Scott Foley, Felicity), Mack (Max Martini, The Great Raid), Charles (Michael Irby, Flightplan), Hector (Demore Barnes, Relic Hunter), and their leader Jonas (Dennis Haysbert, 24), all operating under the command of Colonel Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick, Copland). Their missions involve both domestic and global concerns, but the stakes are always uniformly high. Bob's the new man in the team, and we learn a lot about The Unit's dynamics through his trial and error.
On the home front, Bob's wife Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson, Moonlight Mile) struggles to adjust to life now that her husband has achieved his dream job. More or less forced to live 'on base', despite her early protests, Kim learns that the wives have to stick together for the sake of their marriages and their sanity. Her supporters include Mack's wife Tiffy (Abby Brammell, Six Feet Under), and Jonas' wife Molly (Regina Taylor, The Negotiator), who acts as an informal leader of the group.
It's an intense, violent, and unpredictable world, and The Unit's missions range from a rescue effort in Afghanistan to defusing a bomb in Atlanta. Spread across four discs:
• First Responders
The Unit: Season One gets us up to speed rather quickly as to the world of the show; before we even see the opening credits of the first episode, the team completes an intense mission with explosive results in Afghanistan. From there, we see just how secretive this group is, as they are involved in ending a terrorist hijacking while disregarding the protestations of other law enforcement officials on the scene, who eventually take the credit anyway. Meanwhile, Kim Brown is surprised to discover, with the help of Molly, how much of her life has immediately changed with her husband's new job, and meets the other neighborhood wives. This first episode does a nice job of setting the tone and immediacy of the series, laying the groundwork for the show's dual-storyline format that will be held throughout. There's always a Unit story and a home front story, often with the two working together to make a point.
The show was drawn from Eric L. Haney's book Inside Delta Force; he was one of these guys, and nearly every episode is drawn from his own experience. His role as technical advisor makes The Unit gritty and realistic, informing and entertaining at the same time.
There are few writers whose voice is distinct enough as to be immediately recognizable; David Mamet is one of those writers. Famously specific, he has been known, when directing, to use a metronome during rehearsal to achieve the intended cadence of his dialogue, which is often written in iambic pentameter. If you've ever read one of Mamet's scripts, you know that he uses punctuation like musical notation, and every pause and stutter is intentional. Originally a playwright by trade, Mamet moved into screenwriting with The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1981, a few years before he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet's dialogue is one of the real joys of The Unit, and although he receives writing credit on only four episodes, he likely did a polish on most to maintain consistency, much like David Milch with NYPD Blue and Aaron Sorkin with The West Wing. Everything about the series is elevated by Mamet's involvement.
The show is episodic in nature: there is always a defined beginning, middle, and end, and very little carryover from one week to the next. This is not a show where if you miss one episode, you might as well stop watching; on the contrary, as far as the Alpha Team story goes you can pretty much watch the episodes in whatever order you wish. That said, the wives' storyline does continue to a degree from one episode to the next, but not nearly as much as most prime-time dramas in this post-Lost world. Everything you need to enjoy the story is included in that episode, which is refreshing.
Another Mamet hallmark is the use of deception or slight-of-hand, and that shows in the series. Often situations are set-up early in an episode that don't pay off until near the end, which makes for a very satisfying viewing experience.
I really appreciate how apolitical the show is. While it would have been easy to waive the flag and celebrate foreign policy, the men of the Unit don't have the luxury of debating what's right and wrong. They have their orders, know they were given for a good reason, and carry them out with precision. Sure, there are doubts and regrets once they return home, but the show's creators seem to have made a point of not using this as a platform for political grandstanding.
More general moral ambiguity takes the place of the politics. Most episodes find the characters having to choose the lesser of two evils, with the right answer not always clear. One episode in particular, "SERE," finds the team subject to a brutal training exercise designed to prepare them for capture and torture in a foreign prison. The goal is to see if the men will break and betray their comrades to save themselves, and the torture they are subjected makes this episode one of the most intense things I've seen on network television. While there are certainly very good reasons for this type of training, it also raises many questions about where the line should be drawn between preparation and the real thing.
Storylines also explore more personal issues, that are unique to our characters' situations, such as when Hector must deal with a fiancée's father who is troubled that he sits at a desk all day—Hector can't tell him that he's actually part of an elite fighting squad, and instead must accept the verbal degradation. Every episode finds a new element of their lives to explore, both personally and professionally.
Acting is very good, with none of the actors stumbling over Mamet's notoriously difficult dialogue. Dennis Haysbert and Scott Foley are standouts, with Haysbert effectively conveying a sense of melancholy beneath the surface that he can't share with anyone. The wives usually have less juicy conflict to deal with, but do equally well with what they have.
The show's cinematography and sound are top notch, and the DVDs do well to show them off. In the picture department, colour schemes are often used to differentiate between locals and storylines, and there is quite a bit of variety from show to show, making for an always-engaging visual experience. The sound has lots of low end, and greater use of the surround channels than most TV shows because of the frequent gunfire, aircraft, trucks etc.
Not much for special features here, with a commentary track on only one episode ("SERE") and a seven-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. They are both worthwhile, though, with the commentary being more engaging than most I've seen for TV shows (perhaps because they knew there would be only one), and the featurette more informative than promotional. This is one series that you'll buy for the shows themselves, not the features, though.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the mission storylines are uniformly solid, sometimes the home front can drift a bit into soap opera territory. One episode in particular finds a character very nearly getting raped, which at the time seems to come out of nowhere, and then is never referenced again, making it seem pretty inconsequential. I like the idea of seeing how the Unit's demands affect both the men and their families, and it usually works pretty well, but if the show has an Achilles Heel, this is it.
With a show this dense, I also would have appreciated more commentary tracks. I understand that the accelerated schedule with which TV DVDs a pumped out these days makes it much more difficult to fill out the package, as the release is often timed to coincide with the new season's premiere, but this does seem like a missed opportunity to shed some light on just how realistic the series is.
The Unit: Season One is a must see for military aficionados, and for anyone who likes a complex narrative that doesn't spell its intentions out for the audience. I recommend checking this out.
I guess I'll have to acquit the accused, since a mysterious Colonel just came in and took away all my papers…
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Scales of Justice
• Optional Commentary on "SERE"
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