Judge Mike Rubino is neither a covert warrior, nor an unsung hero.
"Son, I'm here in an official capacity; and that capacity is to kick your ass."—Jonas Blaine
David Mamet's military drama, The Unit, has enjoyed a cult following over the past three years. The show centers around a Delta Force-esque branch of the U.S. Army that operates in secret, killing terrorists, hunting drug lords, and generally smacking the volleyball of chaos away from the unsuspecting head of America.
The third season of the show lasted just 11 episodes due to the writer's strike last January. The season may feel a little incomplete (like I imagine most shows from last year), but that hasn't stopped Fox from releasing an excellent DVD set.
Facts of the Case
You've never heard of The Unit? That's because they don't exist. Lead by Col. Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2: Judgement Day), this covert group of soldiers travels the globe on secret missions for the U.S. Military. Because they're involved in such dangerous and politically-sensitive work, their wives are kept in the dark, forced to stay back on the base to raise their families and hold down the fort.
At the end of the second season, The Unit had been disbanded after word came in from Washington that they had committed various crimes while on a mission (the reasons intentionally kept vague). This bureaucratic shakedown caused the troops to scatter: Col. Ryan was incapacitated by the Department of Defence; two members of The Unit, Mack (Max Martini, Redbelt) and Hector (Demore Barnes), had been imprisoned on the Army base; Jonas (Dennis Haysbert, 24) disappeared into a network of spies in South America; and, to top it all off, Bob (Scott Foley) was hired by the C.I.A. to hunt down Jonas. Things looked bleak.
Much of the show is based off of Eric L. Haney's book Inside Delta Force.
The episodes included in Season Three are:
I've always enjoyed The Unit because it was an amalgamation of some of my favorite things. It has the calculated teamwork of classic Mission: Impossible episodes with the rag-tag mentality of The A-Team. But it's also a realistic and respectful depiction of the U.S. Military (something not often seen on television). To top it all off, it's got the dramatic sensibilities of David Mamet (Redbelt) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield). The Unit has its share of difficulties, like occasionally vague plot twists and flimsy female story arcs, but it's got a lot of heart.
The second season ended on a fairly dramatic twist: The Powers That Be were going to disband The Unit. With such a game-changing move, one could assume that the show was going down a completely new path for the third season. To some degree it did, but only for the first two episodes. The two-part season opener, "Pandemonium," finds The Unit boys scattered across the globe, running from the Feds; they're enacting some massive contingency plan they had devised for just such an occasion. And while the reasoning behind much of the government's motives is kept in the dark, thankfully the whole thing is wrapped up by the end of the second installment. I wasn't a huge fan of this story when I watched it on television, and I still think it's a little forced and overly complex—despite this, it all cleans up rather nicely.
From that point on, the Season Three returns to normal and delivers some of the best episodes yet for the series—which is quite incredible considering there's only 11 episodes. The season has the usual share of great action set pieces: In "Always Kiss Them Goodbye," Bob has to stop a plane filled with nerve gas after the pilot dies; in "Every Step You Take," the troops are forced to navigate a mine field while rescuing a family from an embassy; and in "Play 16," Jonas goes off on his own to enact revenge on a terrorist. But for all these exciting moments, the best episodes are the ones that push the dramatic envelope.
The season's three best episodes play out in a row. First is "M.P.s," which finds The Unit forced to act as military police in order to protect a spoiled pop star as she tours through Iraq for publicity. The episode has its charm, but also offers some biting commentary about celebrities traveling into warzones for political reasons. Second is "Five Brothers," which features the shocking death of a major player in The Unit. Third is the aforementioned "Play 16," where Jonas enacts revenge for the death of his friend, while everyone back at the base prepares for a soldier's funeral. The producers and writers handle the subject of a military death with the precision and subtly.
Sadly, the excellence of the season wains moving on to the third disc. Obviously, there weren't many ways for the producers to plan for the writers' strike, which crippled much of the television industry last winter, and the last three episodes of the season just sort of fizzle. They're still entertaining, but they don't have the kind of gravitas of the previous eight episodes. It's a shame to think that such a strong season was cut short. While the show is back on CBS for a fourth season, it doesn't seem to be looking back to many of the story arcs left hanging from the previous year. The Unit was building some great momentum through the "Five Brothers" storyline before it met such an abrupt end, and as a result this feels unfinished.
What isn't unfinished, however, is Fox's DVD release. Each episode is presented with excellent picture and sound quality. The show is filmed in 1.78:1 widescreen and looks sharp and vibrant. Because of the show's limited budget and schedule, much of the globe-trotting has to be filmed in various parts of California. Cinematographer Krishna Rao does an excellent job of making locales feel different using digital color correction and hue adjustment. The sound, which is in Dolby Digital Surround, perfectly amplifies the sounds of war and Robert Duncan's score. Each episode feels like a big-budget Hollywood film thanks to the incredible scope and production values.
Whereas most TV shows get the bare-bones treatment on DVD, Fox continues to provide some compelling material. Here, the majority of the episodes come with a commentary track featuring various producers, crew members, and actors. Each track offers a bit of insight into the episode, as well as a barrage of location information and production stories. While the information can almost feel overwhelming, the commentary tracks never feel boring.
There is also a lengthy writers' roundtable featurette that has many of the series' producers/writers sitting down to talk about the third season. They provide some new material not heard in the commentary tracks, and add in stories about the show's reception and its messages. It's fairly well shot, and is a nice summary in case you didn't want to spend time with the commentary tracks.
Lastly, there are a handful of deleted scenes which add a little bit more emotional impact surrounding the death in The Unit. Oddly, these are all collected in the Special Features section on the third disc, rather than with the episodes they were edited from.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the show is fairly mainstream, compared to a lot of David Mamet's other projects, it doesn't escape his idiosyncrasies. Mamet doesn't write many episodes, and he directs even fewer, but his cyclical dialogue style runs throughout the series.
The same goes for his love of the unexplained. Plots play out on a strictly need-to-know basis. Sometimes it's not apparent why The Unit is on a specific mission, or why certain story arcs seemingly disappear for five episodes; one could argue that this is how life works. But for folks who are looking for a more straightforward storytelling structure, one that spells everything out, this show could prove frustrating.
The Unit: Season Three is an interesting misnomer, considering that the season itself feels very incomplete; however, the eleven episodes featured in the third season are strong. The season trips coming out of the gate, but quickly produces a string of some of the best storylines and adventures the show has seen. Fox has done another excellent job in supporting the release with quality extras, including more commentary tracks that you'll probably ever want to listen to.
If you've picked up the first two seasons of the show, this one's a no-brainer; if you've never heard of or seen this show before, you may want to start at the beginning, but there's also plenty to enjoy here.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on Various Episodes
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