The remarkable and unexpected success of “American Sniper” reminds us yet again that the film industry has made many good movies about the Iraq/Afghan conflict -- while television, outside of networks’ news divisions, has avoided it almost completely.
Consider: “American Sniper” is now the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history. “The Hurt Locker” won an Academy Award. Other movies had big ambitions and big-name stars like Matt Damon (“Green Zone), “Woody Harrelson (“The Messenger”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brothers”). But on TV, virtually nothing. No big-name scripted series, not even any exploitative reality shows. The closest we’ve come are “24” and “Homeland,” shows about the war against terror as fought by civilians.
It was ever thus. As far back as World War II, Hollywood studios were able to churn out war movies even as the battle still raged in the field. Television, on the other hand, has needed a considerably longer lag time to gestate a TV show about a war. It wasn't until the 1960s, 20 years after D-Day, that television produced a raft of shows about World War II (“Combat,” “McHale’s Navy,” “The Rat Patrol,” etc.). “M*A*S*H,” one of the most popular TV shows ever, debuted in 1972, 20 years after the Korean War. And “Tour of Duty” and “China Beach” two shows about the Vietnam War, didn’t arrive until the late 1980s, 15 years after the events they depicted. At this rate it will be 2035 before there’s a TV show about the Iraq war (assuming there are still TV shows in 2035, that is.)
War is as good a prism as any to discuss the differences between television and film. With their huge screens and darkened theaters, movies are dream-like immersive experiences. And they are one-time stories, told in 90 to 180 minutes. TV, on the other hand, is more intimate, coming into the home on a smaller screen. Crucially, television shows are serialized, with characters and narratives that are expected to last over the course of several years.
In a real wars people die, though, and it has been thought that audiences wouldn’t stand for shows that kill off their favorite characters or shows that use realistic violence. And yet two of the most popular shows in recent years -- “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” -- have consistently dispensed with leading characters in the most gruesome and shocking ways. So audiences would probably survive if a popular platoon leader in a war show was killed in action.
Nor is it any longer true that TV shows have to be serialized over several years to be profitable. As we’ve seen with “True Detective,” “Fargo” and “American Horror Story,” television can offer great anthology shows that tell one story over a 13-episode season. It’s easy to imagine a TV called “Fallujah” that follows a different combat unit during a tour of duty every season. That would certainly be more original than yet another true crime series.
Having said that, don’t count on a surge of war shows even if they might be artistically successful and popular. The reason it takes 20 years to bring a war-related TV show to the screen can be summed up in one word: politics. War shows are like series about religion. What it would take to make them popular isn’t worth it to Hollywood executives. Look at the reaction to “American Sniper.” It has made a lot of money but stands accused of being pro-war jingoistic propaganda, costing the producers important liberal street cred.
War -- rightfully so, given the stakes -- is one of the most sensitive subjects in politics, and a TV show about a contemporary war would have to thread a very small needle. It would have to “support the troops” but not “glorify killing” -- or worst of all, suggest there was any justification for launching these wars in the first place.
War is morally complicated, participated in by heroes and rogues, and any series that tried to depict that reality would open itself up to viewer protests. An episode that showed a soldier killing a civilian would be criticized for besmirching the reputation of the troops, but an episode showing a civilian killing a soldier would be assailed for dehumanizing the local population. How much easier to skip the whole issue altogether.
The absence of the war on television is part of the same phenomenon in which soldiers and veterans are nearly invisible in American society. The people who fight the wars are drawn largely from the working class, but it’s the upper-middle-class that controls the entertainment and communications industries. It’s probable that people working in TV don’t even know one soldier who’s served in Iraq or Afghanistan, so war stories would naturally not be top of mind in the writers’ room.
Still, “American Sniper” did show there’s an appetite for entertainment that’s perceived as patriotic. In an increasingly niche marketplace, TV producers have been willing to take chances on shows soaked with violence. It’s hard to believe there’s no room for an honest look at war.