CBS’ ‘SEAL Team’ Shoots Back At Military Cliches — And Occasionally Hits Its Mark

Entertainment
Image via CBS

Somewhere in Liberia, a notorious Islamic State commander has been spotted meeting with jihadist groups active in the area. Members of SEAL Team 6 — the Navy’s elite Tier One operators — led by Jason Hayes, (David Boreanaz of Bones’ fame), fast rope into the village where the target is holed up. The team mows down the bad guys, clearing rooms and pieing corners with precision, before making their way into a labyrinthine tunnel system under the building to apprehend their quarry. Then everything goes sideways.


This is a scene from the first episode of the upcoming military war drama SEAL Team, written by Ben Cavell (executive producer of Justified) and directed by Chris Chulack (E.R.). SEAL Team, premiering Sept. 27 on CBS sets out to tell the story of the Navy’s special operators at home and abroad, as they struggle with everything from deadly enemies and shifting mission parameters to strained marriages and edgy team dynamics.

Though the show deserves credit for accuracy in terms of gear, equipment, and some pretty impressive shootouts, to achieve its more ambitious goal — capturing the emotional realities of military service — SEAL Team has to successfully navigate a minefield of hackneyed military tropes and overplayed scenarios.

Related: Guess What Special Operations Unit CBS’s New Military TV Show Focuses On? »

Having so much drama packed into one episode, let alone one show, can undercut a lot of the emotional realism, because it places the characters at the center of every problem, incident and scandal that could, or would, befall servicemembers at home or abroad. It’s a common enough pitfall, and one that plagued another Navy SEAL show.

“It’s one of those things where the most dramatic, most important moments in a season are probably drawn from a lifetime of a career,” Tyler Grey a consulting producer on the show and one of SEAL Team's four full-time military advisers, told Task & Purpose.

David Boreanaz and Max Thieriot in CBS' SEAL Team.Image via CBS

As a result, the SEAL Team pilot plays out in somewhat predictable fashion.

You know the drill: every mission goes south or devolves into a firefight; somebody is dealing with guilt from a bad op; someone has to see a shrink; marriages are strained; team dynamics are upset by the new guy and so on. That said, the show does an admirable job tackling these head-on.

“There are times where you’re damned if you, and damned if you don’t,” said Grey, who served in the Army from 1998 to 2007, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan during four tours with the 2nd Ranger Battalion. “Look, how common is it that military service members are divorced in shows and movies? The problem is, how many people in the military are divorced?”

So, yes, these are clichés, but they contain kernels of truth: Missions really do go awry; people sometimes make tough calls and feel guilty about it; military life and a high op-tempo tends to put a strain on any marriage; and a new element in a tight-knit unit can indeed cause disruptions.

In the case of SEAL Team, the new element is Spenser Clay (played by Max Thieriot), a multi-lingual, whip-smart SEAL whose father is a decorated war-hero within the community — and the author of a best-selling book, which is a nice in-the-know jab SEAL Team wants you to pick up on.

One thing the show does very well, is that it stays firmly rooted in a moral gray-zone. There’s no right answer to some of the problems that arise in the pilot, just different bad options, and that — perhaps more than anything else — makes SEAL Team worth watching.

At one point Clay, Hayes, and his close friend Ray (Neil Brown Jr.), are trying to bring a target in alive. They’re underground, and the man is armed with a suicide vest, but Hayes, a seasoned team leader with years of experience under his belt, is confident that “martyrdom is a young man’s game” — as one of the CIA analysts suggests — and thinks the aging HVT (high-value target) would rather be taken alive. What to do? We won’t ruin the episode, but let’s just say the situation is resolved.

“He makes the call, and at that point, it’s not a bad decision,” Grey said, adding that “he made a split-second decision based on the information he had. There’s a lot of gray area and that’s what the job is.”

The show is ambitious in its attempt to tackle the emotional toll of service among the military’s elite and SEAL Team deserves credit for avoiding most of the missteps that befall a military drama, even if the first episode doesn’t make it over every hurdle with ease. It’s not an easy task, but neither is fighting a war. As one of the SEALs puts it in the pilot episode: “You know that was a no-win scenario."

SEAL Team premieres Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. EDT on CBS.

Every once in a while, we run across a photo in The Times-Picayune archives that's so striking that it begs a simple question: "What in the name of Momus Alexander Morgus is going on in this New Orleans photograph?" When we do, we've decided, we're going to share it — and to attempt to answer that question.

Read More Show Less
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces control the monitor of their drone at their advanced position, during the fighting with Islamic State's fighters in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The United States should keep arming and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, provided the group keeps up the pressure on Islamic State, a senior U.S. general told Reuters on Friday.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump claims the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department's budget that he will now spend on his border wall was not going to be used for anything "important."

Trump announced on Friday that he was declaring a national emergency, allowing him to tap into military funding to help pay for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Read More Show Less

Long before Tony Stark took a load of shrapnel to the chest in a distant war zone, science fiction legend Robert Heinlein gave America the most visceral description of powered armor for the warfighter of the future. Forget the spines of extra-lethal weaponry, the heads-up display, and even the augmented strength of an Iron Man suit — the real genius, Heinlein wrote in Starship Troopers, "is that you don't have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin."

"Any sort of ship you have to learn to pilot; it takes a long time, a new full set of reflexes, a different and artificial way of thinking," explains Johnny Rico. "Spaceships are for acrobats who are also mathematicians. But a suit, you just wear."

First introduced in 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) purported to offer this capability as America's first stab at militarized powered armor. And while SOCOM initially promised a veritable Iron Man-style tactical armor by 2018, a Navy spokesman told Task & Purpose the much-hyped exoskeleton will likely never get off the launch pad.

"The prototype itself is not currently suitable for operation in a close combat environment," SOCOM spokesman Navy Lt. Phillip Chitty told Task & Purpose, adding that JATF-TALOS has no plans for an external demonstration this year. "There is still no intent to field the TALOS Mk 5 combat suit prototype."

Read More Show Less

D-Day veteran James McCue died a hero. About 500 strangers made sure of it.

"It's beautiful," Army Sgt. Pete Rooney said of the crowd that gathered in the cold and stood on the snow Thursday during McCue's burial. "I wish it happened for every veteran's funeral."

Read More Show Less