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.
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.
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.