“Enlisted” creator Kevin Biegel told me that he had the first hour of “Stripes” playing on a loop as he wrote the pilot for the military comedy about three brothers serving together in an Army rear detachment unit in Florida. (It debuts on FOX on Friday night at 9:30.) And there are times when you can definitely see – or, in the case of the soundalike musical score, hear – the influence of the classic Bill Murray movie on the new show. But that’s a wisesass movie about a wiseass soldier who regrets enlisting almost from the moment he does it. What makes “Enlisted” different, and potentially very special, is that it has a sincere streak to go right along with its goofy side. It gets a lot of laughs out of life in the military while still demonstrating respect for the military and its soldiers, and genuine affection for its characters.
Geoff Stults (“The Finder”) plays Sgt. Pete Hill, elite Army killing machine reassigned to rear detachment as punishment for punching an officer following a botched mission in Afghanistan.
“Those guys aren’t even soldiers!” Pete moans at the idea of working in rear detachment, where the mission is to maintain the bases and provide support both for their comrades deployed overseas and the family members left behind. By the end of the pilot, of course, he has fully bought into said mission – in the main title sequence, the show’s motto is “Yes, we’re soldiers” – thanks in part to the chance to work alongside his misfit brothers, con man Derrick (Chris Lowell) and dim but enthusiastic Randy (Parker Young).
Biegel broke into the business on “Scrubs” before co-creating “Cougar Town, and the mix of silliness and sweetness found in both those series is apparent early and often in “Enlisted.” The stakes are low – in the pilot, Pete has to choose between winning a war game with a visiting Italian platoon or finding a base family’s lost dog, while later episodes deal with inter-unit prank wars and a cooking contest – but the show, like its hero, consistently manages to find the value in what it is these clowns are doing.
Stults has always had a weird side that’s softened his square-jawed looks, which makes him a nice fit in the central role, where he’s often the straight man but can also deliver when called upon to be funny. (Pete, like Winston on “New Girl,” turns out to be terrible at pranks.) Most of the comic heavy lifting, though, is done by Parker Young, and by Keith David as their commanding officer. Both are playing roles you’ve seen them play before – Randy is essentially Young’s character from “Suburgatory” with a uniform, while David is growly and authoritative in the way he always is – but with such energy and commitment that the familiarity doesn’t matter at all. Randy is so slow and inept that the character shouldn’t work at all, even in a sitcom, but there’s such enthusiasm to Young’s performance that you understand why the whole base, and not just his brothers, are willing to carry him along. (He’s also at the center of the most successful joke in the four episodes I’ve seen, which may forever change how you view “Toy Story 3.”)
Mixing humor with pathos is a tricky business, and more often than not, sitcom scenes that try to deliver a heart-warming moment ring false. Even the drama on “Scrubs” didn’t always feel earned. Through four episodes of “Enlisted,” though, the emotions flow smoothly together with the jokes – and, at this early stage, are probably the stronger part of the show – and the characters (also including Angelique Cabral as the friendly but competitive leader of a rival unit) are instantly likable.
“Enlisted” is so charming, so quickly, that it probably deserves better than a Friday at 9:30 timeslot – but then, lead-in “Raising Hope” is arguably too funny to be airing Fridays at 9. Hopefully, FOX’s expectations are realistic, because they’ve got a potential gem here.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org