68 Whiskey, so named for the U.S. Army’s Combat Medic Specialist (68W) job identifier, is a new dramedy series for Paramount Network, which experienced massive ratings success with Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner. That scripted drama’s audience members (who predominantly lean toward the politically conservative side of things) will undoubtedly be intrigued by the subject matter of this new show, possibly with mixed reactions in the aftermath. Quite simply, this series appears to suffer from an identity crisis, and wants to be taken slightly seriously by inserting side stories that touch on real-life issues (like immigration), when it likely would’ve been better served by embracing its own debauchery on the promotional front. And as a result, some folks are going to go in expecting something different than what actually materializes.
Brian Grazer and Ron Howard are co-executive producing, and the latter described the show in first-look commentary as “an honest, realistic look at a U.S. medical team in Afghanistan.” While I wouldn’t claim to personally know what it’s like to be a U.S. Army medic these days (or ever), I’m not so sure (at least from the three episodes screened for critics) that realism was actually the objective goal here. Perhaps if we’re talking about the ways that the team distracts itself from the horrors not too far away, that sentiment might not be too far off base, but as far as an authentic military experience goes, I don’t feel confident that this series will hit the mark with its target audience.
Look, the trailers were filled with sweeping cinematic shots, action highlights, and the promise of dark comedy. What actually transpires is a sexy soap opera punctuated by the occasional explosion, shouty helicopter conversation, or genuine tragedy (the latter of which feels misplaced, almost trivially). The show ends up functioning mostly as escapism, and that would be just fine, if that was the stated goal.
Technically speaking, this is U.S.-focused adaptation of an Israeli TV series called Charlie Golf One, and 68 Whiskey revolves around a multicultural gathering of Army medics at a base that’s referred to as “The Orphanage.” Paramount Networks initially billed the show as highlighting characters’ self-destructive tendencies and outrageous antics, which were meant to give way to camaraderie and a common, profound purpose. In addition, a “Kafkaesque” descriptor would suggest (if one can get that Breaking Bad episode title out of the noggin) that the series would toe the line between fantasy and reality with a deft precision, infusing a tangible sense of hopelessness within hope, but that’s not really what goes down in that show. Instead, we receive another reminder that Kafkaesque is a term that appears to have lost all meaning.
With 68 Whiskey, it simply feels like the writers tossed in a bunch of absurd happenings and wacky hijinks and hoped they’d translate into humor. What’s really happening is that a group of medics are juggling their chaotic personal lives amid sobering ongoing duties, and the chaos wins. Perhaps this will remind people of a post-9/11 incarnation of the ’70s and ’80s M*A*S*H franchise, though. There was plenty of steaminess between those characters, after all, who weren’t too faithful to their at-home partners, and one Korean War nurse was nicknamed “Hot Lips,” and so on. Back during the 1970 movie, her sexy times were even jokingly broadcast on the camp loudpeaker, and it’s safe to say that a shadow of M*A*S*H is still alive here (although 68 Whiskey isn’t nearly as funny), given that the series begins with an extremely loud sex scene in a supply shed.
Things only grow more soap-y from there. We soon hear repeated discussions about the elusive female orgasm coming from Durkin (Gage Golightly), who is sleeping with Roback (Sam Keeley) but is publicly dating Sasquatch (Derek Theler). Then there are fight nights that Roback and his buddies are hoping to game in order to take down Sasquatch. Meanwhile, the young Petrocelli (Nicholas Coombe) grows obsessed with a goat, and the few serious story arcs feel clumsily executed, like Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo) facing discharge and deportation to Mexico. And Colonel Austin (Lamont Thompson) pointing out the absurdity of traveling all the way to Afghanistan to get pulled into some sketchy drug business when he lived in Chicago. That last one kicks off a lot of hashish jokes. It’s a little discombobulating, honestly, rather than refreshingly lighthearted.
I will say that the series looks polished enough, but that’s not enough to justify the show’s existence. Lots of money must have been poured into this series, which ideally would pay some tribute to those soldiers who fight to save the lives of ailing comrades. We see plenty of sweeping desert views from above, and the enormity of the sets reflect some eye-popping visuals. The delivery, though, lands in an unremarkable manner. The dialogue is rote, the jokes don’t hit their marks, and the serious moments translate like afterthoughts. I’m actually a little confused about who 68 Whiskey was truly meant to entertain, and the show’s first three episodes sure feel the same way.
Paramount Network’s ’68 Whiskey’ premieres on January 15.