Desperate Army Wives: How TV is bringing the war back home

Obama and McCain are fans – Hannah Duguid reports on the new show thats already won the hearts of millions of Americans
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The Independent Culture

Army Wives is an American drama that deals with the personal side of life in the military, and what it's like to be married to a soldier.

It has been such a ratings hit that when the second series kicked off this month, presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama appeared in promotional spots in the commercial breaks, calling for support for American military families and proclaiming their admiration for the series.

"Army Wives tells a story that is being lived across the country by real army wives who are counting the days until the next R&R," Obama said, "and by children whose parents have been deployed so many times that they barely know them."

McCain appealed directly to military families: "You are the best Americans and our best efforts to honour our debts to you will fall far short of what you have given and what you deserve," he said, adding: "Army Wives has a lot of great twists and turns. I know because [my wife] Cindy makes me watch with her."

Set on a fictional base in South Carolina, Army Wives has all the melodrama of a traditional soap opera, yet it takes place against the real backdrop of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. The creation of Katherine Fugate and Mark Gordon, executive producer of Grey's Anatomy, it's shown on Lifetime, a channel aimed at women. With 4.1 million viewers, it is by far Lifetime's most successful series.

Like Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives, the show centres on the friendships of a close-knit group of women – and one man, the husband of a female officer. But in Army Wives there are no designer labels or cocktail parties. Marriage is tough, their homes contain second-hand furniture, they eat microwave meals and wear tracksuits or, if married to the top brass, sensible pastel-coloured suits.

"My favourite designer is Goodwill [a charity shop]," says Roxy LeBlanc, played by Sally Pressman, a Yale graduate, in her first major TV role. Roxy is a sassy Southern belle newly married to a soldier, with an alcoholic mother and violent ex-husband in her past. She meets and marries Trevor, having known him just a few days. He proposes with the line: "Roxy, you work two jobs and you got two kids from two different men. Now, I know I only met you four days ago, but I think you're my soulmate."

All the action takes place either on the base or at a local dive bar where Roxy works. The plots deal with marriages strained by post-traumatic stress and the loneliness of being married to someone who's never around.

The ever-present fear is that a loved one will be deployed and not return. And the scriptwriters do not shy away from this: husbands go missing in action and army widows are introduced into the plot. But the show does not come out for or against America's current wars; rather, it explores the reality of American military families. There may be the odd patriotic symbol – close-ups of the American flag and red, white and blue tea-parties – but Army Wives makes it clear there's little romance in being married to a soldier. The show's strength lies in the depiction of agonising uncertainties and how friendships sustain those left behind when loved ones go to war.

Claudia Joy, happily married to a high-ranking officer, is played by Kim Delaney, best known for her stint in NYPD Blue. Claudia was educated at Harvard but her life has become a round of tea parties and social work. Offered in contrast is the marriage of the female officer Joan Burton, played by Wendy Davis. Joan's husband Roland, a psychiatrist (Sterling K Brown), struggles with the demands of being a military spouse. He forms close friendships with the army wives, but the show resists the temptation to put Roland in bed with his female friends. Friendship and love hold everyone together. To a British temperament, some of it is schmaltzy, but it is believable. These things happen: husbands do fail to return, and innocent young people do get killed.

There is an undertone of violence, much of it rooted in the psychological pressures of military life. But most of the action is of an intimate nature: sex lives, domestic violence, surrogacy, adoption, abortion, infidelity.

Wives are faced with temptation while husbands are away: some succumb, with catastrophic results; others don't. Pamela Moran (Brigid Brannagh), the ex-cop wife of a soldier, is a tough-talking wit. Her husband disappears for months, while she is left with their two small children and no idea when he will return. When an old flame reappears, Pamela is tempted and fantasises about life outside the army: "I could be married to an art teacher and living in Boston," she says wistfully.

'Army Wives: The Complete First Season' is out now on Touchstone/Disney; the second series can be seen on Lifetime and at www.mylifetime.com, and will screen on Living later in the year

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