The Iraq war returns to US living rooms, as a television drama

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The Independent US

It says something about our own era that the most visceral rendering of the conflict in Iraq now being delivered to American households is in the form of entertainment, a scripted drama by Steven Bochco, the impresario previously responsible for such hits as Hill Street Blues and LA Law.

The first episode of Mr Bochco's hard-punching frontline drama Over There, the first US television series to depict a war still in progress, has just aired on cable television. Thanks in part to a blaze of advance publicity, it attracted a more than respectable 4.1 million viewers on Wednesday and has become the cultural talking point of the moment.

In an age in which news stations appear more preoccupied with celebrity trials or the disappearance of a young woman in the Caribbean than with the stark realities of the US military presence in Iraq, the show has succeeded in generating more media coverage about life on the Mesopotamian front than almost anything since the fall of Baghdad.

It is also attracting its share of criticism, from puritan critics worried about its graphic violence and no-holds-barred language, from veterans who worry that the realities of combat are being sacrificed to the exigencies of entertainment, and from opponents of the war who say the show ends up condoning the conflict in its very refusal to engage with the question of why it started in the first place.

The critical notices, however, have been largely positive. The Washington Post conceded there were moments that were "manipulative, belaboured and cliché-ridden" but added: "The flaws are consistently overshadowed by grueling virtues: suspense, tension and a palpable sense of deep distress."

Over There follows the fortunes of a crew of new recruits as they deal with the ever-present danger of firefights, checkpoint duty and bomb attacks by insurgents. It also tracks life on the home front : the infidelities, financial difficulties and stresses of single parenthood.

Mr Bochco is an accomplished entertainer, and the series certainly does not lack for slick delivery, eye-catching visuals and workmanlike acting from a young cast of unknowns. While the characters talk about their personal emotions, however, they emphatically do not stray into discussions of what they are doing in Iraq in the first place. Mr Bochco says this is the result of his decision to make the show "completely apolitical".

But this refusal to engage with the controversies of the war has the side-effect of reducing the Iraqis to shadowy villains we learn to fear but never get to know. It also carries the implication that there is a fundamental dignity and honour in serving one's country, whatever the cause. As a number of critics have pointed out, that is in itself a distinct political position.

The Boston Globe wrote that ducking the controversies surrounding the war was a missed opportunity. "Our presence in Iraq has divided this country, but you'd never know that watching Over There."

Writing in The New Yorker, Nancy Franklin expressed the same regret, but suggested Mr Bochco did not have a choice. "At the moment, to risk telling the truth - beyond the truth that soldiers die in war and things are tough on the home front, too -is to be condemned as unpatriotic."