“Currahee” (episode 1; originally aired 9/9/2001)

In which the men of Easy Company are trained

(Available on HBO Go.)

Television has rarely served war well. Of the big themes that pop up over and over again in art, it’s the one that TV has mostly consigned to the movies and literature. Yes, there have been good and even great TV series (and miniseries) set during wartime, but they tend to take place far away from the front lines, among nurses and doctors (M*A*S*H and China Beach) or people who built lives for the soldiers who would return home someday (Homefront). There’s been at least one great series set during wartime—the 1960s drama Combat! which I call “great” thanks to the opinions of critics I trust, since I’ve seen only a couple of episodes of it—and an intriguing experiment in doing so from the middle of last decade’s so-called Golden Age (FX’s Over There). But for an ongoing TV series or even a short miniseries to truly depict the carnage of war and the horrors of battle at all accurately would require far more money in the budget than most networks have access to—to say nothing of the standards and practices departments that still dot the broadcast networks.

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Enter, as always, HBO. When it premiered Band Of Brothers, it was a network ready to show off a little, to swagger. Sex And The City and The Sopranos were lightning-in-a-bottle hits, while Six Feet Under was none too shabby either. The network had proved it could do the long-form miniseries very well indeed when it paired with Tom Hanks in the ‘90s to bring From The Earth To The Moon to the small screen, so it was the natural fit when Hanks and his Saving Private Ryan director Steven Spielberg wanted to adapt Stephen Ambrose’s acclaimed nonfiction book Band Of Brothers with all of the characters and nuance intact. The story of the book would have more room to spread out on television, and we would have more time to get to know the ensemble of characters. But because it was a miniseries, the project could also depict the full fury of World War II combat, stripping beloved characters from us and showing a world most of us can only begin to imagine.

What’s interesting about Band Of Brothers now is how it stands uneasily astride two eras. When the miniseries debuted in 2001, it was to mixed reviews. Most of the positive ones appreciated that the series’ first two hours didn’t do any hand-holding and little in the way of conventional character introductions. We don’t really spend time getting to know the men that make up Easy Company; we spend time getting to know Easy Company before we realize it’s made up of men (with a couple of exceptions). Even the storied Tom Shales, one of the few TV critics to win the Pulitzer for his work in the ‘80s and a big part of bringing that era’s terrific dramas to prominence, was particularly huffy on this point, not really going with the first two episodes’ conceit of starting from the outside, then drilling in. But Shales was joined by several others who felt the storytelling style hard to understand, even as just as many stood on the opposite side insisting that the mini’s embrace of more fluid storytelling was just the next step for a network that had blown up the previous TV rulebook with The Sopranos and now gleefully wanted to go even further. (Really, Band Of Brothers has been a bit devalued in the story of HBO’s history, perhaps because The Wire would debut just the next year. But the public’s embrace of this story surely convinced the network that viewers were willing to follow stories featuring dozens of characters whose lives intersected only every so often.)

The thing is, I can see what those who didn’t wholly embrace the show were on about, even when watching this first episode from the vantage point of 2014. I’ve seen the mini once before—when it first aired—and I’m not someone who’s read the book several times and seen this series even more. “Currahee” can be a lot to take in, subsequently. It simply drops viewers into the middle of a bunch of men who are waiting for the day to arrive when they will take off in planes and parachute behind enemy lines, at the forefront of the D-Day Invasion. It then takes those same viewers back two years in time to see these men when they were wet behind the ears, just getting used to military life. It introduces most of the characters in only the broadest of sketches, and one of the two that we spend the most time getting to know (who, not coincidentally, is played by the man who was the biggest star at the time the series first aired) is sent away around the episode’s midpoint, meaning we’re left fully in the hands of the man who would become the series’ main character.

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If “Currahee” is easy to follow and not an impossible slog of half-remembered characters and faces, it’s because of Damian Lewis’ presence as Lieutenant Dick Winters, a man who seems to have leadership stitched into his DNA. “Currahee” takes many of the show’s more challenging elements—that huge cast and the lack of traditional war movie action—and fastens it, for better or worse, to the idea that viewers will find following Lt. Winters around mesmerizing. That we do is thanks to Lewis’ terrific performance but also because the script (by Hanks himself and Erik Jendresen) couches Winters’ journey in terms we’ll understand from previous war stories. See, Winters will be promoted to executive officer under the man in charge of Easy Company, Captain Herbert Sobel. And here’s a conflict that’s easy to understand: The men hate Sobel, first because he’s such an asshole in training (though he gets results) and later because he’s the sort of guy who shouldn’t be leading anyone into combat. What’s more, Sobel seems to have developed an irrational hatred toward Winters, one that leads him to have the other man court martialed for a relatively minor offense.

I say “seems” because if “Currahee” has a flaw, it’s that Sobel rarely comes across as anything other than an impediment for the men of Easy Company to overcome. Not every character in a story like this needs to have tons of nuance, but Sobel becomes the main antagonist of “Currahee,” and when he comes up wanting as a commanding officer on the ground, it feels less like character development and more like convenience. Obviously, the show is basing all of this on what actually happened, but I think it could have made more of the divide between Sobel, the man who’s able to unite Easy Company as a unit because all of its members hate the shit out of him, and Sobel, the man who can’t find his way around during routine training exercises. Put another way, in the scene where the other men trick him into thinking the Major has ordered him to cut a farmer’s fence (thus loosing some cows), both the script and Phil Alden Robinson’s camera so obviously want us to be feeling some measure of pity for this guy and how far he’s in over his head, and it just doesn’t translate.

Sobel is played by David Schwimmer, who, as mentioned and somewhat remarkably, was the main draw for the series when it debuted. Schwimmer has become quite a bit underrated as an actor, so associated is he with Ross from Friends, who was the most hurt by that show running for a decade. And there are scenes here where we get a look at just how nakedly vulnerable Sobel can be. When he’s told he won’t be going into combat with the men he trained but, instead, heading back to another training post, there’s this look of sheer, wounded sorrow on his face, and Schwimmer plays both that moment and the one where he’s driven past Winters as Sobel leaves the camp for the last time very well. The problem is that because the entirety of this episode is set during training, Sobel simply becomes the most convenient antagonist for the writers to latch onto, since nobody’s going to battle just yet. In real life, the men of Easy Company had problems with Sobel’s command. That’s easy enough to dispense with in a book, but onscreen, it can create a vacuum when the character isn’t given enough depth. That’s definitely what happens with Sobel here, which is why the episode, written as a bit of a two-hander, gravitates so forcefully to Lewis and Winters.

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Fortunately, the series is filled with lots of other fascinating figures and characters, even if we’re just getting to know them now. What makes this one a bit easier to pull apart in 2014 than it was in 2001 is that seemingly everybody in this cast has gone on to either legitimate fame or a successful career as a character actor, which means that when, say, Michael Fassbender or Stephen Graham pop up, it’s easier to remember them by the actors playing them than it was for Tom Shales back then. The series’ outside in approach isn’t for everybody, and there are certainly episodes in the first half of the series when I remember it getting very frustrating (if memory serves, we’ll deal with one of them next week). But one of the benefits of hindsight is getting to watch just how much the series’ casting department nailed it here. What’s more, the characters don’t just pop because of the actors playing them (though, again, it helps) but because of the ways that Robinson chooses to highlight the little bits of business the script gives them. Here’s this guy. And here’s that guy. And they all have little lines and moments that solidify them not just as faces in a crowd but as men we’re going to follow and, potentially, lose.

Mostly, though, “Currahee” beautifully portrays how the main character of the show isn’t Winters or Sobel or Nixon (Ron Livingston, as arguably the series’ second-most-important character). Instead, it’s Easy Company itself, taken from a group of men and turned into an elite unit that will help their nation win World War II (spoiler alert). The script emphasizes the way that these men go through their exercises together, how Sobel sends them up and down Currahee Mountain over and over again, until they’ve pushed past their obstacles and come together as a unit. And when the episode ends, Robinson turns Winters into almost a father figure, pulling them up into the plane when they can hardly stand for all the gear strapped to their bodies. It’s a beautiful image, but not one that Robinson ever lingers on or makes mawkish.

When Robinson first introduces us to these men, it’s not as characters, but as a mass. He shows us 1st Lt. Meehan’s (Jason O’Mara; seriously, everybody) speech to them from Meehan’s perspective, looking out across the crowd of seemingly indistinguishable men, many of whom are heading to their deaths. Then we spend the episode getting to know them—or at least some of them—and when we return to this scene, we see it from the point-of-view of the crowd looking up at him as he delivers the speech. It’s the series’ approach in a nutshell: Start with the whole; work down to the parts.

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I said above that Band Of Brothers stands astride history, but I mostly talked about it in terms of TV history. Yet it stands astride world history, too. When it was commissioned, and when it debuted, it was looked at as a sort of extension of what Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation and Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan had done as well. It was an attempt to bring to light the stories of the men who fought World War II and retell them, so that they wouldn’t be lost, and this whole series is very much framed as such. And yet these first two episodes would air on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the whole context of the world shifted around the series itself, and it became part of some other conversation entirely. Suddenly, Band Of Brothers wasn’t just a miniseries about the past; it had become part of a conversation America was very much having in its present, and it’s not hard to read some of those unintentional echoes into the episode’s final shot: all those planes, suspended above the English Channel, heading into a twilight that separates these men from a battle that will cost some of them their lives.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome to reviews of Band Of Brothers! As mentioned above, I’ve never watched this again since it initially aired, and what I know of the book is what my father told me while reading it that fall. If you’re looking for my prior reviews in the “military history miniseries” genre, please check out my thoughts on The Pacific. I toyed with doing a spoilers section each week, but I just don’t remember enough of this to speak with any authority. If you guys want to spoil in comments, feel free, but please mark them for any newbies who may join us.
  • Something to watch for: How does Band Of Brothers treat women and children? Obviously, since it’s a war story, they have a limited place within the show, but the way the show uses them is often key to its view of war and humanity. Here, women are almost phantoms. We catch a few glimpses of them across the street in England, and Sobel is unhappy about some pornography he finds. But for the most part, they seemingly don’t exist. It’s a nice reflection of how everything but the training must be put aside.
  • Band Of Brothers was filmed in England, and while it makes a suitable stand-in for much of Europe, it doesn’t do so hot when trying to represent Camp Toccoa in Georgia in this episode. The United Kingdom just doesn’t have much in common with the American South.
  • One of my favorite little moments here is Winters coming across the old man on the bike and stopping to have a little chat with him before having to rejoin his men. I always like when stories like this remind us that life is going on, even under the threat of war, and this is a fine example of that.
  • This week’s random celebrity sighting: That’s Simon Pegg as the guy who delivers the message to Winters. It’s always weird to see people who will eventually become famous in little bit parts like this.
  • The moment when Guarnere finds out about the death of his brother is a beautiful little story, told confidently, since we know where the basic beats of this one fall. Nothing pushes too far, but we still get the full depth of feeling.
  • There’s not a lot of character development in this episode, but what we get is good enough to solidify many of these men in the mind. I particularly liked the scene where the guys bragged and eventually fought on the boat over and the early scene where Nixon and Winters talk about what’s coming.

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Next week: The fight to liberate Europe begins in “Day Of Days.”