Earlier this month the cast and crew of Enlisted returned to the Austin Television Festival, one year after they’d screened the pilot episode in the buildup to the show’s premiere. This time around, the future was much less rosy than it was before: Enlisted had been canceled by Fox weeks earlier, a consequence of dismal ratings even by the standards of Friday evening, and the three episodes that were being screened that day were consigned to a summer burnoff. Despite those harsh truths Kevin Biegel, Mike Royce, Angelique Cabral, and the rest of the team in attendance were charged with positive energy, buying the first round of drinks for the audience at the Alamo Drafthouse and speaking optimistically of the show’s odds of finding a second life at another network. And it was an enthusiasm that was met in kind by all the attendees, who applauded loudly throughout and and ended the screening with a theater-wide “hands on heads” that got Biegel and company noticeably choked up.
That degree of emotion isn’t out of the ordinary for Enlisted, a show which may not have an extensive audience but whose viewers make up for it with a passion that is the strength of ten. Critics from Ryan McGee to Alan Sepinwall to Mo Ryan have written impassioned defenses of the show, Twitter regularly lights up when new episodes air (and even old ones—this may be the first show to inspire live-tweeting of organized Hulu viewings), and the cast and crew are constantly willing to discuss their experiences shooting the show. Everyone who talks about Enlisted at length from creator to commenter treats it like a special show, and it’s a treatment that’s not out of place. The show’s blend of absurdity and sincerity has been a revelation this year, and its cancellation a fate grossly undeserved.
But if this must be the final tour of duty for Enlisted, let no one say it ended with a whimper rather than a bang. The third and final episode screened at ATX, “Alive Day” continues the triumphant home stretch of “The General Inspection” and “Army Men,” providing the comedic and emotional capper to what’s been a stunningly impressive debut season. Enlisted found a rhythm in record time for a comedy, and once again the show dismisses gimmicky excuses for comedy in favor of sliding into that rhythm and letting it play out to its natural conclusion.
Part of what makes “Alive Day” work so well on a structural level is that it’s an episode closely focused on the the Hill brothers. Enlisted began with the premise of three brothers dealing with the tensions of being assigned to the same Army base, but it grew substantially since then in its treatment of each one. Pete went from being the golden boy chafing at his unglamorous detail to a man genuinely troubled by his experiences overseas. Derrick went from being a generic slacker to someone whose life was defined by his inability to commit and open up. And Randy… okay, Randy never went too far from being an overeager goofball, but that goofiness was leveled out by his commitment to being the best soldier he could be. All three men have been gifted with impressive character arcs, which have played out over the last 12 episodes: Pete’s acknowledgment he may need help, Derrick finally connecting with bartender Erin, Randy using his unique empathy to support fellow soldiers.
Two of those arcs collide early in the episode, with Pete surprisingly calm on the anniversary of a near-death experience and Derrick distraught over ending his relationship with Erin to avoid further heartbreak. This revelation ignites one of the show’s funniest sequences to date, thanks largely to the terrific fraternal chemistry established between Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, and Parker Young. Pete and Randy’s reaction to Derrick’s decision is a scene that clicks marvelously, able to predict his boneheaded moves with perfect accuracy—a sequence aided by some terrific editing that cuts back to the event itself and allows them to echo Erin’s own disbelieving reactions. And Derrick’s reactions to their suggestions are similarly appropriate: he refuses to respond to Randy’s suggestion to reenact An Officer And A Gentlemen, and responds to Pete’s therapy-guided suggestions with a fat face-related dig at his brother’s ego. It’s a dynamic that feels incredibly lived in, as Pete and Randy know not only has their brother made a mistake but it’s the kind of mistake he’s made countless times before.
Addressing that mistake will have to wait, as the annual regimental ball is coming up. (Randy: “Dress blues, big speeches—Pete, it’s a refined attitude that’s sick as hell!”) This year, the ball is going to honor Cody for 30 years of service in the Army, and it turns out that Jill’s unit has already claimed the coveted tasks of toast and serenade. Here’s the only moment of the episode that feels out of place, as while Jill’s competitive streak has been to the benefit of the show at times, “Prank War” proved it’s not as funny when the units are in opposition to each other. The ensemble works best when it’s working towards a common goal, be it scoring on the Marines in flag football or dodging Lt. Schneeberger’s poo gun.
That common goal is presented in short order, once Cody reveals that Army budget cuts have axed the regimental ball. (Cody: “The ball is canceled, and I am crushed.” Randy: “He doesn’t want to admit it, but he’s crushed.”) Cody reads his speech about pride in his troops over the loudspeaker, and it stirs something fierce in those troops, particularly Pete. It’s a mirror to the events of the pilot episode, the Cody of the past echoing Pete’s original conviction that Rear D troops aren’t soldiers—a belief that Pete’s moved past thanks to the older man’s guidance and occasional boot in the ass. Once again, the energy flows as the underdogs rise to the occasion. Pete turns his troops loose and puts them where they need to be, be it dragging Derrick out of his malaise to shoot a celebrity date video for Chubowski or using his extensive experience to polish up Jill’s lifeless toast.
The best of those assignments falls to Randy, who’s appointed to make sure the sergeant major remains in the dark about their plans. While Randy’s been given less of a substantive arc than Pete or Derrick, the degree of empathy they’ve given the character means he’s someone who can play well with almost any character, be it impressing them with his massage skills (and accompanying carafe of lemon-infused ice water) or angering them with a story about how he lost their fake foot. That’s a topic the writers have been judicious about—thankfully, given the tightrope of how many jokes you can make about a man who lost a limb in combat—and the fact that they’ve waited so long to make the foot a central part of the plot means the joke hits even better than if Cody’d misplaced it every week for a “hilarious” running gag. And as always, it’s the sincerity with which Parker Young does everything, even something so ridiculous as presenting a mannequin foot replacement, that allows it to land.
That fake fake foot gets Cody to his ball on time, and his floored expression when the garage door goes up is every bit the reaction Pete and company could hope for. Fittingly for a ball about how Cody’s influenced all these soldiers, it’s an event littered with great moments for those soldiers, an exhibition of just how strong the supporting ensemble of the show is. Everyone gets to shine, ranging from Perez’s heartfelt speech, Dobkiss’s “Cody Colada” recipe of gin and chocolate milk, Park trying and failing to make out with a guy named Diesel, and an epic dance-off between Robinson and JaMort. (Robinson: “I need a Facebook page for all this, cause you gonna like it!” JaMort: “Girl, that’s more like MySpace, ’cause nobody looks at it anymore!”)
All these moments are captured by Derrick’s camera, which also manages to snap the moment that’s most important to him: Erin walking into the ball. True to form, Enlisted doesn’t pretend the two are going to live happily ever after, but rather tries to appreciate the moments that they’re able to share, and even the way that the story cycles back to Randy’s proposal for sweeping Erin off her feet is perfectly implemented. Derrick could have the Officer And A Gentleman moment with Erin, but it would have felt too out of character for this relationship. Having Randy do it for Cody when his improvised foot breaks, and turning the father-daughter dance into a three-person affair? That’s comedic perfection.
On its own, this would be a great finale moment for the show. Pete sits back in a moment of peace, at home with his brothers and his troops enjoying the ball he put together. It’s the culmination of his journey, the character thrown into the group of misfits and discovering a makeshift family amongst them, and makes for a great relaxed moment. But what has always been the greatest strength of Enlisted is the way it exceeds the standard borders of comedy plots, and it throws another curveball when Fort McGee troops deployed in Kabul appear on the projector screen. Geoff Stults’ face shifts ever so subtly—his expressiveness has been Enlisted’s secret weapon on several occasions—and when it’s time for the moment of recognition he’d normally revel in, he’s nowhere to be seen.
Cody, Derrick, and Randy eventually find him on the beach he said he’d likely be on if he hadn’t gotten help, and it turns out that help may not be enough. For all the praise that’s been given to Enlisted, the one thing Biegel and company did that can never be celebrated enough is how found a way to tell a story about PTSD in the middle of a sitcom, and to depict it in such an intelligent and empathetic way. Once again, the show doesn’t try to solve the issue, but acknowledges that it’s something that can be survived, that there’s a real courage in letting others support you in this effort. And speaking of camaraderie, Pete sees that his entire surrogate family is there to support him, acknowledging that what he did in implementing the ball meant as much to them as it did to Cody. It’s another return to the dynamic of the pilot, as the entire unit circles around for a hands on head, drawing Pete into the fold and reaffirming the unit motto: “We are brothers.”
It’s a moment of personal triumph, which Enlisted then rewards by entering into a final expression of joy. The men and women of Rear D run into the Gulf of Mexico as M83’s “Outro” starts playing and the cameras switch to a handheld style, making the scene look more like a home video. It’s an wonderfully intimate sequence, an sense of joy that becomes indistinguishable as to whether it’s the cast or the characters they’re playing who feel it the most. And the episode ends the only way it possibly could, two gestures toward Pete that completely sum up the show: a respectful look of understanding from Cody, and a shirtless Randy tackling his brother into the ocean.
It’s the two sides of Enlisted’s unit coin, the way it incorporates goofiness and solemnity, and it’s a true testament to the writers and performers that they were able to keep that coin spinning for 13 episodes. A slow-mo salute to each and every one of them.
Episode grade: A
Season (series?) grade: A-
- One more time for those frustrated by the continuity issues that dogged the show for its entire life, here’s the proper running order as per the production codes and Kevin Biegel: “Pilot,” “Parade Duty,” “Pete’s Airstream,” “Randy Get Your Gun,” “Rear D Day,” ”Brothers And Sister,” “Prank War,” “Vets,” “The General Inspection,” “Homecoming,” “Paint Cart 5000 vs. The Mondo Spider,” “Army Men,” “Alive Day.”
- Some great subtle callbacks in this episode: Pete’s football hero background from “Homecoming” helps Jill craft the perfect toast, Randy once again does that thing from “Randy Get Your Gun” where he won’t make eye contact after losing Cody’s foot, and Derrick manages to capture the moment of inner vulnerability Cody said he shouldn’t be looking for and probably didn’t even exist back in “Paint Cart 5000 vs. The Mondo Spider.” (And speaking of photography, Derrick’s interest in the subject is motivated by Chris Lowell’s own work as a professional photographer.)
- While a comparatively minor part of the episode, everything about Chubowski’s desire to snag a date with Lori Laughlin from Full House was great. It’s easily Mel Rodriguez’s best material since getting physically abused back in “Rear D Day,” a sense of equipoise about his performance that’s endearing to witness and that stirs Derrick up in a way not even his brothers could. (Plus, an ideal threat: “Mind you, if it’s Lori Laughlin, you can eat a bag of glass.”) And the fact that Laughlin appears at the end makes is another wonderful shot of positivity.
- Also a great episode for Private Ruiz. As a late addition to the cast Maronzio Vance hasn’t had the chance to pop as well as the rest of the ensemble, but here the writers succeed by deciding to make him a bit crazy—taking a page from New Girl’s Winston Bishop School of Supporting Character Development—and have him fixate on the idea of being homecoming king. “Off with their heads!” (Pete: “If that helps.”)
- So, JaMort and Robinson. Who saw that coming? And who’s been on Team JaMoRobinson (other shipper ideas?) since day one?
- Dobkiss on the Seacourt Motor Lodge: “They have a machine that just gives you ice!”
- Randy’s gifts to Pete on his Alive Day: a cake and a T-shirt, “The Hill Are Alive.” Pete: “I gotta admit, that’s awesome.”
- “You know that’s super-weird, right?” “It’s not weird, it’s brothers.”
- Derrick’s coping mechanism post-breakup: listening to Frank McCourt reading the audiobook of Angela’s Ashes. “I’m at the part where he gives the raisin to the boy with no shoes.”
- Chubowski: “I’ve got the steak, now bring me the sizzle.” Derrick: “Are we still in the Army?”
- “I got worried I’d leave my coffee on the roof of the car so to avoid that I put your foot up there. But you know, when you get in your car you don’t think ‘Did I leave my boss’s fake foot on the roof?’ But that will be my next thought from now on!”
- “Yep, he’s already getting naked.”
- Thanks again to everyone who’s followed along with these reviews. Hands on heads to each of you!