Parker Young (left), Geoff Stults (Fox)

A few weeks ago on The A.V. Club, my colleague Todd VanDerWerff wrote a terrific piece on how the modern sitcom is suffering from a lack of conflict, where genuine issues between characters are being sanded off in favor of creating a comfortable hang-out vibe. In his extensive list of examples, he cited the cancellation of Enlisted as an unfortunate casualty of this trend. Rather than go for the friendly ensemble where everything is sorted out in the end, Enlisted is “a comedy that dared to have darker, more dramatic moments ridden with conflict… a show that understood the inherent conflict in military life, in brothers who had strained their relationship growing up.”

As usual, Todd hits the nail on the head as to why Enlisted manages to stand out among so many other shows. The setting of a military base automatically creates a list of rules and regulations that the main characters are constrained by, where trying to exist under or subvert those rules can form the spine of most episodes. From a character standpoint, Pete, Derrick, and Randy are all highly distinct individuals, personality types that would clash under normal circumstances and are even more volatile due to the assuredly arduous process of having to grow up together. “Army Men,” the second-to-last episode of Enlisted’s first season, is another episode that juggles those tensions easily and proves that despite what network development may say, conflict handled right can still be funny.

The episode’s central plot is grounded in that most time-honored of conflicts, the sibling rivalry. With a three-day weekend coming up, Randy’s decided to participate in advance training for the Army Rangers, with Pete going along to support his brother—a support expressed by way of competition. While Enlisted’s done a great job crafting the dynamic of the Hills, it has yet to establish a true sibling rivalry between them, which it does by setting up the oldest and youngest brothers as competing in everything over the years: chicken pox, marshmallow eating, armpit hair yanking, milk races and lap pasta. It’s a feud that makes perfect sense, as while Randy clearly worships Pete’s abilities, his love of the Army and desire to succeed would certainly manifest as a desire to live up to and even surpass those expectations. It’s a goal expressed in perfect Randy language: “One day, I’ll beat Pete, and then he’ll cry! Then I’ll probably cry. There’ll be a period of disillusionment. I may grow a beard.”

That sibling rivalry is made even more complicated with the arrival of their surrogate sister, as Jill also wants to complete the training in preparation for acceptance of female Ranger candidates. Normally this would add another layer of competition to the proceedings, but after the events of “The General Inspection” Randy’s feeling dreaded emotions and is incapable of maintaining his composure around her. This produces all of the expected Parker Young hyperemotional goofiness as he babbles his way through every interaction, an existential muttering that turns into James Bond film titles. (“The world is not enough. You only live twice. Quantum of solace!”) It’s also a relationship that makes sense, as Randy would be attracted to someone who takes being a soldier as seriously as he does.

Advertisement

Unfortunately for both Hills, Pete’s efforts to steer Randy away only have him also seeing Jill’s most attractive traits. I’ve praised Enlisted on previous episodes for steering away from the obvious move of creating sexual tension between Pete and Jill, but the way it’s introduced here doesn’t feel like a sudden betrayal of that trend. It’s not so much that he’s been hiding his attraction to her, it’s that he’s been so focused on his competitive side that he’s never had his mind open to the possibility. It also helps that his attraction comes about in the most woefully unattractive way, with Jill’s spitting and armpit-smelling midway viewed through slow motion more at home on a shampoo commercial. Most importantly, the plot is less about his feelings for her than Randy’s reaction to said feelings, which culminates in the two wrestling like they’re fighting over a girl on the playground.

As is so often the case, it falls to Cody to restore order to the circumstances, literally hosing them down until they cool off. Already annoyed by how many episodes of Restaurant Impossible he could be watching, the behavior of the Hills has him legitimately enraged. Here’s where Enlisted’s setting gives the narrative something special, as despite the proximity to monkey bars, this isn’t a playground. For the characters to behave like this when they’re trying to honor the institution of the Rangers is a disgrace, and if it translated to the field, someone could get seriously hurt. It makes a romantic triangle that could be trivial into something serious, and follows up the argument in “Randy Get Your Gun” as to why Jill fraternizing with any of the Hills is a bad idea.

All of this takes place as Jill remains unable to complete the last stretch of the Ranger obstacle course, which allows the episode to take on a triumphant close. Pete and Randy suppress their crush for their legitimate love of the Army, cheering Jill on as she makes her way across the Devastator and she strikes the gong at the end with all the force of a church bell ringer. It’s a moment of unity for all three, albeit one that gets broken once Jill gives the brothers a victorious hug and they run away rapidly in opposite directions. Whatever feelings both men have for her aren’t entirely taken away by Cody’s speech, introducing one more opportunity for conflicts down the road.

Advertisement

Where’s the middle Hill in all of this? Derrick, unwilling to break from his historical response of calling his brothers idiots when they compete, opts to spend the long weekend with his girlfriend Erin. Unfortunately, those idiots plant a seed of doubt in his mind, as the return of Erin’s ex-husband Brandon in “Homecoming” means he’s stopping by to do a bunch of chores. The realization that Superman is hanging around Erin’s house shirtless and bringing jambalya over leaves Derrick feeling emasculated—as we all would in these circumstances—particularly once he finds himself incapable of fixing the kitchen sink and gets rapped by the plunger he applies to the task.

Finding himself without the skills to put the house in order, Derrick decides to turn to the one skill set he’s used so adroitly: manipulating the rest of the unit to do his bidding. If the main cast finds itself at the center of conflict, the supporting cast is largely used as comedic relief, and that trend continues, as Derrick’s able to persuade them that their various household skills make them into superheroes. Park’s topiary skills seen last week become an art form (“I have small hands and terrifying dreams”), Ruiz turns out to have martial arts level focus when it comes to plumbing, and Dobkiss is a top-shelf mechanic. (He can also get you boner pills.) The sequence where all four descend on the house makes for a great montage, with so many little details that make it shine, like Dobkiss opting to add a cape to his wardrobe, or JaMort’s desperate insistence that the cilantro be hand-torn.

Here’s where once again Enlisted proves how good it is at subverting stock comedy plot expectations. In the normal conventions of comedy, you would expect at the third act for the scheme to collapse on itself: Derrick tries to cook and repair without his household Justice League, everything falls apart, and he learns a valuable lesson about how Erin likes him for who he is. However, that angle is thrown out immediately once he glimpses Sam shoving Army men into the washer, and he realizes the reason why so many household appliances are breaking: Sam just wants his dad to come over more often. If there’s one thing a Hill brother is highly sensitive to, it’s the situation of a son whose parent is serving overseas, and he immediately brings it to Erin. (An Erin who’d already figured out his scheme, even before finding Dobkiss’s wallet, crossbow, and vial of boner pills in the back seat of her car.)

Advertisement

To keep the superhero metaphor going, that sensitivity turns out to be Derrick’s Kryptonite, as both he and Erin agree that Brandon and Sam need time together—and it turns out Brandon’s getting deployed to the state of Washington. For all Derrick’s embrace of chaos and manipulation, getting in the way of the family crosses a line for him, and both he and Erin exchange a long look as they realize the only way their relationship is sure to go from here. It’s a bittersweet moment, and a reminder that there is one cost to building sitcoms around conflict: You don’t get to win every time.

Stray observations:

  • There’s a seed of truth in this episode, as the Army Rangers will in fact begin accepting female candidates by 2016.
  • A tremendous cold open for the show as Cody has 35 minutes worth of safety briefing for the unit due to their checkered history. Highlights: Do not do things fire tells you to do (Dobkiss: “What if it’s real persuasive?”), do not take in a feral animal and try to raise it as a pet (Park: “What if it’s real persuasive?”), do not convince an old Jewish couple you are their grandson Jeffrey (Ruiz: “They said I had an adorable punim!”), and food goes in your mouth and not anywhere else. The last one is the most disappointing to the troops as a whole.
  • An episode that features a shirtless Parker Young, Geoff Stults, and Brandon Routh. Clearly, Enlisted isn’t above a little beefcake to try boosting the ratings.
  • Derrick’s role as the Nick Fury of Fort McGee leaves something to be desired: “Soldier heroes, let justice be your compass!” Gumble: “I was excited until right just now.” Dobkiss: “Worst catchphrase in history.”
  • Best Parker Young moment this week: Randy’s shame at attacking his brother. “(To his right hand) You hit Pete! (To his left hand) And YOU let him do it! I’m so sorry! And mad and in love and sad! I’m all the feelings except happy!”
  • “Ranger training is hell on earth and can only be enjoyed in retrospect. Like Cuban food.”
  • “Maybe I am just confused. Like when I ate that Japanese candy that turned out to be hotel soap.”
  • “I love you brother.” “I love you brother.” “I respect you.” “I respect you.” “I beat you.” “That’s where we’re gonna part ways.”
  • Finale next week. Everyone get those hands on heads. It’s gonna be a hilarious tear-jerker.

Advertisement