A retired Navy SEAL distilled a basic problem with telling special operators’ war stories on TV into a single sentence.
“If you’re doing tactics properly, the camera’s not going to be able to see you,” said Mikal Vega, technical adviser to NBC’s “The Brave” — one of three hourlong spec ops shows that will debut on network television this fall.
Also heading into living rooms: CBS’s “SEAL Team” and The CW’s “Valor.” Producers of all three shows outlined their different paths to the same destination: Tell dramatic stories about elite warriors while portraying their service, and their home lives, as accurately and free of Hollywood cliché as possible.
“If it feels like completely fantasy, it’s not paying tribute to the people who live this in real life,” said Kyle Jarrow, writer and executive producer on “Valor.”
That means bringing in advisers like Vega, who pulls from his SEAL background as well as his own burgeoning career as an actor and producer in Hollywood. All three shows employ veterans at multiple levels, both within and outside of the spec ops fields.
(One name may stand out among the group: Matt Bissonnette, the former SEAL whose firsthand account of the Osama bin Laden raid in his memoir, “No Easy Day,” is one of several advisers for “SEAL Team.” The show even includes a subplot about a former operator whose book could make life tougher for his son, an aspiring SEAL. C. Thomas Howell will play the author; executive producer Christopher Chulack said any relation to Bissonnette’s specific case “wasn’t calculated.”)
Advisers work to ensure the final product is free of mismatched insignia, improper firearm techniques or unlikely word choices. But producers and staff from all three shows made it clear that story comes first.
“There are some times where we can’t kind of do it the way it’s done [in the field] because it goes by so quickly,” Chulack said. “It goes by so fast you can’t photograph it. It’s a fine line.”
Dean Georgaris, executive producer of “The Brave,” praised Vega’s work in not only parsing the details, but in building a self-policing team atmosphere among the actors-turned-operators who are part of an elite unit under the direct guidance of a Defense Intelligence Agency official, played by Anne Heche.
That meant actors were hitting the gym on their off days and monitoring their own behavior in uniform. Still, Georgaris said, there are limits.
“We ended up using a take of one of our characters walking into his room with his finger on the trigger, and it drives the actor crazy,” said the producer/writer. “He’s like, ‘I know, I know, I shouldn’t have done that.’ But it happened to be his best performance.”
SHOW BY SHOW
Despite similar themes, the programs aren’t carbon copies.
“The Brave” will take a “mission of the week” approach to its storytelling, Vega said. Georgaris said he hoped to avoid the “artificially inflated” family drama of other military shows, focusing instead on the perseverance of the characters instead of “personal struggle.”
Conversely, “SEAL Team” opens with star David Boreanaz, as team leader Jason Hayes, in a psychiatrist’s office. Action sequences that involve at-sea explosions and tracking potential suicide bombers through a maze of tunnels come later.
“Ultimately, this is a show about human beings, their psyche,” Chulack said. “We’ll be very involved in their domestic lives. … I think that’s the difference. The action is the action, the tactical stuff is the tactical stuff, it’s really about the inner workings of the people, of the guys in the squad.”
That doesn’t mean the unit’s missions will be glossed over.
“I want the audience to feel like they’re walking with them,” Chulack said of the show’s perspective. “They’re in with them. They’re a fly on the wall on the mission, in the team room, in the bar. … The audience is always brought in from the point of view, or the purview, of the squad.
“I didn’t want the audience to know there was a bad guy behind the wall. The good guys will take you there.”
Chulack, a producer on critically acclaimed dramas “ER” and “Southland,” said he hoped “SEAL Team” would follow a similar path, allowing viewers to get an inside look at characters with, “needless to say, interesting jobs.”
In an earlier interview, Georgaris brought up some of his influences for “The Brave”: “I’ve always felt that on ‘ER’ and ‘Southland’ and great workplace drama, they didn’t have to create stories outside of the show.”
Vega’s efforts helped the actors form a coherent unit, Georgaris said, one that “allowed us [to] do things that are more complicated.”
Vega also helped steer the writers away from some less-than-practical approaches. One episode called for the team to engineer a prison break by crashing a Humvee through the wall.
“Mikal happened to be in the room that day,” Georgaris said. “He just shot me this look, and I was like, ‘OK, guys, we’re not doing it that way. Let’s talk about how we’re going to actually do it.’ … We actually came up with a much cooler, realistic scene.”
That real-life perspective helped keep the show grounded, avoiding “the myth … that these are borderline superheroes,” he said. “And what makes them so special is, you know, ‘A special set of skills.’ And the reality, which I find much more interesting, is that it’s the mindset. It’s the perseverance. It’s the qualities that, frankly, I can emulate, to a small degree. Not to the degree that they have them.“
Jarrow, of “Valor,” took a slightly different tact — his show will premiere Oct. 9, after “Supergirl.”
“There’s a logic there,” he said. “CW tells a lot of stories about heroes, and whether those heroes are sometimes fantastical, or they are military heroes who do things that border on fantastical, it does feel like there’s a DNA there that is similar.”
A YOUNGER DEMO
“Valor” not only differs by featuring Army helicopter pilots in the main roles, but by putting spotlight on its characters attempting to unravel a botched mission, not on new deployments.
The show also skews younger, in keeping with its network’s target audience. Jarrow, the executive producer, sees that as an advantage.
“The military, people are young,” he said. “People are retiring when they’re in their early 40s or before. In terms of characters, it’s realistic. Special Forces is a little older than conventional forces, but in terms of The CW, the core demographic, that’s the age of most of the folks in the military. And to me, it’s really interesting. …
“What does it mean to be 28 and going into combat? Risking their life? How different is that from an ‘average’ 28-year-old? But also, you are still 28. You are still trying to figure out your life, in some ways. … I think that’s something that The CW audience is going to relate to.”
From their respective pilots, all shows put their characters into various moral quandaries: “SEAL Team” and “The Brave” weigh the value of a civilian hostage against that of a military objective, for instance. “Valor” takes its lead characters into an internal struggle, separating the official version of events from what really happened.
“You really get into this theme of duty versus morality,” said Jarrow, whose brother served in Afghanistan. “And, how do you reconcile those things in your life? And I think, certainly for my brother and for others that I know, that theme does kind of sit at the center of life.”
All three shows will tackle serious themes, the producers said, but all hope to do so without heavy-handed treatment of service member suicide, post-traumatic stress or other issues that have received attention from the entertainment industry — not all of it beneficial to troops.
Military members who’ve seen “The Brave” have offered “appreciation that none of our characters seem to be harboring some terrible flaw that feels unrealistic to them,” Georgaris said.
“We’re not going to exploit it in the negative,” said Chulack, of “SEAL Team.” “This is not a ‘message’ show. … This is a show about people.”
ON THE AIR (all times Eastern/Pacific): ”The Brave,” NBC, 10 p.m. Mondays starting Sept. 25; “SEAL Team,” CBS, 9 p.m. Wednesdays starting Sept. 27. ”Valor,” The CW, 9 p.m. Mondays starting Oct. 9
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.