HBO's 'Generation Kill' Gamble

HBO is about to present its big summer viewing event: Generation Kill, a seven-part miniseries about the start of the 2003 Iraq invasion, based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright and produced by The Wire creator David Simon (see profile, p. 7). In addition to the battles dramatized on screen, HBO is battling on two other volatile fronts.

One is the rocky history of TV series and theatrical films covering this still-current war, with audiences resoundingly rejecting projects even when big names are featured on the screen or behind the scenes. And if that's not enough of a minefield, HBO also has to hope that Generation Kill can recapture some glory stolen recently by the network's increasingly high-profile rival, Showtime.

So Generation Kill, when it arrives July 13, boils down to three key questions.

First, is it worth watching? Second, will war-weary, war-drama-wary viewers watch it, even if it is? And third, will such a serious miniseries gain HBO traction in a year when its recent series efforts have faltered, while such showy Showtime series as Dexter, Weeds and Secret Diary of a Call Girl have attracted both viewers and acclaim?

The first question is the easiest one to answer. Yes, Generation Kill is definitely worth watching. It's about the first 40 days of the Iraq War, as experienced by the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the Marines, and it throws you into the experience instantly and as completely as a dramatization can. Think Saving Private Ryan, or HBO's own Band of Brothers miniseries, both about World War II.

But Generation Kill, with Wright, Simon and Ed Burns all collaborating on scripts, and with Simon Cellan Jones and Susanna White alternating direction, isn't about the Great War. It's about the war being fought right now, and its realistic feel is enhanced by the fact that its stars are, for the most part, relative unknowns (familiar face Lee Tergesen plays Wright's embedded-reporter counterpart in the drama, but that character is relegated to the background).

There's lots of dark humor, a display of bravado by young men surrounded by uncertain, unsafe circumstances. It's a perfect subject for a miniseries, because the idea that any character can die at any time makes every mission a tense viewing experience. Band of Brothers benefited from this uncertainty, as did the Masterpiece Theatre drama, Danger UXB, about a British WWII unit dispatched to defuse unexploded bombs.

Yet those dramas were presented decades after those wars were, quite literally, history. True, not all films or TV shows about ongoing wars didn't find audiences. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, released in 1940, lampooned Adolf Hitler after England entered the war, but before the U.S. did, and 1942's Casablanca, a WWII film released during the war, remains an enduring classic. But those are rare exceptions.

Both the film and TV versions of M*A*S*H were introduced while the Vietnam War was still being fought, but despite its topical lessons and allusions, that was a dark comedy about the Korean War. Vietnam dramas didn't succeed in primetime until Tour of Duty in 1987 and China Beach in 1988, more than a decade after the war was over. And FX's Over There, an excellent series about the current war, came and went quickly in 2005. Viewers simply shunned it.

Most Iraq or Afghanistan war movies have been similarly avoided—even though Syriana had George Clooney, A Mighty Heart had Angelina Jolie, The Kingdom starred Jamie Foxx, In the Valley of Elah had Tommy Lee Jones, Redacted was directed by Brian De Palma, Rendition had Meryl Streep, and Lions for Lambs had Streep, Robert Redford and Tom Cruise. HBO is heading down that same treacherous path.

And it needs a hit. In the last 12 months, it said goodbye to The Sopranos and The Wire. Its John Adams miniseries was a winner but it flopped with series like John From Cincinnati, and has drawn small audiences to cult efforts such as Flight of the Conchords and In Treatment. In the same time frame, Showtime introduced Californication and Call Girl, and triumphed with season two of Dexter.

Will audiences flock to Generation Kill, and will it blunt Showtime's current perceived momentum? To those two questions, the answer is, “Probably not.” But in this case, you can't blame, but should praise, HBO for trying.