68 Whiskey: M*A*S*H for the War on Terror?

68 Whiskey, a new show on the Paramount Network, is a comedy-drama about American military personnel serving at a mobile medical outpost in a combat zone.

Sound familiar? If you think this sounds a lot like M*A*S*H (1972 – 1983), you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But 68 Whiskey is set in the present day in Afghanistan, and the overall vibe is different from that old favorite of the 1970s and early 1980s.

The tone of 68 Whiskey is a lot like The Sopranos (1999-2007), in that it injects black humor into what would ordinarily be serious subject matter. Like The Sopranos, 68 Whiskey features a moderately suspenseful, ongoing storyline, alongside deadpan deliveries of dialogue and situations that are intended to make the viewer chuckle.

How else does 68 Whiskey compare to M*A*S*H, that long-running comedy-drama about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea?

First of all, the creators of M*A*S*H had the discretion, when dealing with the touchy balancing act of satirizing war, to put some distance between the present and their subject matter. M*A*S*H debuted in 1972, just as America’s war in Vietnam was winding down. M*A*S*H definitely tapped into the pessimistic  zeitgeist of the Nixon years, when many Americans were cynical about our institutions.

But M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War—then twenty years in the past. 68 Whiskey, by contrast, deals with a conflict that is still very much a present and going concern.

It was one thing to laugh at the antics Hawkeye and Trapper John when the veterans of the Korean War were all in their forties or fifties. It’s another thing to laugh at a war which still produces some American casualties, and produced quite a lot just a few short years ago.

As with M*A*S*H, 68 Whiskey presents a generally unflattering view of the military. Officers are depicted as venal and buffoonish. Personnel of the lower ranks are more concerned with scams and hedonism than with their jobs.

This is what satire is all about, of course. But the question is: How well will such satire go over? I would expect that some recent military veterans will take exception to the portrayals of them and their comrades in this show.

Also, the sex in the show is overdone. The first episode opens with a scene of two soldiers (a man and a woman) copulating atop an empty shelf in a storage room. Sex was certainly implied in M*A*S*H, but this was borderline softcore porn. 

I’m now in my fifties, and there isn’t much that shocks me at this stage in life. But I know from experience that an over-reliance on sexual titillation (unless it is an actual porn film) is usually a sign of lazy screenwriting. This aspect of the show struck me as self-indulgent. Or—to put it another way: Just because you can say words like “dick” and “clit” on cable TV, that doesn’t mean that you actually should.

Despite its flaws, 68 Whiskey is entertaining. The characters (even if they aren’t complimentary representations of Americans in uniform) are distinctive and likable. The action sequences contain enough humor to keep things light, but not so much humor that you lose your ability to suspend your disbelief. I’ve finished watching the first episode, and I’m eager to see episode #2.