Tonight at 9:30/8:30c, FOX debuts the pilot for Enlisted, a new military comedy from Cougar Town co-creator Kevin Biegel, with Men of a Certain Age co-creator Mike Royce on board as his co-showrunner.
I don’t want to talk about the pilot. This may seem strange: it’s the episode that’s supposed to demonstrate proof of concept, establish characters, and get viewers interested in seeing more stories in this universe. It’s also, all told, a solid pilot, one that highlights the bond between three brothers that is undoubtedly the heart of the show, so it’s not as though this is a case of needing to ignore the pilot to get to the good episodes after it. If you tune in to watch Enlisted tonight, you’ll find a well-crafted pilot that makes a clear, amiable case for tuning in next week.
And yet it was the second episode that sold me on Enlisted. In its pilot, Enlisted has a hook: Pete, a decorated soldier played by Geoff Stults, returns to the homefront with some level of disgrace, where he reunites with his two brothers—Parker Young and Chris Lowell—and is forced to take command of their rear detachment unit. Those characters are clearly sketched out, and the setting picks up on oddball tropes of military comedy in introducing a collection of minor characters that populate the universe. Outside of Sgt. Perez (Angelique Cabral), propped up as a rival/love interest for Pete, the rest of the characters are props, there to set tone or get a quick laugh, typical for a pilot.
In the second half-hour, airing next week, the basic hierarchy of the show doesn’t change: it’s not as though a new main character is added, or the characterization of any one character changes dramatically. However, the episode does two things that make Enlisted a sustainable and compelling series moving forward. The first is that it refocused on the challenge of commanding a unit on a day-to-day basis, moving past the overly pat conclusion of the pilot—test audiences love a pat conclusion—to the trials of getting a group of individuals to respect your authority. Whereas the pilot largely used Pete and his brothers to tell this story, the second episode has the confidence to pair Pete with some of those “props,” sketching out distinct characters whose interactions with Pete define who they are and not just what purpose they serve. It allows Pete’s relationship with his brothers and his relationship with his unit to merge into an all-encompassing metaphor of family, a task 90% of sitcoms perform because of its effectiveness, and one that works best here when it’s expanded to cover the more minor characters.
However, the episode also does something else: it seeks to create gender balance in its storytelling. It breaks Sgt. Perez off with two other female characters, gives them agency over their own storyline separate from—but thematically tied to—Pete’s, and it reveals more about their characters as a result. It’s a funny storyline, with some great comedy duo work from Tania Gunadi and Michelle Buteau, but more importantly it announces that Enlisted understands that its female characters need not exist solely as foils for their male counterparts. It creates a space for them to socialize, and engage each other as people, and it then takes those relationships and brings them back into the quasi-workplace, quasi-family space of the base itself.
Like any series trying to mine comedy out of a serious subject, there are occasional issues with tone, but what makes Enlisted work is that you see the writers working on tone, just as the second episode shows them working on issues related to gender. Perhaps it would be ideal if we had no sense of the writers operating to balance or develop a series once it’s on air, but comedy is difficult. I wrote a Tumblr post last year based partially on my experiencing watching the Enlisted pilot in which I expressed my lack of enjoyment when watching comedy pilots:
“The pace of a comedy pilot is incredibly erratic: they open quickly to establish premise, but then are forced to slow down to avoid burning through any story to leave open the potential for more stories to be told. They bear the marks of being produced for two audiences—executives and test audiences—which are seen as requiring both closure and endless possibility, and only very rarely does that result function effectively for comedy as an art form.”
I still feel this way, but I’m realizing that my view on watching comedy shifts in the following episodes. Whereas comedy pilots struggle under the weight of their design, overly worked to the point of losing a sense of experimentation, I want to see a comedy working on itself in subsequent episodes. The same markers that make a comedy pilot difficult to evaluate make additional episodes exciting, as the “work” has two different goals: while a comedy pilot has to convince people it’s more certain of itself than it is, subsequent episodes are allowed to seem a bit uncertain, experimentation a necessary part of a show’s development that I, for one, embrace as a sign of writers understanding the inherent challenges of this or any premise. It is also reflected in their choice to send the show’s cast to boot camp, or their “Spot Our Errors” contest that reaches out to those in military service to keep them in check with how they’re presenting military life—it’s all evidence of a show willing to examine itself and work to find the best show within its premise.
That work isn’t done by the end of the four episodes screened for the critics, but why would it be? Comedy takes time, and Enlisted deserves it based on the work being done in these episodes. I do not want to reserve all judgment: this is ultimately a “review,” and so I’ll say that I think Enlisted is a charming, resonant and funny series in its first four episodes. That said, the best thing I can say about Enlisted is that it gave me confidence in its storytelling, confidence that combined with the quality of its “work” make it one of the year’s most promising comedies.