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Twenty-five years ago, NBC's Seinfeld changed the television comedy landscape. Instead of the usual likeable characters and morals they would learn by episode's end, the 90s sensation brought something new to the half-hour format by creating a show 'about nothing' with the tenet of 'no hugging, no lessons.' The success led to many, many other sitcoms following suit until a decade later when another NBC series, Bill Lawrence's Scrubs, challenged the revisionist model and offered a reflexive take on the genre. The hospital-set series was warm, silly and often concluded with the characters learning a valuable lesson. More importantly, it proved that audiences were still open to uncynical comedy, carving a trench parallel to the Seinfelds for other heart-warmers to find success. Enlisted creator Kevin Biegel was pivotal to this reflexive movement, a writer on Scrubs as well as co-creator of Cougar Town with Lawrence, and his new sitcom is the ultimate expression of this approach.
Fox's new sitcom firmly falls into the 'hugging and lessons' category, joining other warm-hearted gems like Community, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Actually, the easiest way to describe Enlisted is probably to compare it to B99, the former doing to the army what the latter is doing with the police, taking the potentially serious setting and filling it with endearing, goofy characters. Instead of a P.D. in New York, the Fox Friday night series takes place in 'Rear D' after a 'super soldier' (Geoff Stults) is suddenly demoted from the battlefields of Afghanistan to take charge of a ragtag Rear Detachment Unit in Florida. That's already a pretty solid fish-out-of-water premise for a comedy, however, to heighten the emotional and comedic stakes, two of the ragtags happen to be the super-soldier's not so super brothers, one an apathetic wise ass (Chris Lowell), the other a passionate but incompetent sweetheart (Parker Young). Rounding out the main five are a grizzled vet (Keith David) who's been relegated to a desk job after being wounded in combat and a hyper-competitive not to mention rather cute rival unit leader (Angelique Cabral) at the base.
Enlisted is a perfect pitch on paper however, like all sitcoms, it's all for naught unless you get the right cast. Well, writing is important too, but casting is key and drafting the right actors into the roles is why the Fox series should already be tagged for 'Best of 2014' lists. Sorry, I know that's annoying to say in the second week of January. Not that I regret saying it because you need to watch this show. Stults is great as Pete Hill, able to project both the super-soldier as well as the vulnerability needed for some of the more intimate moments. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wishes they had him for their leading man. Lowell plays Derek, the Bill Murray-type -- an apt comparison since there is definitely a hint of Stripes in Enlisted -- and might be my favorite character. Young is the youngest Hill brother, Randy, and has the toughest challenge of playing the (emotionally) big personality yet handles it very well.
David is fun to watch as the exasperated commanding officer with a missing leg and Cabral could end up being series MVP when all is said and done. She does both the flirty and firm very well. As far as the rest of the ensemble, there are too many to single out even though they are all worth mentioning. Again, the casting director did a fine job of not only nailing the leads (you know what I mean) but finding funny people to fill in the rest of the unit, each starting as a type while showing potential for growth when Enlisted needs them (as evidenced in one of the subplots in Episode 4, "Pete's Airstream"). As you can tell, I'm really avoiding getting into the story lines because what's the point of telling you what each of them are about? I will say that I've seen the first four (the pilot - which is structured a little differently than the rest - E4, "PA" plus Episode 2, "Randy Get Your Gun" and Episode 3, "Prank War") and they are all funny, full of heart and just meta enough to be clever without feeling condescending.
And even when you're not laughing out loud at the clever one-liners, and there are plenty, you'll be smiling at Enlisted's overflowing charm. This is what critics mean when they call a program 'winning.' I think. I'm still a little unsure on that one... What is it winning? In this case, it better be a back-nine (or straight-up second season) renewal. Why it's not part of the phenomenal Tuesday night block, I don't know. Imagine Enlisted, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl and The Mindy Project as a comedy block. Fox must be saving Dads' slot for Mulaney. Too bad, cause Kevin Biegel's sitcom would be a perfect fit and create the funniest unit on television. Reinstate the draft, because Enlisted is mandatory viewing.
Enlisted premieres TONIGHT at 9:30 p.m. ET on FOX. Created by Kevin Biegel, the series stars Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, Parker Young, Angelique Cabral and Keith David. Look for it every Friday night.
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