The screens both big and small are littered with rugged, manly soldiers tasked with defending freedom. Very few of them, however, feel as genuine as the men of The Unit. And for good reason: the show is loosely based on the life of Command Sergeant Major Eric L. Haney, a founding member of Delta Force, as well as his memoir Inside Delta Force. Haney met series creator David Mamet as a technical consultant on the set of Mamet's Spartan and discussions between the two soon turned to collaborating on some sort of project based on Haney's experiences. Just between the two of them, you'd expect The Unit to be amazing television, and it is, but when you throw a third leg on the tripod in the form of The Shield's Shawn Ryan, the result is four seasons of intense, arresting military drama, all gathered together inside The Unit: The Complete Giftset.
The audience joins the top-secret Special Forces group known only as The Unit as the same time as new recruit Bob Brown (Scott Foley). Thrown almost immediately into a hostage-rescue mission, he soon meets the rest of the group: Sergeant Major Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert), Mack Gerhardt (Max Martini), Charles Grey (Michael Irby), and Hector Williams (Demore Barnes), all overseen by Colonel Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick). Based out of the fictional Fort Griffith, the group operates under cover as the "303rd Logistical Studies Group," but the only logistics they spend their time on are the logistics of sniping an enemy commander off his balcony at several hundred yards. Over the course of four seasons, the men of The Unit deploy all over the globe, tackling everything from rescuing missionaries in Indonesia to thwarting an assassination attempt against the president-elect and vice president-elect right here on American soil.
But the Unit's missions in the field are only half of the story. What sets The Unit apart from many action-dramas that have come before (aside from the verisimilitude of Haney's involvement and the top-notch writing and performances) is that the show spends nearly as much time focused on the men's wives, the sacrifices they make, and the toll their husbands' profession takes on them. The group's presiding matriarch is Jonas' wife, Molly (Regina Taylor), and she is joined by Tiffy Gerhardt (Abby Brammell) and Kim Brown (Audrey Marie Anderson). It's an object lesson in the old "behind every good man..." adage, and the strength and courage of these women is constantly shown as the bulwark that holds these men upright when everything else fails them.
At its core, The Unit is a show about devotion and loyalty: the bond of brotherhood between Blane and his men, the bond between the men and their wives, even the loyalty between all of the above and their country. It's no surprise that every one of those bonds are tested over the course of the show, from the ongoing affair between Colonel Ryan and Tiffy Gerhardt, which threatens to tear the group apart from the inside, to the government itself turning its back on the men who have gone above and beyond to serve it. It's a tribute to the writing talents involved that, despite airing during an unpopular and convoluted war overseas, the show never stoops to overt partisanship or politicizing, never has an "Iraq episode," for lack of a better term. In fact, it generally operates on the far other end of the spectrum: for these men, politics are beside the point; what matters is the mission and the men beside you. Which isn't to say that they agree with everything that comes down the chain of command, but the weight of choosing where to draw a line in the sand is always emphasized and portrayed as something these men do not take lightly.
Performances are excellent across the board. The men of The Unit aren't cartoonish action heroes: they're dedicated, professional, cool under fire, and surprisingly introverted in many ways. Any one of them could kill you in any number of ways, but if you were to meet them in public, they'd most likely be the mild-mannered, clean-cut fellow holding the door for you with a polite nod. They all share a somewhat dark sense of humor, but this never materializes as one-liners in the field -- they're too focused on getting the job done to crack wise. It's almost hard to describe the presence all of the actors convey, except to say that it just feels right, even to someone who hasn't served in the military, and that it's about as far from the usual Hollywood portrayals of military men as you can get.
With David Mamet and Shawn Ryan involved, it's no surprised that both the writing and the dialogue maintain a level of quality across all four seasons. Nobody writes dialogue that sounds like Mamet's, and The Unit's dialogue becomes a strange but fascinating hybrid of military cadence and Mamet's usual verbal acrobatics. Ryan's The Shield was a masterwork of grey and shifting morality, so it's no surprise that there are rarely any easy answers and very little unfolds in the way you would expect. From the domestic drama on base to the overseas action, The Unit never disappoints.
In revisiting the show before sitting down to write this review, it was a challenge to find a bad episode -- a challenge I failed to meet -- but several episodes stand out as particularly memorable. The first-season episode "SERE" tests the men on every level as they're put through a course of Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape training that challenges the limits of their physical and mental endurance, not to mention attempts to turn them against each other. "Five Brothers" sees the loss of a colleague and gives us a fascinating and emotional look at how the men of The Unit deal with loss. "Hill 60" finds The Unit confronted with an attack on their home soil when a deadly gas is unleashed on their base, leaving the men divided and forced to survive, secure their families, and foil the attack.
In a sea of interchangeable police procedurals and hospital dramas, The Unit was something truly unique, even down to its stirring and unforgettable original theme song, a variant on the Marine Corp running song "Fired Up...Feels Good." It never became the break-out hit it deserved to be, but thanks to DVD, the show has been preserved in an excellent set that's a can't-miss purchase for both the fan and the curious.
The DVDs for The Shield were packed with excellent special features, so with Ryan's involvement, it's not surprising that The Unit upholds this tradition with a variety of interesting and entertaining extras. The first season is also the lightest, featuring commentary on the episode "SERE" and an "Inside Delta Force" featurette. Fortunately, these make up in quality what they lack in quantity. While many other commentaries and featurettes follow on later seasons, these are two of the most fascinating, giving insights into Haney's life, the creation of the show, and a detailed breakdown of real-life SERE training that will make you feel much less macho than you previously did, unless you are actually undergoing SERE training yourself while watching the episode.
Seasons 2 and 3 include commentary on damn near every episode, running the gamut from writers, directors, actors, and various other crew. The second season includes a featurette about the making of the season finale, another one about the making of the submarine-centric episode "Sub Conscious," and a third feature revolving around the show's weaponry and weaponmasters. Season 3 includes deleted scenes -- more interesting than many such scenes, but still understandably extraneous -- and a roundtable with Ryan and several of the show's writers discussing their craft and processes. Season 4 is the only season without any commentaries, but it sports more deleted scenes and three featurettes focusing on everything from individual episodes to the character of Jonas.
Honestly, when the worst complaint I can come up with is that the fourth season doesn't have any commentaries, that's a good problem to have. Pretty much every aspect of the show you might want to know more about is addressed in some form, whether in a commentary or in a documentary. It's an exhaustive, definitive set for one of the best shows of the past decade, and it easily upholds the high standards of presentation set by Ryan's Shield DVDs. If the $200 price tag seems high, suffice to say that the content inside earns every penny.