Friday, May 2, 2014

ENLISTED creator Kevin Biegel fights tooth-and-nail for his show

I've been meaning to write about ENLISTED, which was one of my favorite new comedies of the season this year.  In a landscape dominated by relationship comedies, "friends hanging out" comedies and family comedies, ENLISTED charts its own course by turning to the military as its source for laughs.  That's a gambit that would be a challenge during peacetime, let alone coming after a decade-plus of on-going military engagement in the Middle East.  (Fun fact: yesterday was the 11-year anniversary of "Mission Accomplished.")

Creator Kevin Biegel came up the ranks as a writer on SCRUBS, so it's really no surprise he's adept at balancing humor and heart in a setting that hasn't been mined much for laughs.  When I first heard about the show (and here's where I should disclose that while I don't know Kevin well, he is very good friends with a good friend of mine), I admired the ambition to go so against the grain.  It's also a factor in what drew me to BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, which chose a similarly-unfunny setting as the backdrop for laughs.

The core story of ENLISTED is that of three brothers stationed together at a military base in Florida. As the opening voiceover informs us, these solders in the rear detachment are the ones who look after the homefront while their brothers-in-arms are overseas.  Pete, played by Geoff Stults, has been sent there from Afghanistan after punching out a superior officer.  The series thus far has doled out a number of moments showing that Pete is still dealing with PTSD from his combat days.  While out-of-order scheduling seems to be tinkering with the intended pacing of this story, overall it's added a nice depth to the character and shown that - like SCRUBS - this series isn't afraid to mix emotion in with its levity without compromising either.

(By the way, Pete's PTSD is inspired by Biegel's own emotions following heart surgery five years ago.  The experience made him think about death in ways he'd never confronted before and he shared those emotions in a very brave and moving essay with THR that you can find here.)

Pete's brothers - played by Chris Lowell and Parker Young - have shown a great brotherly chemistry from the start. All of them play well off of the incomparable Keith David as their commanding officer and Angelique Cabral's as a rival platoon leader.  Along the way, the show's also developed a deep bench of supporting oddballs within Pete's platoon, all of whom are impeccably cast.  There's a confidence to the writing and performing that might fool you into thinking you're watching a show in its second season or beyond.

But ENLISTED is struggling.  Fox stranded it on Friday nights without much of a lead-in when it would have really benefited from being paired with BROOKLYN NINE-NINE on Tuesdays.  It's really no shock that the ratings were so low, but Fox completely failed to capitalize on the very strong critical support for the series.

The ENLISTED cast and crew have also been working overtime in engaging the fans via Twitter.  Learning from Shonda Rhimes success in promoting SCANDAL via live-tweets, the ENLISTED team made sure that every available hand was there on show-night, chatting with fans and spilling details on the series.  It's a game plan that's extended beyond the network airings.

In this day and age, every metric matters and could mean the difference between renewal and cancellation.  Fox pulled ENLISTED from the schedule with four episodes unaired, which usually would mean it was a shoe-in for cancellation and if we were lucky, we'd see the final eps burned off over the summer.  So the ENLISTED team has connived to keep their fans engaged.

Each Friday, an ENLISTED "live-tweet repeat" is arranged for 10pm EST/7pm PST.  With all aired episodes available online, the creators designate a specific episode for their fans to watch on that particular day while as many of the ENLISTED cast and crew offer running commentary.  The goal of the coordinated live-tweet is obviously to show Fox how engaged their audiences is, both through the online viewing numbers and by if "ENLISTED" shows up as a Twitter trending topic.

Tonight's episode is a great one called "Randy Get Your Gun," which you can find here.

Kevin Biegel's twitter is @kbiegel, while the Enlisted writers are at @EnlistedWriters and the other showrunner, Mike Royce is @MikeRoyce.

As this fantastic interview with Kevin Biegel notes, the four unaired episodes will debut at the Austin Television Festival.  (And I really hope I'll be able to attend that fantastic gathering, but it's up in the air at the moment.  Keep your fingers crossed for me.)  Biegel teases:

"The last four are probably some of the biggest things we did. It culminates the story between Derrick and the bartender. There's an arc that we very carefully mapped out with Pete's PTSD that would be hopeful but also realistic. We didn't want to do, "Now Pete's solved! Now Pete's healthy!" We tried to do this tough thing for a comedy, which is to deal with a very serious and real issue facing actual soldiers and take it seriously. And we culminate that in the finale in a really special kind of way. There's that. 

"We decided that if we've got a few episodes left, we wanted to have as much Keith David as we could, so we amped up the physical comedy with him. With Angelique (Cabral)'s character, we decided to have her decide that she wants to be more in the Army than she is now, and to try to jump ranks. And Mike and I had long discussions with the writers about whether we should do something with Pete and Jill, and I always said, "No, that's cheesey!" But then we found a clever way to have our cake and eat it too with those guys. Parker's character may take a shine to Jill for very professional reasons, and that could lead to some brotherly conflict."

Please give the show a shot.  There's no other series like it on TV and we've gotta support the misfits whenever we can.


  1. FOX treated Enlisted so badly it was like it was deliberately trying to sabotage the show. From sticking it on the Night Where Shows Go To Die, to first wanting to premiere it in the No Man's Land of Nov. 8, then at the last minute pushing it back to Jan. 10, to showing the episodes out of order, to completely failing to promote it, and to totally ignoring the critical acclaim. FOX did everything wrong, and nothing right. It's like the network had decided before the show even aired that it wanted to get rid of it. It's a brilliant show for the reasons you mentioned, chockful of both humor and heart, and an original premise for a sitcom in a sea of family/relationship settings, and deft enough to tackle serious issues like PTSD in the midst of all the comedy. The oddball characters are very endearing as well as funny, and the relationship between the brothers feels so rich and so real. I really hope this show somehow survives.

  2. Interesting quote. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens with ENLISTED.

    By the way, I've been reading most of your recent posts, and I really enjoyed your comments on Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

    I just wrote a short review about it; in case you're interested you can check it out here: