Two years ago this month, the cable channel Spike — formerly known as Spike TV, and before that TNN, and before that, The Nashville Network — changed its name to The Paramount Network. Millions of cord-cutters, myself included, didn’t even notice. I’m guessing a lot of cable TV subscribers didn’t notice either, except for that super-tiny contingent of Spike devotees.
But that’s started to change, thanks to Paramount’s first big scripted effort, the excellent Kevin Costner ranching drama Yellowstone. Season 1 was merely the most-watched new cable program of 2018. Then, in 2019, Yellowstone’s viewership over the course of Season 2 doubled. That’s great, the show totally deserves it — but the rest of Paramount Network looks suspiciously like warmed-over Spike: Cops, Ink Master, Bar Rescue, Lip Sync Battle...
Which brings us to Paramount’s next big swing, 68 Whiskey, a war comedy set in the endless American occupation of Afghanistan. The nicely pedigreed series from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard is clearly a different animal, but when I compared the Yellowstone pilot to 68 Whiskey’s pilot, I saw two shows trying to reach the same viewer. Strong male leads bonded by a common foe? Yellowstone and 68 Whiskey both check that box. Illicit business schemes carried on by our heroes? Check. Out-of-control combat violence? Check. Crazy sex scene? Mm-hmmmmm.
And here’s something this non-binge-watching, autoplay-avoiding critic always looks at — whether I pressed play on episode two. In 68 Whiskey’s case, I did so without hesitation.
From creator Roberto Benabib and based on the Israeli TV series Charlie Golf One, 68 Whiskey moves confidently into the small but mighty clique of military comedies that balance the absurdist tragedy of war with the intense emotional bonds and improvised code of ethics on the front lines. Set at “The Orphanage,” a military hospital located in a strategic but godforsaken-looking part of Afghanistan, 68 Whiskey follows the escapades of three first-rate Army doctors — the roguish Roback (Sam Keeley), his tough-as-Kevlar buddy Mekhi Davis (Jeremy Tardy), and the American immigrant Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo) — who are as dangerous outside the operating room as they are life-savers inside.
When they wind up on the wrong side of a big bet, Roback and Davis need to score some quick cash, and a scheme to resell medical supplies to the warlord in a nearby village. Very soon they're in way over their head, stealing (and then losing) a military ambulance and having their meds taken by non-English-speaking locals toting automatic weapons. Suddenly the tone shifts from dangerous to comedic, as Davis storms after the thieves, yelling, “I didn’t come all the way here from the south side of Chicago to be ripped off by drug dealers!”
As I watched the first three episodes unfold, I kept trying to resist the obvious comparison to everyone’s favorite absurdist war drama, M*A*S*H, but resistance proved to be futile. Over its 11 seasons on CBS, M*A*S*H assembled a large and talented company of characters the likes of which American TV audiences simply hadn’t seen before. Nowadays we expect diverse, sprawling casts, and 68 Whiskey rapidly delivers.
Lamont Thompson plays the base’s old-school commander Colonel Austin (aka Sherman Potter). His assistant Durkin (Gage Golightly) is secretly shtupping Roback but is romantically tied to a military contractor and PTSD-riddled vet nicknamed Sasquatch (Derek Theler), and if there’s any doubt whether he can kill Roback with his bare hands, that doubt is eliminated in the opening scene.
Inside the O.R., Beth Liesgraf plays Major Holloway, a by-the-book Army brat who evokes the post-Frank Burns version of “Hot Lips” Houlihan. Another doctor, a Pakistani Brit named Hazara (Usman Ally), knows what it’s like to be an outsider in someone else’s country. The interloper status of Americans in Afghanistan is an obvious theme that 68 Whiskey will likely return to again and again.
The dialogue on the show is fast and occasionally funny, but this is no sitcom. People are going to die on 68 Whiskey, but I stand by my claim that it’s a war comedy. And while people on this show do turn a blind eye to military code at times, the American soldier is mostly portrayed here as good-hearted and professional. In one scene, Davis has village kids over to the base for a soccer game so that he can inoculate them against measles without asking anyone’s permission.
So chalk up another win for the new kid on cable's block. (If you’re waiting for 68 Whiskey and Yellowstone to drop on a streaming service, it could be a while — although CBS All Access may add them since CBS and Viacom, which owns Paramount, just merged.) If Paramount’s smart they’ll stick with 68 Whiskey until it finds an audience. Or rather, the audience finds Paramount.
68 Whiskey premieres Wednesday January 15th at 10:00 PM ET on Paramount Network.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.