BARNHART

68 Whiskey’s Creator on the Unique Burden of the American Soldier

Roberto Benabib explains why he’s done with antiheroes.
  • Sam Keeley and Cristina Rodlo in a scene from 68 Whiskey. (Paramount Network)
    Sam Keeley and Cristina Rodlo in a scene from 68 Whiskey. (Paramount Network)
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    The terrific new Paramount Network war comedy 68 Whiskey, which I reviewed last week, was created by Roberto Benabib, the filmmaker and former Weeds showrunner, based on his show for Israeli television, Charlie Golf One.

    “The Orphanage,” as the military hospital in 68 Whiskey is called, lies in a dangerous part of Afghanistan where soldiers, defense contractors, warlords, and ordinary folks intersect and interact. That’s perilous enough, but the soldiers and officers inside the Orphanage all have problems back home that they must manage from thousands of miles away.

    In the first episode, the three medics at the center of 68 Whiskey — Roback (Sam Keeley), Davis (Jeremy Tardy), and Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo) — get in way over their heads. Roback and Davis watch their financial gamble go bad in a big way, while Alvarez is facing a discharge because ICE is deporting her entire family back to Mexico.

    I sat down with Benabib at the TCA winter press tour last week in California for a spoiler-free interview about 68 Whiskey and where it’s heading.

    Aaron Barnhart: Are soldiers, soldiers everywhere, or is there something about the American soldier that’s different?

    Roberto Benabib: The American soldier is in an enormous amount of debt. These soldiers are over there and they have student loans. One character is on the verge of losing his home because his mother has cancer and didn't have insurance.

    To me that was really interesting, especially with what’s going on with the working class in this country. To look at their very real problems through the prism of those fighting there was really interesting and got me past the level of preaching. There are just all these fires burning at home that they had to deal with when they could. And that to me was eye-opening.

    Almost all of the people on 68 Whiskey have something going on back at home that doesn’t affect them just part of the time. It lives with them and drives their actions to a certain extent.

    That's the one thing veterans kept saying to me over and over again: “You can't put a pin in your problems, go get deployed for 18 months, come back and then deal with them.” They were ongoing. Sometimes they got worse while they were over there. They didn’t have the luxury of waiting until they returned.

    I was struck by the storyline involving Petrocelli adopting the goat from the local village. Obviously Paramount was too, because I think this is the first time I’ve seen a goat in a promotional photograph. Are we going to keep seeing this lovely Radar O’Reilly side of Petrocelli?

    It was almost a gimme that Paramount was going to seize on that, because it was a wonderful, iconic way to let people know the tone of the show. You see that ad, you see the goat, and you understand that this is not SEAL Team on CBS. But yes, you’ll see Petrocelli take — what do they say — one step forward, two steps back? You’ll see him grow as a man, but also you'll see him revert because he is just 17 years old.

    So walk us into episode two. Here we have a bunch of rogues who are bending the law to make up a debt that they owe, which is a metaphor for life in the Army today.

    The primary mission of these medics is to save lives. Their secondary personal mission is to try to alleviate their economic issues. And they're going to do both any way they can. Now, when you're that far from home, the code of the military gets slightly looser, because the people in charge know you're under great stress. They know you're away from home, they understand. So there's a little more leeway in Afghanistan than there is at Fort Bragg — and these characters will take advantage of it.

    And yes, they are rogues, but there's a decency to them. I love that there is an element of innocence and goodness to most of these characters. One of the things that was very important to me in creating 68 Whiskey was to show that these are decent moral people living in a very complicated time. When we were in less complicated times, we could afford to indulge our weaknesses, our jealousies. We had antiheroes who were killers, who were selfish — and those shows were amazing and great and wonderful. But it was very important to counteract that and put forth heroes who wanted to do the right thing. I want people to connect again with their decency as opposed to their weaknesses.

    The storyline that threads its way through the first three episodes of 68 Whiskey is about a decision Roback and Davis make in haste that just winds up getting worse. In the second episode, I think they’re going to work their way out of it, but as we soon learn, it’s going to get even worse.

    Yes. No good deed goes unpunished, no selfish deed goes unpunished — really, no deed goes unpunished. Alvarez, too. She’s ready to pack it up and leave when suddenly she realizes she's needed. The hand reaches out, and, what’s that great line from The Godfather Part III? “Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in.”

    Sounds like my career. But when she makes that decision in the second episode — the one that’s going to allow her to stay rather than be deported to Mexico — when Roback helps her make that decision, the way it was executed is a highlight of the episode.

    That’s Roback. That's who he is. He's someone who dives in and then goes, “Oh my God, it's freezing!” He tends to act before he thinks, which makes for great television, but also comes at a cost. In the end, this is a character-based drama, and I’m lucky that my cast is a dream cast. They showed up on day one and it looked like they had been working together for five years. And it shows.

    The second episode of 68 Whiskey airs Wednesday January 22 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.

    TOPICS: 68 Whiskey, Paramount Network, Roberto Benabib