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May 2, 2006 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | May 2, 2006 |

There are certain creative types who have earned my undying loyalty, to the point that I’ll try out most anything new that they’re involved in: Terry Gilliam, Neil Gaiman, Aaron Sorkin, and Doug Liman, to name a few. Not always winners, but they tickle me more times than they punch me in the gut. And ever since I read his plays Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna in college, David Mamet has been on that list, too. Like everyone else I mentioned, he certainly misses the mark sometimes (Hannibal, anybody?). But more times than not, even if I don’t love the work, I enjoy the ride. This is particularly because, much as with Sorkin, my favorite thing about Mamet is his ability to write sharp dialogue. There is oftentimes a very staccato and unnatural feel to it, yet it manages to ring true on an underlying emotional level. And I really appreciate the dry comedy he employs with lines like my favorite: “Everybody needs money — that’s why they call it money.” Point being, his name carries enough cachet for me that I was more than willing to give his latest endeavor a shot, CBS’s “The Unit” (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. EST/PST), co-created by Mamet and Shawn Ryan (creator of “The Shield”). And I’m happy to report that it was easily worth an hour of my time (or 44 minutes, to be more precise — thank you Monsieur TiVo).

The basic set-up — at least at first glance, based on the pilot — is simple enough. The Unit is an undesignated shadow organization, essentially disavowed by the government, that handles counterterrorism, assorted black ops, etc. Think CTU, from “24,” but with more Jack Bauers, bigger balls and lots of ammo. While The Unit is led by Colonel Tom Ryan, played by Robert Patrick (T2, “The X-Files”), the star of the show is the missions leader, Commander Jonas Blane, played enjoyably and badass-ably by Dennis Haysbert (“24”). He’s got the level-headedness of the recently assassinated President Palmer mixed with a coolness that is the utter antithesis of his Allstate Insurance salesman. He runs a team of commando agents, including new recruit Bob Brown, played by Scott Foley (“Felicity”), who is not to be confused with Whitney’s Bobby Brown. Newbie Foley’s character serves the oft-used literary device of a new fish in the pond, allowing the viewers to learn things about The Unit as he learns them.

The pilot’s main plotline was fairly rote and straightforward, revolving around a terrorist takeover of a small plane in Idaho. But it serves to let us see how The Unit operates. They are entirely outside the bounds of the government institute, repeatedly told by the FBI and the Army that their actions are not sanctioned. As Commander Palmer explains to Newbie Foley when an FBI agent informs them that they are unauthorized to take any actions, and any further actions they do take will be treated as a violation of federal law: “We take down the plane, he takes credit. We get everyone killed, he told us, so we get court-martialed. So let’s not get everyone killed.” Similarly, when the FBI tries to stop them from going after the plane, Commander Palmer informs the Feds, in very simple and dryly stated Mamet fashion that: “I’m gonna take down that plane. And I’ve got my best man in the woods. So if you give me up, he will come down afterwards and shoot you dead. You, you, and you — panic. The rest of you, come with me.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, while The Unit is busy fighting terrorists, their wives are on-base introducing Newbie Foley’s wife (Audrey Marie Anderson) into the fold. She’s a try-to-be-tough independent type, who doesn’t want to live on base like the rest of The Unit families, and has no idea what she and her husband have really gotten themselves into. As explained to her by Commander Palmer’s wife (Regina Taylor), “you aren’t in the army, you’re in The Unit.” Think the close-knit and inbred mix of the law firm families from The Firm and The Devil’s Advocate. For example, when Newbie Foley’s wife asks what denomination the base’s chaplain is, she is informed that “he is The Unit chaplain — he’s your denomination now.” While the wives were a little underdeveloped in the pilot, they certainly appear to be an integral part of the show, trusted with maintaining the utter secrecy of their husbands’ roles. While in Commander Palmer’s home, Newbie Foley’s wife calls her sister and leaks a small-but-secret bit about her husband’s mission, drawing a stern warning from Commander Palmer’s wife: “You hang up that phone. What would you do if a woman came into your home to harm your family? You hang up that phone.” Moments later, she is deftly manipulated by Palmer’s wife into accepting her new place in the order of things. It should be interesting to see how the wives are used and developed over time.

As I mentioned, my favorite thing about Mamet is generally his dialogue. While there were hints of the tone and style of dialogue that he usually employs with such deftness, it does appear to have been reined in somewhat, likely in an attempt to make the show more accessible to the mainstream. But we still get bits like this exchange, made without a beat right in the middle of getting ready to make an assault on the terrorist-held plane:

Commander Palmer: How’s the world look to you?
Newbie Foley: Light and bright.

It’s classic Mamet, delivered expertly by Haysbert, who seems well suited for this style of role (although the jury’s still out on Foley, whom I’ve never been a big fan of). Similarly, Commander Palmer introduces himself and Newbie Foley to the Feds as Black and White. So when the other two Unit team members show up and he introduces them as Black and White, a Fed says, “I thought those were your names.” Haysbert simply remarks, “they’re our brothers” and walks away.

While I enjoyed the pilot and have given the show a season pass, I’m not sure how it will play out over the long-term. If the wives are used in a more interesting way than the standard “we support our husbands and have to keep their secrets,” and if the storylines are kept diverse, this show could become another solid and entertaining CBS hit. But if it falls into a trap of presenting formulaic storylines that only vary from everything else out there in the little details, it may be short-lived, particularly because it goes up against “House,” which has the benefit of an “American Idol” lead-in. I, for one, am rooting for “The Unit” and hope it’ll avoid joining “Love Monkey” in the CBS graveyard. But even if it does fail, Mamet’s done enough to keep my faith for now.

Seth Frelich is a television columnist for Pajiba. He lives in Washignton, D.C. and couldn’t be happier that summer “intern season” is finally here.

"The Unit" / The TV Whore

March 22, 2006

TV | May 2, 2006 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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