In this era when you're mostly confined to your house because it's dangerous to go outside and you're worried about money because the economy is collapsing, you might be looking for entertainment that provides an escape. That escape could be into a different world, or one where the good guys always win, or just something that makes you feel good. Or it could be the kind of escapism that makes you grateful for what you have, and makes you say, "At least I'm not in Afghanistan right now." If that's the vibe, may I recommend 68 Whiskey, whose 10-episode first season is now now streaming on CBS All Access?
The dramedy, which aired on the Paramount Network earlier this year, follows the lives of U.S. Army medics stationed at a multinational forward operating base in Afghanistan. It's transparent about what it's trying to be — M*A*S*H for Afghanistan — and it has the dark comic sensibility of that show and movie. It also captures the bureaucratic absurdity of war even better than last year's Catch-22 limited series. It's the kind of show where a comedic subplot is a medic trying to forge a letter to a soldier's widow after he lost the envelope the dying man gave to him. It has the delicious strain of ironic gallows humor that comes from life going on amid death and destruction. It's also compelling as a drama, with well-drawn characters struggling with loss and trauma. They're trying to get along with the wary Afghan people who are resentful of their continued presence, and trying to exist within the suffocating confines of the army base.
68 Whiskey mercifully lacks the flag-waving jingoism of most military entertainment of the War on Terror era. The main characters aren't particularly good guys. They're always breaking the rules, sometimes for good, like when they use just-past-expiration-date but still viable vaccines to inoculate local children, but usually in the service of their personal enrichment schemes, like when they trade medicine to a warlord for bricks of hashish to sell or keep the untraceable petty cash that's supposed to be for off-the-record payments for themselves. They're fun, charming people, and they do heroic acts when they're trying to save injured soldiers' lives, but they do a lot of bad stuff, too. And the show nails the tricky tone of making you root for them to get away with their unethical schemes without making you feel like what they're doing is righteous. They're not antiheroes, but they know how to stay just on the right side of crossing the line. Too often in mainstream military entertainment there's a tendency to put troops on a pedestal, but 68 Whiskey doesn't do that. The characters are all messy people.
The core four of the show are all in Afghanistan because things are even tougher at home. The Hawkeye of the story is Cooper Roback, played with a mischievous gleam by Sam Keeley. Roback is trying to escape a traumatic past and earn money to move his family out of Hemet, California, a town where a lot of misfortune has befallen them. His best friend is Mekhi Davis (Jeremy Tardy), who's trying to support his family on the South Side of Chicago. His "wife" is Rosa Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo), a Dreamer from Mexico who is using Army service as a path to citizenship, which is threatened when her father is deported. She and Roback get married so that she doesn't get discharged and deported herself, not because they're in love. No, Roback is hung up on Grace Durkin (Gage Golightly), an Army Instagram influencer and aspiring stuntwoman who hooks up with him behind her boyfriend Sasquatch's (Derek Theler) back. Sasquatch works for SetCorp, a private military contractor that's the real bad guy of 68 Whiskey. The actors all have great chemistry, and have that kind of easy charisma that leads to decades-long TV careers.
68 Whiskey was a hit for the Paramount Network, becoming the most-watched cable debut in over a year when it premiered in January, but it didn't get a lot of attention from the media, TV Guide included. This is partially because it premiered during the Television Critics Association winter press tour, when TV critics are at their busiest, but mainly because it's just not the kind of show that gets critical attention, even though it's good. It's the kind of show whose success comes from reaching a word-of-mouth tipping point. Between this and Yellowstone, Paramount Network is carving out a niche for well-made, highly entertaining shows that feel like they could be on broadcast networks if not for all the blood and swearing. They're shows for people who want to watch a high-quality hourlong drama without feeling like they're doing homework.
68 Whiskey is a perfect show for the moment because it's fun enough to make you forget about your problems while you're watching it, but not so escapist as to pretend that problems don't exist. There should be more shows like it. There's no word yet on whether it will be back for Season 2, but watching it now won't hurt its chances.
68 Whiskey is available to stream on CBS All Access.