Proud to jump the shark

By JON GARELICK  |  February 25, 2009

The Unit never limits that question to, say, "Torture this man or thousands of innocent people will die." Instead, there are choices between family and country, family and the unit, the possible death of an innocent in the pursuit of an ambiguous result. Bad guys get slapped around, but there's no systematic torture of suspects, and in one of the show's few multi-episode arcs, the unit actually blackmails its superiors into abandoning torture and a Guantánamo-like prison. Instead, the unit has to choose between putting one innocent at risk for the "greater good" — which is sometimes pretty murky. This is drama that implicates the viewer and doesn't provide easy answers.

In one of the best episodes, Jonas chooses a path that caused just such a good guy (in this case, a woman) to get killed — and not in some kind of collateral accident but as a pawn in the unit's game. One of the team's new members tries to reassure him: "You made the right decision. . . . You had no choice. . . . It was the right thing to do." Jonas looks back silently down the road to where the sympathetic victim has met her fate as the green team member keeps talking. Finally one of the veterans interrupts: "Stop talking. It doesn't help."

In some ways, The Unit is what Mamet said in a New YorkTimes essay about the revival of his play Speed-the-Plow: a "workplace drama," one where the stakes are not "the fate of the world" but "the fate of the individual under a particular set of circumstances." How will Jonas and his team respond, how will they weigh their conflicting loyalties?

These admirable parameters have left plenty of room for hokum. The complications of home life often seem like nothing more than necessary distractions. The first time the show jumped the shark was when, in its initial season, the unit's commander, Colonel Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick), had an affair with Tiffany, wife of team member Mack Gerhardt (Max Martini). The erratic scheduling of the show, compounded by the writers' strike, has made such soap-opera plot devices hard to keep track of. What's more, here's where the show's macho is most blatant. The adulterous Colonel Ryan is sentenced to death by the unit because it's his betrayal that matters most, not the wife's. The most important loyalty these men have is to one another. "A distracted soldier is a dead soldier," Jonas's wife, Molly (the magnificent Regina Taylor), tells one of the other wives. In other words: don't rock the boat.

But consistently entertaining are the kind of kabuki-style coded dialogue and hard-boiled aphorisms that — aside from moral-puzzle "problem play" plotting — make Mamet Mamet. Long-time Mamet repertory member Ricky Jay occasionally shows up as a nefarious CIA man who keeps tempting the team members with his scheming. A supposed heart-attack victim at the end of last season, Jay was greeted by a team member this year: "I thought you were dead." Jay: "Dewey defeats Truman." Or, when the unit has been discredited and a team member demands Jay fix things: "Has no one told you the story of Humpty Dumpty?"

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