In the first 18 months after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Hollywood didn't exactly scramble to dramatize the war. But that was before Steven Bochco reported for duty.
The TV producer, never one to shrink from controversy, has joined cable network FX, which itself has raised eyebrows with provocative dramas such as "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me," to create "Over There" -- a gory, profanity-laced, $4-million series pilot following six soldiers in Iraq and their families in the United States. The producers are casting the ensemble (probably with mostly unknown young actors) and are due to start shooting Jan. 7 in the desert -- around Santa Clarita, not Baghdad.
Because "Over There" is still no more than a proposal for a series, there's no guarantee that viewers will ever see the result, although FX has ordered several scripts for additional episodes from Bochco and writer Chris Gerolmo ("Mississippi Burning"), with an eye toward a summer 2005 launch.
As the real war offers not just bitter controversy but dramatic and often harrowing daily accounts of urban combat, "Over There" is the kind of project that can keep a TV boss awake nights. Already, executives at 20th Century Fox Television, which is financing the series, have found themselves reassuring nervous buyers in Europe, where anti-war sentiment runs high. And it is being developed at a time when the U.S. media landscape is crackling with politically charged controversies, ranging from media reports on the administration's rationale for going to war to a Veterans Day flap in which many ABC affiliates refused to air "Saving Private Ryan" because of concerns about government fines for the film's strong language. Although "Over There" would air on basic cable, outside the reach of the federal indecency regulations that govern broadcast TV, any attempt to dramatize the conflict carries the potential of arousing strong audience and advertiser reaction.
Bochco, 60, best known for ensemble legal and cop dramas such as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue," said last week that "Over There" would transcend politics by focusing on the universal theme of soldiers fighting overseas and the strain that puts on their families back home.
He admitted that when FX executives pitched him the idea this year, he initially begged off. "I said, 'It's such a politically polarizing conflict, I don't know how you do it without politics being front and center.'
"Then, as we talked about it, I realized there was a simple way to do the show without any political agenda whatsoever. It's not just over there, it's over here," he said. "It's about any war in which your loved ones are in harm's way."
He added: "One of the things I've always prided myself on is that whatever my own politics may be, I don't think they've leached into my work. And I think that's appropriate."
But while it may be intended as a grunt's-eye view of the war, "Over There" nevertheless presses plenty of political hot buttons. An early copy of the script obtained by The Times shows one Arab prisoner of war taunting American soldiers by referring to the Abu Ghraib prison-torture scandals. "Do you have a bag for my head yet?" the youth asks sarcastically. "Do you want me to take my clothes off now?" In another scene, an Army sergeant bitterly complains that the Pentagon brass are more worried about "[expletive] public relations" than troop safety. One female soldier terrified of dying in combat alludes to a "Nightline" program last spring in which anchor Ted Koppel read the names of troops killed in Iraq; some ABC stations refused to air that broadcast, contending it was politically motivated. The centerpiece of the pilot is a bloody firefight around a sandstorm-shrouded mosque.
The timing of the project makes it likely that Bochco will face plenty of skeptics. TV veteran Larry Gelbart, who more than 30 years ago developed the Korean War comedy "MASH," questioned the wisdom of making a series about Iraq while the war continues. "Why not let a little time go by?" asked Gelbart, who said he hasn't read any of the scripts for "Over There." "I think the idea of making a piece of commercial TV at a time when the actual conflict is going on blurs the lines."
Gelbart also noted irony in "Over There" being backed by FX, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Murdoch's Fox News Channel features on-air personalities, such as Neil Cavuto and John Gibson, who've been supportive of the Bush administration and harshly critical of those opposed to the war. (News Corp., it should be noted, also owns the studio that made "MASH.)
But FX says the corporate connection has no bearing on the Bochco project. "I would defy someone to say there's either a liberal or conservative bias" in "Over There," said FX entertainment president John Landgraf.