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October 9, 2015

Best War Series and Miniseries: TV's Greatest Depictions of Battlefield Drama

by Leonard Jacobs, posted Nov 11th 2009 11:00AM
Much as we may detest war, it remains a part of American life. And TV, from its earliest days, has been right on top of dramatizing it, satirizing it, explaining it, railing about it, even celebrating it -- or at least celebrating the brave men and women who proudly wear the uniform. To honor those who have served our country this Veterans Day, here are 13 of the greatest war-themed TV shows of all time. What are yours?Much as we may detest war, it remains a part of American life. And TV, from its earliest days, has been right on top of dramatizing it, satirizing it, explaining it, railing about it, even celebrating it -- or at least celebrating the brave men and women who proudly wear the uniform. To honor those who have served our country this Veterans Day, here are 13 of the greatest war-themed TV shows of all time. What are yours?

13. 'China Beach'
ABC's low-rated but critically acclaimed war drama ran from 1988 to 1991. This was a case in which a network tried all it could to build an audience but finally had to pull the plug. What a shame: Rarely has any war been presented so realistically or creatively as on this drama, set in and around an evacuation hospital during the Vietnam War. It premiered just 13 years after the last U.S. troops left Saigon, and in some ways the astonishingly gritty acting of stars Dana Delany (who won two Emmys for her work) and Marg Helgenberger (who won one) was perhaps too close to home.

12. 'The Unit'
Based on Eric Haney's 'Inside Delta Force: The Story of America's Elite Counterterrorist Unit,' and co-executive produced by playwright David Mamet, the series was meant to dovetail with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and CBS promoted it for four tumultous seasons. Starring Dennis Haysbert, Regina Taylor and Scott Foley, and largely set at Fort Griffith, a fictional army post understood to be near St. Louis, Missouri, 'The Unit' offered viewers an imagined look at the elite Delta Force -- not to mention the spouses of those who may give their lives for top-secret missions.

11. 'Black Sheep Squadron'
When NBC aired this show from 1976 to 1978, it was called 'Baa Baa Black Sheep'; 'Black Sheep Squadron' is its syndication name. Both names are tributes to the high-flying World War II experiences of Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington, who commanded a fighter-pilot squadron on an island in the Pacific during the war. It starred Robert Conrad (then the famous Eveready battery pitchman) and also featured actors James Whitmore, Jr. and, in his pre-'Night Court' days, John Larroquette. If 'Black Sheep' tended to depict "Pappy"'s pilots as a wacky crew, Boyington's crew was commonly known as one of the most crackerjack in the service.

10. 'McHale's Navy'
ABC broadcast 138 episodes of this sitcom from 1962 to 1966. It was a time when World War II vets were relaxing into a middle-class lifestyle, and there was a taste for more lighthearted looks at military life. Hence you have 'The Phil Silvers Show' (a.k.a. 'Bilko') and 'McHale's Navy,' which shared a producer in Edward J. Montagne. 'McHale's Navy' starred Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine as the commander of a PT boat in the Pacific. Curiously, the series began as an hourlong drama, 'Seven Against the Sea'; ABC simply changed the genre and added a brilliant comedic cast, including Tim Conway and, early on, Gavin MacLeod, who later became famous as the captain on 'Love Boat.'

9. 'Hogan's Heroes'
Hearing the concept of this CBS show, people may have thought a German prisoner of war camp couldn't possibly be a fount for comedy. But 'Hogan's Heroes,' which had a six-year, 168-episode run from 1965 to 1971, was hilarious. It starred Bob Crane as Col. Robert E. Hogan, the highest ranking officer among the POWs and backed by one of the screwiest crews in sitcom history: Ivan Dixon as Kinch, Larry Hovis as Carter and Richard Dawson as Newkirk. No one was more funny, however, than Werner Klemperer as fatally ambitious Luftwaffe officer, Col. Klink. Achtung!

8. 'Generation Kill'
This seven-part HBO miniseries, which aired in 2008, was inspired by Evan Wright's book of the same title, and produced by Wright with David Simon and Ed Burns of 'The Wire' fame. Wright was an embedded reporter early in the Iraq war with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the U.S. Marine Corps -- specifically the second platoon, which provided him with the fodder for more than two dozen characters. Lee Tergesen played Wright; the series also featured Alexander Skarsgard and Stark Sands. What was most compelling -- beyond the show's almost shockingly realistic look at Iraq under U.S. military attack -- was how the presence of an embedded reporter didn't affect combat operations.

7. 'Tour of Duty'
While it never competed directly with ABC's 'China Beach,' CBS jumped into Vietnam-themed primetime programming during the same period of time, with 58 hourlong episodes that aired from 1987 to 1990. ('Tour of Duty' actually went head to head with 'The Golden Girls' -- talk about bad battle planning!) Set in 1967, it followed the third platoon of Bravo company and was a fairly male-centric effort starring Stephen Caffrey and Terence Knox. Alas, CBS never quite knew how to further develop the show: the second season occurred closer to Saigon and elements of the fairer sex were introduced to try and spike the ratings. Critics were intrigued by the sheer intensity of the show, but the battle was ultimately lost.

6. 'Combat!'
The bayonet strategically placed in the logo for this series at the end of the title says it all: This ... means ... war! ABC aired 'Combat!' for five years, 1962 to 1967, making a star out of Vic Morrow as Sgt. Chip Saunders. It was an unusual war-themed show for the era because when most networks were pursuing innocuous fare like 'The Munsters' and 'The Addams Family' -- or hanging onto Westerns or war sitcoms like 'Bilko' -- 'Combat!,' which follows a fighting infantry squad across France during World War II, took a stark approach to storytelling. It's an approach, by the way, that's as fresh today on DVD as it was over 40 years ago.

5. 'The Winds of War' and 'War and Remembrance'
ABC aired 'The Winds of War'; a miniseries based on Herman Wouk's 1971 novel, in 1983. In 1988, the network aired a second miniseries based on Wouk's 1978 sequel, 'War and Remembrance.' The latter was a monster, costing $104 million and taking up 30 hours of prime time. So if it was, as some say, the last of the great miniseries, at least the genre went out spectacularly: The narrative of Pug Henry, a fictional naval officer played by legendary movie star Robert Mitchum, stretched across all of World War II. Even the casting was mindblowing by the standards of cheesy 1980s TV: Ali MacGraw, Jan-Michael Vincent, John Houseman, Polly Bergen, John Gielgud, Sharon Stone and Jane Seymour. Wow!

4. 'Band of Brothers'
This 10-part HBO miniseries, based on the bestselling 'Band of Brothers' by historian Stephen Ambrose, first aired on Sept. 9, 2001. Though executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks -- a kind of thematic follow-up to the Oscar-winning, World War II-era 'Saving Private Ryan' -- it did only respectably in the ratings. Two days later, the Sept. 11 attacks changed the world, and, in time, audiences began to appreciate how the 'Band of Brothers' message could echo across the ages. Like 'Private Ryan,' it wasn't for the faint of heart: The characters of Easy Company died when their real-life inspirations died. Perhaps the most expensive miniseries ever (it was speculated that costs topped $150 million), the miniseries won six Emmys (out of 19 noms) and had a huge cast, led by Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Shane Taylor and Donnie Wahlberg.

3. 'The War'
No list of TV war series would be complete without Ken Burns, perhaps the finest documentarian working in broadcast media today. Rather than focus just on the arcs of World War II, Burns examined the war through the eyes of four typical American towns: Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut. Aired on PBS for 14 hours in 2007, 'The War' generously uses primary source material buttressed by the likes of Adam Arkin, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hanks lending their voices. It remains one of the finest World War II shows ever broadcast on TV.

2. 'The Civil War'
... Yet one Ken Burns documentary stands above all others: 'The Civil War,' which ran on PBS for five nights, Sept. 23 to Sept. 27, 1990. It remains one of the highest rated shows ever on PBS and is widely credited with establishing Burns' sterling reputation. Eleven hours long and using at least 10,000 images, Burns pioneered the use of top talent to voice the actual letters and statements of the conflict that Southerners deem "The War Between the States." So you have, for example, David McCullough's avunclar narration, plus Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln, Jason Robards as Ulysses S. Grant, Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman, and more. The DVD of the series is still a bestseller.

1. 'M*A*S*H'
What other TV show has a theme song as plaintive, mournful and evocative of war as 'Suicide Is Painless'? This could only be 'M*A*S*H,' one of the dominant sitcoms of all time, running on CBS from 1972 to 1983. It was based on a 1970 feature film, 'MASH,' directed by Robert Altman, and starring Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce and Elliott Gould as Trapper John McIntyre. (The film itself was based on Richard Hooker's 1968 novel, 'Mash: A Novel About Three Army Doctors.') All the versions take place in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Yet of all the versions, the TV one was most iconic: It freely mixed black humor with shattering depictions of war dead and wounded. The cast was equally striking: Alan Alda as Hawkeye, Wayne Rodgers as Trapper John (later replaced by Mike Farrell as B.J. Hunnicutt), Larry Linville as Frank Burns, Gary Burghoff as Radar O'Reilly, Harry Morgan as Captain Sherman Potter, Loretta Swit as 'Hot Lips' Houlihan, Jamie Farr as Maxwell Klinger, William Christopher as Father Mulcahy and David Ogden Stiers as Charles Winchester III.

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The best war TV series I've seen is Comrades (2010, aka Lengend of the patriots). Is at the level of Band of Brothers, was I considered the best until now.

August 09 2014 at 12:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The best TV series on war is "The World at War."

June 29 2014 at 12:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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