(Full Disclosure: I am good friends with Kevin Biegel, the creator of ENLISTED. How good? We've watched Lee Frost movies together. But I want to clarify that I was offered this interview independently of Kevin. I didn't chase it down, and Geoff Stults had no idea that I knew Kevin. In any event, I'm not the only person who thinks his new show is terrific. Look at the reviews!)
While the studios have been stuck in dump mode since the first of the year, television has stepped up with an amazing array of high-quality programming. Between TRUE DETECTIVE, JUSTIFIED, COMMUNITY, RICK AND MORTY and the stunning conclusion of EAGLEHEART: PARADISE RISING, my DVR has been filling up with some of the riskiest, darkest and most gleefully absurd feats of storytelling I've ever seen. I mean, did you watch the "Meeseeks and Destroy" episode of RICK AND MORTY? Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland should be hearing from the Pulitzer committee for that brilliantly warped twenty-two minutes of television.
A lot of these shows have been delving headlong into some seriously disturbing subject matter, almost like they're daring viewers to turn away. And then there's Kevin Biegel's good-natured ENLISTED, which is depicting life on an Army Base at wartime with both compassion and total irreverence. Set in Florida's fictional Fort McGee (named after the Sunshine State's legendary "salvage consultant"), the show stars Geoff Stults as Sgt. Pete Hill, a decorated soldier who gets sent home from Afghanistan after he socks a superior officer. The demotion turns out to be the least of Hill's problems; returning to Fort McGee means he'll be reunited with his misfit younger brothers Derrick (Chris Lowell) and Randy (Parker Young). As Pete takes charge of a wayward platoon, he's forced to deal with both his immediate family and the extended brotherhood that is Fort McGee.
Pete must also must readjust to everyday life after several years spent in combat, and this is where ENLISTED is pulling off something truly special. In the midst of a hilarious episode about Pete shacking up in a rusted-out trailer to get away from the calamity of the base, Biegel and his writers revealed that Pete's desire to be alone is essentially a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (they never say it outright, but it's clear that's what he's going through). Like so many soldiers in real life, he's having trouble shaking the battlefield, and doesn't know how to ask for help. Fortunately, his superior/father figure Sergeant Major Donald Cody (the always great Keith David) recognizes this behavior and has a heart-to-heart with Pete. This scene doesn't feel shoehorned ala countless "very special" episodes of sitcoms past; it's just a brief break from the chaos acknowledging Pete's condition while offering hope in the form of camaraderie. No one's going to fix Pete, but they're going to be there for him.
There's some very fine needle-threading going on here; that it's occurring in the ENLISTED's third episode underscores just how good this show has been out of the gate. And Geoff Stults, a tremendously appealing actor who's been excellent in a number of short-lived series over the last decade, is incredibly proud to be a part of it. He should be. He's the anchor of the show, and he's doing career-best work on it. He's also developed great brotherly chemistry with Lowell and Young; in a short period of time, they've become entirely believable as a teasing, squabbling, but ultimately loving family unit.
When I spoke with Stults over the phone yesterday, he was in the middle of a New York City press blitz promoting the show - which is doing well in the ratings for a Friday night sitcom (9 PM on FOX), but has yet to find the wider audience it deserves. It's important to note that this isn't obligatory stuff. He's doing this because he's seen the show connect profoundly with veterans and active soldiers; it's respectful without being pandering in a way that recalls M*A*S*H. A run that long would be a dream. Right now, Stults and the ENLISTED crew are just fighting for a second season.
Q: As far as TV, it's been an interesting road for you. ENLISTED feels like the perfect fit for you? How tricky has it been finding that show that feels like the right fit?
Geoff Stults: Early in my career I worried about that: if it was a fit, was it going to be successful, is it the kind of show people are going to like and that's going to propel your career, blah-blah-blah. Then I realized I don't know anything, and neither do any of the people who pretend like they know. So I just focus on trying to do things I enjoy doing. When I read scripts, I say, "Is this something I would like?" And I'm lucky to have found this one. I read it and I thought it was funny; I thought that was an important criteria for a comedy. (Laughs) Something I try to do is work with people I enjoy working with, and on this one, on the last day of the last episode, I was still excited to go to work. I just enjoy the people I work with. I feel like that's a huge win.
Q: When you first read it, what was it about Sgt. Pete Hill that jumped out at you?
Stults: It was mostly the dynamic between the brothers that I went for. I just liked the relationship between Chris and Parker and I. I thought, "I could do something with this."
Q: Your banter with Chris and Parker seems so effortless. You're incredibly convincing as brothers. How quickly did that come together?
Stults: It just happened. Parker and I had more similar upbringings. We played team sports and are meatheads; we're both very active in the outdoors and all that kind of stuff. Chris didn't grow up quite the same way. He wasn't into team sports, he didn't have an athletic background, he's way more of an artist, so it's kind of a great fit. Parker's also quite a bit younger than us, so there is this thing that Chris and I both have... he really feels like a younger brother. When I was reading with these guys and trying to pick the best actors, it was very clear that Chris was the best actor that we read and the best guy for the job. I fought for him a lot. We had no idea how good Parker was going to be, but he just felt right. We're just lucky. I wouldn't enjoy Parker so much if Chris wasn't there, and I wouldn't enjoy Chris as much if Parker wasn't there. It's a three-package deal, and that's what makes it work the best.
Q: How collaborative is the show in terms of the writing with Kevin and the other writers?
Stults: They've done a really good job of trying to write for us. Once they got to know us, the real life Geoff, Chris and Parker and the dynamic we have together and the experiences we've had together... it's collaborative like that. As actors, we're not in the writers room. We're busy acting, you know? But it's collaborative in that we all sat down with them before the show started, and talked about what we wanted to see and how we wanted to see it done. They had their ideas, we had our ideas, and we had to kind of compromise and figure out something that's good for the show, and you go in that direction. It's been wonderful.
Q: ENLISTED feels really conscious of where audiences would expect a show like this to go, and subtly subverts that every step of the way. For instance, your relationship with Jill (Angelique Cabral), it seemed at first like you were working from a will-they-or-won't-they template, but you guys are coming at it from a different angle.
Stults: I think if you ask Kevin, he'd say that was the original idea, the will-they-or-won't-they thing, and what we realized was that's just not that interesting. It's been done before. It doesn't make sense to put us together. It's really about the relationship between the platoon. There is a chemistry between Jill and Pete obviously, and maybe it goes there, but not anytime soon.
Q: Throwing Keith David into the mix is perfect. He kind of grounds everything.
Stults: He's fantastic. He really does ground it a little. He's kind of the father figure. He's just great.
Q: Does he go around bragging about his fight with Roddy Piper in THEY LIVE?
Stults: (Laughs) No, but it's fun being around him when we're doing press because people ask him questions like that, and we go, "Oh yeah! This fucking guy has been in everything! He's been around forever!" He's so good, and people know his face and know his voice. It's awesome.
Q: It's impressive how the show has been responsive to the concerns of active soldiers and veterans. How has that outreach helped your portrayal of Pete?
Stults: It's interesting. I was flying into New York yesterday to do press, and when I landed I had a message from Kevin Biegel saying, "Look on Twitter." There was a message from a soldier who said "Because of last Friday's episode, I finally decided to ask for help regarding PTSD." That's the kind of thing where you're like, "Fuck. That's awesome." That's really important to me, and it's really important to Kevin. My best friend who I kind of model the PTSD side of Pete after is a sixteen-year Marine. Two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan and one in Southeast Asia. He suffers from it all the time. And after Friday's episode, when we first dealt with Pete's PTSD, I got a text at 9:31 PM that said, "Thank you." To me, that's amazing.
Another thing that we got was messages from soldiers saying "Thank you so much for the way you're portraying Pete and the soldiers. Watching this show with my sons has given me a way to explain to them what I went through and why I am the way I am." I mean, you want to do a good job and you want to do right by these guys and be respectful, but the reaction has been so positive. On one hand, I'm like, "Oh, my god, I never thought it'd go like that." I certainly couldn't have ever said "We're going to do this show and we're going to help people." You don't think of those things. You try to do the best job you can. But the way people have been reacting to it has been amazing. I always kind of felt it would give you a couple of laughs or whatever, but these reactions have been really important. I'm glad to be a part of that. Do I feel I deserve to be the face of PTSD? Absolutely not. But if one person decides they're going to get help for this, that's a win. And that's happened. That's pretty fucking awesome.
Q: Going forward from last week's episode, how do you expand on Pete's PTSD and, in a delicate way, find humor in that?
Stults: When Kevin and I got together and talked about the PTSD, what we didn't want to do is be at everybody's throat. Soldiers are affected differently by PTSD. It's not one thing. You can't put them all in one group. But I think the way the media portrays it... the general public thinks a guy goes crazy and gets in a fight. That kind of thing. Violence. It's not necessarily like that. And what we've tried to do with ENLISTED and Sgt. Pete Hill is show that there are some struggles internally for Pete, and that he's a little different from when he first got back. We're going to touch on that, and we're going to go away from that; we're going to live in the lives of the show and we're going to do comedy. But every once in a while people are going to see Pete struggle, and they're going to see him learn to ask for help and that's okay. He'll make some strides and have setbacks just like every other normal human being. It will continue. You'll see towards the end of the year in the final episode there's a very poignant and very pivotal moment. I don't want to give that way, but you'll see that it doesn't go away. But we're definitely not jamming it down anyone's throat.
Q: How much room is there for spontaneity on the set? Do you guys get to improvise much?
Stults: All the time. Every day. Particularly the platoon. Those guys are a bunch of stand-up comedians, and we let them run because they're fucking geniuses. But our deal with Kevin is we do one as scripted, get it down, get it right and on film, and then we get to play.
Q: I know shows have a tendency to change in their first season. Sometimes they go in different directions than what was originally intended. Has ENLISTED gone anywhere that's surprised you?
Stults: One thing that I was a little concerned about once we got picked up... obviously we have a job to do which is bes funny a show as we can, but the other side of that for us is that we are portraying American soldiers, which at times is a very serious job. There have been and will be men and women that have died in that uniform, and we take that seriously. There was a concern that once we got doing the show that we wouldn't be able to find the balance between paying homage and being respectful to the military while being funny. Kevin and [Executive Producer Mike Royce] have absolutely found the right mix. I think they do even more service and more credit and respect to these men and women because they're allowing them to be real human beings. They're all over the place: they laugh, they cry, they're fully-formed characters. That was a pleasant surprise, that we found the right tone and the right groove. There were people who were nervous about what we were doing, that we might be making fun of the military, and it's been the opposite of that. Once they've seen that Kevin, Mike and I have gone out of our way to reach out to the military and host screenings and send screeners out to people... once they see that we've made an effort to get the little things right, and do right by the armed forces, the reaction has been completely positive.
ENLISTED airs tonight (Friday) at 9 PM on FOX. Watch it live or add it to your DVR. It's one of the best new shows on TV. I'd say that even if I hadn't watched Lee Frost movies with Kevin Biegel.