(I was originally going to just write one big post reviewing the entire series, but I realized it would make more sense to review each season individually. Because each post will be pretty long, and focus on mostly the same things each time – characters and episodes – I’ve decided to make this post series a little more formally structured than my other reviews. Just so you know. :))
Combat!, a one-hour WWII drama series on television, followed a frontline American infantry squad as they battled their way across Europe. With mud-splattered realism, the show offered character studies of men striving to maintain their own humanity in the midst of a world torn by war.
Almost every TV show I’ve ever watched has suffered from what I call ‘first installment weirdness’. You know what I’m talking about – the first episode or two of pretty much any given TV show is a bit odd, in terms of characterization and/or the general focus of the show itself. However, even though the first episode of Combat! (“A Day In June”, if you’re watching the episodes chronologically, or “Forgotten Front” if you’re taking on the show by production order) is odd, I’d say that the series has a bit of first season weirdness. Part (or most) of this was due to the fact that there were battles behind the scenes regarding what’s the show’s focus/atmosphere should be. Robert Altman, one of the directors, wanted Combat! to have an anthology feel to it, which is why there are more single character episodes in Season 1 than, I believe, any other season, while on the other hand, most of the other writers/directors wanted the series to be mainly about The Squad. (A vision I applaud.) Ultimately, Altman was kicked off of the show (after he defied the producers by filming “Survival”) and Combat! began to be all about the squad working together as a team, something I love.
Main characters: To begin with…Saunders. He really is the person that the entire show revolves around, more or less, and so it’s only right to start off by discussing him. For a time, I don’t think the scriptwriters knew quite what they wanted Saunders to be like. He was very cheery and friendly and he cracks jokes a lot in the first few episodes, and frankly, it’s kind of weird. (Especially in “The Squad” and “A Day In June”.) It took a little while for everyone to realize that that’s simply not Saunders’ personality. In the later episodes/seasons, he’s quite different. (Lots of fans say – and I agree – that, in-universe, it was Grady Long’s death that made all the difference in how he acted. But that’s a whole other story.) Overall, I like Normal Saunders better, even if he can be very gruff and even a bit unpleasant at times.
Speaking of unpleasantness, Kirby’s quite a jerk in Season 1. (“Forgotten Front”, anyone? “Far From The Brave” is a good example too – I understand his frustration with Saunders and Delaney, but the way he treats Delaney at times… I can’t excuse him there.) Mouthing off, sneaking liquor on patrols, making jokes at other people’s expense, etc., etc. BUT it does provide an amazing contrast to how his character develops and changes throughout the series, and he is highly entertaining, so I can’t complain too much. And on the other side of the spectrum is Caje, who could possibly be called Saunders’ right hand man. Caje goes through some tough things in Season 1, mainly in the first (losing Theo) and last (killing a civilian) episodes, and that always plays on my sympathies hugely. One thing Combat! never fails to deliver a good, emotional kick.
Hanley! How could I have forgotten him? He’s great, and I like him very much indeed (though not half as much as Elisabeth does), mainly because he’s a good leader – not like the ‘ninety day wonders’ the New Guys always grouse about. Sure, he sends the squad out on a bunch of lousy missions, but it’s not like he wants to or anything. It’s just his job.
And then there’s Billy, Littlejohn, and Doc1. You can’t mention Billy without mentioning Littlejohn too. They go together like bacon and eggs. Or hot chocolate and fuzzy blankets. (A fact I was reminded of just last night after watching “Night Patrol”.) Burt Kennedy was the one who first got the ball rolling when it came to those wonderful Billy and Littlejohn scenes, and even though the trend died out after Season 1 (a crying shame), I’ll forever be indebted to him for that. (Short note on Burt Kennedy: This guy. My favorite director after Vic Morrow, and by far my favorite writer. There are three episodes that he both wrote and directed, and each of them is a gem – “The Walking Wounded”, “Far From The Brave”, and “Next In Command”.) Now, I won’t spend much time on Doc1, because, honestly, there isn’t much to say. Season 1 already has a black mark against it (in my eyes) because my beloved Doc2 isn’t the squad’s medic (although Conlan Carter does appear in both “Hill 256” and “Survival”), which wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for the fact that Doc1 is so…bland. And non-competent. *sigh*
Minor characters: One of the [many] things I love about Combat! is how the entire show is peppered with amazing minor characters (many of whom appear in just one episode – like Moseby Lovelace, pictured above), ones that you can get quite attached to in a short amount of time. As much as I love all the regulars (and that’s very much), it’s always great to have some scene-stealing, one-shot characters. Season 1 has its share of minor characters, including a couple recurring ones: Braddock and Brockmeyer. To be honest, Braddock isn’t one of my favorite characters (mostly since his style of humour doesn’t really fit the show’s atmosphere) but, surprisingly, I really like his focus episode, “The Prisoner”. His bit parts in other episodes I can live without, except maybe his conversation with Delaney in “Far From The Brave”. Brockmeyer, on the other hand, is one of my absolute favorite minor characters on the show. He gets maybe ten lines of dialogue in the five or so episodes he’s in (and that’s probably being generous), but he’s still AWESOME. Fletcher Fist did an excellent job with what little he was given to work with. (It’s great to see him pop up in later seasons too, even though the character of Brockmeyer is confined to Season 1.)
Other recurring characters are Crown and Temple (first appearance – “Rear Echelon Commandos”) and I like both of them, especially Crown. Seeing how he goes from cocky kid to a more mature young man (and a good soldier) is great. Concerning characters who only appear in one episode but I still really like, Moseby Lovelace from “The Squad” has to go at the very top of my list. It took me a couple re-watchs of the episode to fully appreciate him, but he’s now closely tied with Avery and Brockmeyer for favorite minor character because HE’S JUST SO ADORABLE. *grins hugely* A couple other characters I nearly forgot to mention are Ann and David (“Any Second Now”). I watch the episode as much for them as I do for Hanley being all heroic and epic. They’re the sweetest couple. Oh, and Grady Long has to be mentioned too. He only appears for a couple of seconds at the very beginning of “Far From The Brave”, and you never get to know much about him, but after reading the fanfiction story White Queen wrote about him, I love him dearly. (Plus, it makes watching FFTB even more heartbreaking.) I made up a nifty little picture collage from what meager screenshots I could snag, and I’m quite pleased with how it turned out.
Favorite/Least Favorite episodes: (Well, I’ll be talking about least favorite first, just to get it out of the way.) There are several episodes in Season 1 that I don’t have a great liking for, but the worst in the season – maybe the entire series – is “The Chateau”. No Saunders, no Hanley or Caje or Kirby. Just Braddock and Doc1 and some random lieutenant, which makes for less than scintillating characterization and dialogue. Plus, the episode itself is rather dull, so one viewing was more than enough for me. I also don’t really like “Lost Sheep, Lost Shepherd”, “Missing In Action”, “Forgotten Front”, or “High Named Today”. All more or less uninteresting episodes with less than compelling characters. And then there’s the episode that has superb acting, an interesting story, and pretty much the whole squad, but it’ll probably be a long time before I watch it again – “Survival”. Why? The premise. Saunders is stuck in a burning building, is severely (severely) burned, and wanders around in extreme pain for nearly the whole episode. It’s practically all my worst fears (getting badly burned, being stuck in a burning building, getting lost…) all rolled into one. The episode is painful just to watch.
Anywho. On to the happier topic of my favorite episodes. There are several, even if this is Season 1. “Any Second Now” – Hanley is brilliantly awesome in this one, plus, as I mentioned before, Ann and David make an adorable couple. “The Squad” – Just because of Lovelace. “The Prisoner” – Colonel Clyde is hilarious. (Not to mention Braddock.) Also, Tom Skerritt makes a cameo appearance and the little band of Col. Clyde’s friends worrying about him back at HQ is the BEST. “Far From The Brave” – Everything about this episode is wonderful. And sad, too. “Next In Command” – My personal favorite episode from Season 1. Billy and Littlejohn scenes, Brockmeyer actually getting some lines, great acting, and a great plot. So, so good. “Hill 256” – Courtroom drama! Conlan Carter as an MP! Caje and Saunders sticking up for Kirby! It’s all perfect. “One More For The Road” – Feels. And then more feels. And then even MORE feels. Vic Morrow’s acting throughout this episode never cease to amaze me + make me tear up.
Overall: While Season 1 isn’t my favorite season, I’d say it’s more hit than miss. Some truly outstanding episodes, mixed with good ones, and a few not-so-good ones make for an interesting, electic mix of fresh storylines. While I’d probably recommend an episode from a later season for a first time viewer, Season 1 is full of excellent episodes that make sticking it out through the first few completely worthwhile. Highly recommended for anyone and everyone.