On Sunday, hours after the Summer Olympics officially came to a close in London, NBC aired their pre-ceremony montage of the Games’ medal-winning moments. Michael Phelps’ final race. The Fierce Five. Misty and Kerri’s volleyball three-peat. The women’s soccer team. Triumphs that brought Americans together, albeit briefly, to cheer and chant “U.S.A! USA! USA!” as champions proudly draped themselves in the stars and stripes. It was a moving sight to see athletes achieving their dream and basking in the patriotic power of the national anthem.
Then the Games were over and the Olympic torch was extinguished. On Twitter, where NBC has taken its lumps these past two weeks, New Yorker writer Andy Borowitz quipped, “The goal of the Olympics is to inspire us about what humans can achieve, and the goal of the closing ceremony is to return us to reality.” The past 16 days may have brought us closer as a country, but the next three months on NBC (and everywhere else) will be an increasingly bitter struggle for political control that will undoubtedly divide us again.
As if on cue, this weekend Mitt Romney announced his Republican running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, beginning the final phase of what is already a vicious contest. The two Republican challengers stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Wisconsin, a (fittingly) decommissioned battleship, despite the fact that neither of them ever served in the military.The ship and its sailors served in at least three major conflicts since WWII and, on Saturday, they were basically background dressing for a political photo op. A prop, used (exploited?) for professional gain.
Which brings me to “Stars Earn Stripes,” NBC’s new, controversial celebrity-meets-military-meets-reality(?) competition show that premiered on Monday. D-listers earning checks by playing at war. “Stars Earns Stripes” manages to diminish both stars and earning stripes. This was the programming the day after the Olympics. Our return to reality.
The four-episode run was executive produced by Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”), Mark Burnett (“Survivor”), and David A. Hurwitz (“Fear Factor”), which speaks to the money involved as much as the show’s formulaic approach. Obstacle challenges edited with enthusiasm, like every Burnett show, and the typical “celebrity” angle to raise the stakes. “Stars Earn Stripes” turns “missions reminiscent of counterinsurgencies that have taken place all over the world” into schlocky game-show entertainment. Usually these stunt helicopters are dangling insufferable idiots with stomaches full of scorpions over a pit while Joe Rogan yells at them. But there’s something unsettling about watching Nick Lachey strapped with U.S. Military gear dropping from one this time, dog-paddling, crawling under faux barbed wire, and firing at paper targets, while NBC stresses it’s “real danger,” just like real war. Sure, the bullets in the gun are real, as advertised, but the bullet sound effects while he was crawling are most definitely fake.
As the pairs of brave Stars exert themselves for several minutes, video game-style HUDs pop up — is radar really necessary? — and display NBC’s marquee names. Stars like Todd Palin, husband of reality star Sarah Palin, two-time WWE Divas champion Eve Torres, and former TV Superman Dean Cain. (Remember?) Retired Army General Wesley Clark delivers the marching orders, looking like the A-Team’s man-with-a-plan and receiving status updates in a gaudy TV “war room.” His co-command is former “Dancing with the Stars” presenter Samantha Harris. It’s absurd, and our precious celebrities are obviously never in any real danger. When The Expendables 2 “star” Terry Crews starts to drown, the producers compassionately cut to his helmet cam. Crews was fine, pulled out by a rescue team, but this meant it was “crunch time” for Olympic skier Picabo Street who overcame the adversity to shoot a stationary silhouette.
This militaristic travesty is intended “to support the troops,” of course, and who can argue with that? Each celebrity is competing for their favorite military-themed charity, and the winner will celebrate NBC’s donation of $100,000 to that organization. NBC will celebrate with the money they make from selling primetime slots to advertisers. Why not donate that money directly to the organizations, you ask? Well, where’s the fun (and ratings) in that?
At the top of the show, Clark says he’s doing this for one reason: “to introduce you, the American people, to the individuals that sacrifice so much for all of us.” This includes the “Bad Ass Operatives,” a team of veteran special forces commissioned to coach the stars along each heavy-arms pentathlon. Between heats, the celebrities gush over their military counterparts, and some of them looked visibly uncomfortable. After an exercise, one competitor broke down in tears and needed a hug from a Navy SEAL. In the requisite on-camera confessionals, every sentence from the stars is an exaggerated, patriotic exaltation of the military, until NBC’s oh-so-noble “support the troops” sentiment rings disingenuous from overcompensation.
In a thoughtful piece on Salon.com, Andy Greenwald dubs this “military worship.” Perhaps. There’s no arguing the United States’ collective infatuation with guns and armed forces when we have (much) more of both than any other country and this cultural adoration is hilariously over-done on “Stars Earn Stripes.”
Nine Nobel Prize winners also spoke out against the series, according to the AP, saying in a written statement that the show “glorifies war and armed violence.” Their letter states “this program pays homage to no one anywhere” and slams NBC for “trying to somehow sanitize war by likening it to athletic competition.”
It’s not just NBC profiting from distorted militarism, though. Since SEAL Team Six filled Osama bin Laden full of ordinance in May 2011, Hollywood has stepped up its efforts to recreate modern combat, specifically Navy SEALs. Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) is in post-production on Zero Dark Thirty about the hunt for bin Laden. Peter Berg (The Kingdom) is assembling his team for a bloody action movie titled Lone Survivor, based on the very real ‘Operation Red Wings‘ in 2005, in which 19 American soldiers were killed by Taliban forces. The “lone survivor,” Marcus Luttrell, will be played by Mark Wahlberg. Plus February’s Act of Valor, a movie starring real SEALs. There have been countless military-themed movies, shows, games, even toys for generations. What makes “Stars Earn Stripes” such an egregious offender in glorifying war? Where do you draw the line in calling something exploitation, like Romney’s use of the U.S.S. Wisconsin? Does time factor into it? Does the medium?
I’m not sure, and I’m positive the answers are all relative. I do know “Stars Earn Stripes” is a terrible, awful show that should receive some kind of medal for valiantly lowering the bar. The day after the Olympics, NBC returned us to reality by combining America’s most embarrassing obsessions: celebrities, guns, money, and trashy entertainment. USA! USA! USA!