Here’s what I learned watching TV this month: Todd Palin can speak, and he’s an excellent shot, presumably from killing so many moose over the years. On the NBC reality contest “Stars Earn Stripes,” he quickly earns the nickname “Rambo.”
“Next time I go to war,” one actual military operative says admiringly, “I want Todd Palin on my side.”
So it goes on this controversial series, which pairs minor celebrities with the likes of Navy SEALS and Delta Force operators, and sends them on “missions” that simulate actual combat. It’s essentially a live-action video game — structured, as these thing go, a lot like “Dancing With the Stars.” And a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, has asked NBC to take the show off the air, because it “expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence.”
Given how much war permeates American entertainment, those complaints feel a little overwrought. Two years ago, the video game company Activision put out a live-action ad for “Call of Duty: Black Ops.” It showed a range of non-soldiers — a young woman, a middle-aged hotel concierge, Kobe Bryant, Jimmy Kimmel — running through a war-ravaged arena, shooting and throwing grenades. The tagline was, “There’s a soldier in all of us.”
The question is how we honor that soldier — and whether living through combat vicariously is an act of respect or delusion.
NBC, unsurprisingly, argues that it’s respect. “Stars Earn Stripes” takes pains to avoid politics, but it waves the flag so vigorously that it doubles as a military recruitment tool, a love song to advanced weaponry and a bloated military budget. (It also makes a case for women in combat: Yes, boxer Laila Ali cries while rappelling down a building, but in the context of the show, this makes her no less fierce.)
The celebrities compete to raise money for charities that help veterans and first responders. And a central message of the show is that, in terms of physical endurance, what elite soldiers accomplish— what the rest of us only play-act — is athletic, difficult, and scary, even without an enemy shooting back.
It’s striking, of course, that nobody mentions the enemy, or the psychological toll of actual warfare, the high rates of PTSD, the alarming rise in military suicides. Death here is largely a rhetorical device, as when one operative gives a celebrity, aiming at paper targets, the advice, “Clean shot, clean kill.”
Still, the awestruck, soldier-aggrandizing clichés do carry some nuggets of truth. “Do you ever get scared?” action-movie actor Terry Crews asks former Delta Force operator Dale Comstock.
“Fear is what keeps you focused, keeps you alert,” Comstock replies.
It’s the simulation of that fear, from the safety of a couch, that helps explain the video game phenomenon. War games produce vicarious terror — that’s part of the fun — but also let people experience things they probably wouldn’t do in real life, said Nicole Lazzaro, founder of the player engagement consulting firm XEODesign.
But while the military’s free downloadable video game has served as a brilliant recruiting tool, she said, gaming companies have learned that violence isn’t enough. Increasingly, the endings of war-themed video games have been posing tough ethical questions. “Games are more engaging,” she said, “if there are moral consequences, themes, stuff that’s happening because of the violence.”
That lack of consequence is part of the reason that “Stars Earn Stripes” doesn’t make for especially exciting TV. There’s a monotony to the proceedings, as different celebrities undertake the same missions — like a humorless version of “Wipeout,” with more explosions.
Still, there is a way to view “Stars Earn Stripes” not as a glorification of war but as a denigration of celebrities. The more the stars talk about the challenges they face, the more coddled they sound. When Nick Lachey overcomes his fear of jumping from a helicopter, he tries to find commonality with his Hollywood life.
“When you’re in a band, even if it’s a boy band, you know you become a unit,” he says.
Right. “Stars Earn Stripes” doesn’t represent reality any more than any other TV show, but it makes warfare look a little harder, and the rest of our culture look a lot cushier. That can’t be a terrible thing.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss