When it bowed in June of 2007, Army Wives had the twisted benefit of unfolding while things in Iraq were looking fairly grim. Owing to its topicality, especially for military families, the show quickly became the most successful original series in the history of the Lifetime Television network. Billed as a patriotic and thought-provoking serial drama, Army Wives takes place at fictional Fort Marshall in Charleston, South Carolina, and centers around five military spouses who share friendship, fellowship, secrets, home and heartache. It’s essentially a quasi-wholesome soap opera without a lot of wild surprises, but for the most part the series does a decent job — certainly better than it did in its initial run — of balancing the potentially sticky, at-odds acts of honoring the brave men and women it portrays with creating plausible, engaging dramatic storylines.
The show’s talented ensemble cast includes Emmy winner Kim Delaney, ex-JAG looker Catherine Bell, Sally Pressman, Brigid Brannagh, Brian McNamara, Commander in Chief‘s Wendy Davis, Sterling Brown and Drew Fuller. Fugate originated the series using as a blueprint Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives, by journalist Tanya Biank, who also serves as a consultant on the show. Meticulous Grey’s Anatomy fans might also notice some of the shaping influence of executive producer Mark Gordon, who helps fussy up the edges of some of the show’s interpersonal relationships.
The first season acquainted viewers with the intertwined stories of four women and one man tied to career members of the armed forces. Married to earnest officer Michael Holden (McNamara) is the elegant, educated Claudia Joy (Delaney), who serves as den mother to a disparate group that includes Roxy (Pressman), a raucous, fun-loving bartender; radio show host Pamela (Brannagh), a surrogate mother trying to solve a financial crisis; dyed-in-the-wool conservative Denise (Bell); and Roland Burton (Brown), a psychiatrist whose most important patient is his PTSD-afflicted wife (Davis). Far from family and old friends, the five turn to each other for emotional support, companionship and advice, as their loved ones tackle the dangerous business of defending the country. Bound together by pressures familiar to many military spouses, they build a bond that sustains them through sacrifice, loneliness and unforgiving conventions of Army life. Specifically, Denise starts to loosen up and rebel a little bit, something that Roxy opening up her own bar certainly doesn’t put the skids on. Meanwhile, Pamela begins to fray under the stress of raising two children almost by herself, while also fretting over what she views as increasingly censorious micromanagement of her radio show.
Though it’s decidedly better shot than the first season, the framing, editing and musical cues used in Army Wives are still mired in conventionality. The clean lines of dramatic friction are well captured in the plotting over the course of 19 episodes, though, and the actors all bring a dedicated professionalism to their roles that convincingly showcases the burdens of sworn duty to one’s country, for soldier and spouse alike. Perhaps most surprisingly, it’s this macro-level on which the series most succeeds — catching you up slowly, then, in the day-to-day drama, problems and tribulations of its characters.
Housed in a clear plastic Amaray case with two snap-in trays that is in turn stored in an attractive cardboard slipcase, Army Wives: The Second Season comes spread out over five discs. The trays worked fine in protecting the discs for my set, but others may not be so lucky, as I’ve heard of complaints from folks about this type of packaging. The show is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional French and Spanish subtitles.
The set’s array of bonus material is quite impressive, starting with three full-length audio commentaries that allow writers and actors to share time and stories in warm, winning fashion. A collection of 13 deleted scenes with additional optional audio commentary from executive producers Deborah Spera and Marshall Persinger also comes with title cards, nicely, and three minutes of bloopers showcase a falling magnetic license plate as well as other production gaffes. Most engaging, though, are a series of featurettes that chart the lengths to which the production has gone to root its show and school its actors as much as possible in the realities of military life on the homefront. A 20-minute featurette looks at a March 2008 cast bus trip to Fort Bragg, and includes material with Angela Yates, a Family Readiness group leader who talks about deployment and return issues. There’s also footage from a 34-foot “jump tower” that the cast tests out. Two other, shorter featurettes, each running around 10 minutes, look at the material support provided by the Army and one of its entertainment industry liaisons, Todd Breasseale, as well as fluffier chats with the actors about their characters. Finally, five two-minute “Giving Back” segments nicely spotlight special gifts and wish-granting outreach that the cast took part in with some of their real-life, in-need counterparts. To purchase the DVD set from Amazon, click here. B- (Show) A (Disc)