Two things stand out in the first half an hour of HBO’s new seven-part miniseries Generation Kill.
First. Although set during the early days of the US invasion of Iraq, and pigeonholed as a series about “war”, the said war rarely rears its head. The members of the First Recon Battalion, around whom the series is centred, seem more concerned about confirming rumours of J-Lo’s death than their immediate orders.
War never changes: The series follows a squad of marines in the early days of the US invasion of Iraq
Second. It all seems to make very little sense. Military jargon is everywhere, and the series seems to be trying to tie way too many narrative strands together.
Strangely, it’s the first point that makes Generation Kill so compelling, and different from the usual narratives of war seen on TV and film. It’s a rare portrait of life at the bottom rung of the military, and is an unflinching look at the incompetence of the top brass in guiding the direction of the invasion.
The characters in Generation Kill, ill-informed, ill-prepared young men trying to be soldiers, are fascinating. They wait and wait for the “war”—something that only seems to exist hypothetically—to manifest itself somehow. It’s on the margins of that constant wait that Generation Kill focuses. Unlike classic war movies, it’s more slice-of-life than grandiose, and more surreal than epic. Caught in the middle of an uncertain situation with conflicting orders and a cryptic idea of who the “enemy” is supposed to be, Generation Kill is by turns tragic and farcical, and presents a fascinating picture of everyday life on the supposed frontlines (watch out for a hilarious rendition of Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er boi). It’s political and often critical, but never preachy.
From Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert, called so for his stoic nature to Lt. Col Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando (for his raspy voice), the show establishes complex, satisfying character arcs for all its protagonists. It’s driven by some incredible scenes, none of which, thanks to banter that is almost always profanity-laden and politically incorrect, can be quoted.
Study in scarlet: The characters in ‘Generation Kill’ are complex and layered
The second point, its complexity, is a hallmark of the series’ creators. David Simon and Ed Burns, who wrote Generation Kill based on Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright’s book of the same name, are the men behind the seminal The Wire. The Wire was a sprawling, layered look at the city of Baltimore, and the advice often given to those who find it impenetrable is to “Stick with it”.
The same can be said of Generation Kill. The first hour seems a hopelessly muddled mess, but as the individual stories start to coalesce, it all comes together brilliantly. The fact that it is based on real people, real experiences and is made by two creators known for their focus on authenticity make it a must watch.
Stick with it.
Generation Kill premieres on HBO on Saturday, 2 January at 11am.