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Macho, macho men

It's too soon for the gleeful realism of this drama about the invasion of Iraq


In the lull before the total heaven that will be the beginning of the second series of Mad Men on 10 February (BBC4, 10pm) comes Generation Kill, an HBO drama about the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Sundays, 10pm). The series, based on the book by the Rolling Stone reporter, Evan Wright, who spent time embedded with a unit of US marines, is the work of David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators of the Baltimore cop show The Wire, a combination that has got a lot of people very excited.

Not me. For one thing - and yes, I know full well that this is the television equivalent of confessing that I don't care for Philip Roth - I've never managed to become a swooning devotee of The Wire though, God knows, I've tried (perhaps it's just that I don't have as much free time as some TV critics, and thus cannot give myself over to watching box set after box set in a desperate bid to understand what they are all bloody well saying). For another, I'm not entirely sure that the time is yet right for Iraq dramas, for the blindingly obvious reason that we are still in Iraq. The thing is not over yet and, until it is, I find extreme realism of the kind that Generation Kill so gleefully peddles pretty hard to take.

Generation Kill is supposed to look "more real" than any war epic we've ever seen; one of the cast, Rudy Reyes, is even a former soldier who took part in the 2003 invasion. So, what we get are lots of men who all look the same, and talk the same: speedily, and in an army jargon no civilian can hope ever to understand.

They are not good men, but nor are they bad; they are simply doing a job, at the mercy of their often incompetent superiors as much as any vengeful Iraqi. They are bored, and desperate to "get some". They are full of machismo, but they also have a softer side; one, predictably enough, is moved to mention the Geneva Conventions when his commanding officer instructs him to send a bunch of surrendered Iraqi civilians back in the direction of the death squads they were attempting to escape. They believe that Evan Wright is there to record that they are "baby killers and mama rapists", but they're keen to impress him all the same. They like porn, J-Lo and pizza. They dislike soppy letters from schoolchildren who salute them for their bravery.

What Generation Kill does well is all the farcical MASH-style stuff. The unit's first injury was the result not of shellfire but of an exploding espresso maker; its commanding officers soothed their men, pre-invasion, with a vast delivery from Pizza Hut in Kuwait, which was just as well given they were expected to enter Iraq with only one translator between them.

But such moments, sparse in episode one, are likely to become even fewer once they get to Baghdad. And then what? The narrow focus of the action - we don't flip back to politicians here, or to the folks at home - means that we must come to care about these men inordinately if we're to stick with their girl-obsessed banter, and I'm not sure that they are likeable or complex enough for that to happen. This, however, is less of a problem for me than its writers' lust for hyper-reality. The series wears its authenticity so self-consciously that, paradoxically, it often feels as phony and clichéd as some old Richard Attenborough movie; the behaviour of the wired Corporal Person (James Ransone) is almost cartoonish. I fear that I will be not tuning in next week.

The same goes (a quick postscript here) for Friday Night with Jonathan Ross (10.35pm). I watched his return through a small gap in my fingers. God, it was embarrassing. Ross's tactic, post-apology, seems to be to turn up his sycophancy level a notch. Result: it now sits even more awkwardly with his fart jokes than before. "Tom Cruise, you are the greatest actor ever, I love your work, I think you are so handsome I could kiss you. But tell me: do you break wind in bed?" I paraphrase. But you get the (gruesome) picture.

Pick of the week

The Old Guys
31 January, 9.30pm, BBC1
New sitcom from the writers of Peep Show.

2 February, 9pm, ITV1
A killer apes Jack the Ripper: bloody. drama

It's Time to Go Nationwide
5 February, 9pm, BBC4
Story of the magazine show: a skateboarding duck will appear.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis