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6 September 2019

Generation Kill is relentless – but mercifully short

By Geoff Dyer

My wife and I are not great box-set watchers. Conscious of the time-suck, I’m always looking for an excuse to jump ship. As a result, we’ve never watched more than a season and a half of anything. And we come to things so embarrassingly late it often seems impossible to try to catch up. People have been telling me The Sopranos is great for so long that it has joined the growing list of things – say, skiing – I have never done and now never will. (I’m not even curious about skiing any more.) Lest I paint a too-cosy picture of marital harmony I should add that we are not always in agreement on the matter of whether to linger in the televisual bath or to pull the plug. My wife persisted with Homeland, whereas I abandoned it after a couple of episodes on the grounds that a vast amount of skill, intelligence and ingenuity had been deployed solely in order to . . . keep me watching. No way was I – a man steeped in the sharp lessons of the Frankfurt School – going to fall for that! So while millions of you suckers stayed glued, I skulked off to my study and watched random episodes from The World at War on YouTube.

All of this is a prelude to saying that there were only two possible shows to choose from, both devoted to war and both one-season miniseries: Band of Brothers and Generation Kill. Needless to say, we were devastated when they finished, left craving another season of each. “It was a delightful visit;—” as Jane Austen wrote in Emma, “perfect, in being much too short.”

I have opted here for Generation Kill (2008) because it is less conventional, more daring in conception and execution, than the magnificent Band of Brothers. With minimal explanation, scene-setting or establishing of character, we follow a company of reconnaissance marines spearheading the invasion of Iraq. Flung into a barely comprehensible world and language, we are left to pick up the acronym-intensive argot as best we can.

Our representative in this regard is Evan Wright, the journalist from whose excellent book the series was adapted, with expected skill and remarkable fidelity, by David Simon and Ed Burns. Wright was embedded; the viewers are immersed. After a point we didn’t talk about watching another episode. It was always, “Shall we get back in the Hummer?”

Convention seems almost to demand that dramas about soldiers deployed in Iraq contrast the intensity of life on the front line with the difficulty of adjusting to the longed-for life back home in the overstocked supermarkets of the American heartland. In the seven episodes of Generation Kill, there is no such relief and no reprieve. And there is very little choice; instead, there are orders to be obeyed.

The performances – some of them from ex-marines playing their slightly younger selves – are uniformly strong and the direction (by Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones) is flawless. Everything looks cinematically good. After watching Generation Kill, it’s impossible to regard Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Hurt Locker as anything but a very tense joke.

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