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The Unit season one
cast: Dennis Haysbert, Scott Foley, Max Martini, Robert Patrick, and Audrey-Marie Anderson

creator: David Mamet

549 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox DVD Regions 2 + 4 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
Adapted from Eric Haney and with Shawn Ryan's book Inside Delta Force, and created by David Mamet, a legendary screenwriter in the driving seat, this is a series with a high pedigree and conversely, a lot to live up to.

Bob Brown (Scott Foley) is the latest recruit to the Unit. Answerable directly to the President and outside the military chain of command, officially the Unit is the 303rd Logistical Studies Group, led by Colonel Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick). Brown is assigned to Alpha team, the Unit's primary strike force led by Sergeant Major Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert), and consisting of Master Sergeant Mack Gerhardt (Max Martini) and sergeants Hector Williams (Demore Barnes) and Charles Grey (Michael Irby). The five men are regularly dropped behind enemy lines, carry out politically deniable operations and are as likely to be working close protection as hostage extraction. They go where they're told and no one, not even their wives, knows where that might be. The series follows both the missions Blane's team is assigned and the strains on the wives of the men, led in turn by Blane's wife Molly (Regina Taylor).

Written down, it sounds like the worst excesses of Desperate Housewives and The A Team put in a blender. And superficially, that's exactly what it is. But both Mamet and Ryan have a longstanding fascination with how people relate to one another and the tribes formed by high stress work environments. Here, that fascination becomes something altogether darker and more interesting than the subject matter might suggest.

Any series with Mamet involved is going to have dialogue that sings and The Unit is no exception. Haysbert in particular is gifted with moments of perfect jet-black humour, his unflappable Sergeant Major at the heart of a constantly swirling storm of chaos. In Unexpected for example, he effortlessly juggles Brown's security being compromised during an extended foreign op with badgering a bank into giving Brown's wife power of attorney over their funds. There's something utterly reassuring and incredibly intimidating about Haysbert here and underneath the unflappable, genial exterior is, it soon becomes clear, a man who is not to be underestimated.

In the same episode he talks a journalist into holding off on a news story simply by giving her his card. He informs her that trouble eventually finds us all and that his card is not a get out of jail free one, but a get out of hell one. The line is pure machismo but Haysbert delivers it with such pragmatism that you can't help but buy into it. It should also be noted that similar cards actually exist, General Norman Schwarzkopf receiving one from the French Foreign Legion following the First Gulf War. He was told, simply, that if he ever needed help, anywhere in the world, to call the number on the card.

This combination of machismo and compassion is perfectly balanced in one of the series' best episodes. Exposure uses The Unit's annual 'Day of the Dead' celebration to tell two entirely different stories. In one, Bob Brown discovers that what widows want, widows get in a plot which is actually out-and-out farce yet still works wonderfully, moving both Brown's relationship with his team-mates and his wife on further. In the other, Jonas tells the son of an old friend an edited version of the true story of his death. Balancing humour with pathos, it's one of the high points of the season.

Arguably the other is SERE. Standing for survival, evasion, rescue, and escape it follows the Unit as they're put through a gruelling course designed to simulate POW conditions. Relationships are stretched to breaking point and the whole exercise ultimately becomes life threatening as a simple cold contracted by Brown threatens to break the bonds of trust within the team and endanger his life and career. Effectively a bottle show, it's one of the tensest, most claustrophobic hours of TV in years and drives home the series' central, subtlest point; the cause, in the end, is irrelevant. These men and their families do what they do because they believe in their colleagues above everything else.

It's a brave move making a show like this apolitical and at times openly anti-political but it works wonders. The cast also helps it immeasurably, with Patrick as the Unit's commander and Foley as the earnest young recruit particularly impressing. Oddly though, the real acting power in the show is divided equally. Taylor, Brammell and Anderson are a quiet revelation as the wives, the regal Taylor a perfect match for Haysbert's oddly urbane career soldier. Anderson is equally impressive and her journey from frightened new wife to rock solid, hardened veteran is fascinating to watch and utterly believable. However, it's Brammell who really impresses. Along with the excellent Max Martini as her husband, Mack, Brammell's Tiffy Gerhardt is a fiercely intelligent, compassionate and horribly conflicted woman whose battles with her own conscience lie at the heart of some of the show's best scenes. As strong as their husbands and as unflinching in their decisions, these women lift the show up to new heights, instead of dragging it down into cliché.

The Unit is a class act, the elite group behind and in front of the camera a perfect match for the elite group they're portraying. Intelligent, human and at times darkly funny, this is one that everyone from Mamet fans to armchair generals will enjoy. Unreservedly recommended.

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