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General Failure: The Bizarre World of Wesley Clark’s New Reality Show

The extraordinary strangeness of “Stars Earn Stripes,” NBC’s latest reality show, first begins to sink in when Wesley Clark hops out of a Jeep and saunters toward a row of B-list celebrities decked out in military gear. “This looks like a great platoon to me,” he tells a group that includes Todd Palin, pop star Nick Lachey, and actor Dean Cain. Some actual military servicemen loom to one side, looking very genetically superior. Then there is the former NATO commander and one-time Democratic candidate himself, with his Presidential Medal of Freedom and four Viet Cong bullet wounds, wearing a preppy blue windbreaker and telling the gang that he “would love to have commanded a unit like this.”

It's a surreal scene, to say the least. The General, it turns out, does not even watch reality TV. “Well,” he said via phone several days before the premiere aired this past Monday night, “I knew about Celebrity Apprentice, I’d seen the Trump show a few years ago a couple of times.” So how did General Clark make the jump from a contender for commander-in-chief to commander of a reality TV show?

“Stars Earn Stripes,” General Clark explained, appealed to him as a way to access a demographic that, in his view, is mostly oblivious to what the U.S. military does. “My generation doesn’t know Nick Lachey,” he explained, “but my generation knows the armed forces. We grew up in the world of the draft.” So his hope is that today’s young people might “see the military through the eyes of Nick Lachey, and think, look what these people are doing. Pretty interesting, pretty tough, pretty awesome.”

“Stars Earn Stripes” is clearly engineered to glorify our troops, to celebrate the daily rigor and danger of military life. The premise is that “stars” (these include “WWE diva” Eva Torres, “Biggest Loser” coach Dolvett Quince, and Olympic skier Picabo Street) compete at taking down targets, leaping from helicopters, and writhing through mud under barbed wire. Shots of exploding grenades cut out to General Clark alone in a control room, coolly observing the proceedings on a large screen. Each celebrity is paired with a real member of the armed forces: a SWAT commander, a marine, a CPO proudly identified as “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.”

Before this hosting gig, General Clark told me, his television-watching was mostly limited to golf and football. (Though it should be said that while leading the war in Kosovo, he certainly did not skimp on the television appearances.) He’d occasionally catch a reality show while flipping through channels and “see these people running across water, bouncing off balloons and things. So I’d wanted to make sure that what we were going to do was serious and authentic and purposeful. And didn’t involve a bunch of people making fun of themselves.” But Monday’s premiere was mostly two hours of gun porn, a montage of exploding grenade launchers and AK-47s. Some actual lines that escape the mouths of contestants include: “You want to treat this gun like a woman, very, very delicately” and “Squeeze the trigger, brother, squeeze it, squeeze it, just squeeze it nice and slow.” Bullets hurtle in slow motion. Nick Lachey shudders from the recoil of his machine gun as shell casings fly away. At one point, he points a pistol straight at the camera, a faint breeze ruffling his boy-band hair.

The backlash began almost as soon as the premiere aired. Nine Nobel peace prize winners including Desmond Tutu published an open letter calling for the series’ cancellation, accusing it of “trying to sanitize war by likening it to an athletic competition.” A director of one veteran group told Radar Online that the show left her speechless. “War is not a game,” she said. The consensus seemed to be that the show accomplishes exactly the opposite of what it sets out to do: It trivializes combat, it fetishizes weapons, it makes mortally high-stakes situations seem like a matter of racking up prize money. It also casts light on the weird role of reality shows in promoting American military institutions to younger demographics. And, perhaps worst of all: It’s boring.  

THIS ISN’T THE first time that reality TV has joined forces with the military. In 2002, USA Network aired “Combat Missions,” produced by Mark Burnett, who is also behind “Stars Earn Stripes” (along with “Survivor” and “Celebrity Apprentice”).  “Combat Missions” pit military types—former Green Berets and Navy seals, for instance—against each other in elaborately staged operations. It was never picked up for a second season.

Francisco Hamm, who works in the Air Force’s entertainment office and recently finished consulting on an episode of “Army Wives” (a popular Lifetime drama), explained that even in the realm of reality TV, it is key to the military’s public affairs mission to be represented well onscreen. “Top Chef” filmed one episode at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The contestants cooked food for airmen and their families who were deploying or returning from deployment. “It’s really important to us to showcase men and women in the Air Force and their cool missions,” Hamm said.

That the military supports television projects as a way of promoting itself is nothing new. But reality shows, with their non-actor participants and murky line between staged drama and real-life scenarios, are a confusing hybrid. “Stars Earn Stripes” is not representing the military. It appropriates the mechanics and set pieces of military duty—shooting guns, kicking in doors—and uses them as ways to quantify winners and losers in a highly stylized game.

Executive producer David Hurwitz brushed off concerns that the show trivializes war. “I can see how naysayers who will always look for something would say that,” he told me. “But Todd Palin’s son is serving as an infantryman in Afghanistan. Someone like Nick Lachey, who people might think of as a pop star, is the same age as most of the officers now serving.”  Moral concerns aside, he emphasized that “Stars Earn Stripes” is mostly just designed to be a spectacle. He called it “the biggest and most explosive show ever on television.”  No matter that the show feels culturally tone-deaf, a campy artillery bonanza just weeks after Aurora has begun to fade from the headlines.

Yet “Stars Earn Stripes” also fails as entertainment. The show is not officially Pentagon-supported, but it still plays like unapologetic propaganda. Phrases like “honoring the troops” and “real American heroes” are thrown around so many times, with so many moments set to patriotic music, that the drama hits just one shrill and numbing note. The gun blasts blend together. Todd Palin manages to remain perfectly dull even while saying things like “I usually use a 338 caliber rifle that knocks a moose down pretty good.” And Nick Lachey, to the surprise of no one, is not very good behind a gun.

As for Wesley Clark, he looks mildly uncomfortable and generally nonplussed. “Thank you for your service,” he says at the end of the premiere, and for a moment it is unclear whether he is addressing the stars or the soldiers. Then he turns toward the first celebrity to get the ax. “You are dismissed.”

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.