‘68 Whiskey’ tackles life of US Army medics in war-torn Afghanistan

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Paramount Network’s new military dramedy, “68 Whiskey,” posits itself as an updated take on “M*A*S*H” — with Korea swapped out for Afghanistan as the setting for US Army personnel treating soldiers wounded (or worse) in wartime.

The 10-episode series, premiering Jan. 15 (10 p.m.) and produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment, takes a while to get going. And while it doesn’t quite match the darkly comic tonal resonance of “M*A*S*H” (the movie or TV series), it does eventually settle into a groove that, if not groundbreaking, offers up a cast of colorful characters who will make you want to revisit them on a weekly basis.

The setting here is the NATO Coalition Base Guardian in the Laghman Province of Afghanistan. It’s close to the front line and is home to soldiers from various countries including the US Army’s 22nd Medical Company. There’s medic Cooper Roback (Irish actor Sam Keeley), the unit’s rogue troublemaker with ongoing side hustles who’s hiding a dark secret from his past. He’s sleeping with Corporal Grace Durkin (Gage Golightly, “The Last Summer”), and his rule-breaking behavior is a problem for the unit’s chief doctor, Major Sonia Holloway (Beth Riesgraf), and its exasperated commander, Col. Harlan Austin (Lamont Thompson). Roback’s chief pals are fellow medics Rosa Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo) and Mekhi Davis (Jeremy Tardy), his wingman who (sometimes unwillingly) goes along with Roback’s schemes.

There’s also newbie soldier Anthony Petrocelli (Nicholas Coombe), who provides the comic relief — he befriends an abandoned goat who he thinks is imbued with the traits of a fallen comrade — and a hulking special ops dude nicknamed Sasquatch (Derek Theler, “Dollface”), who’s also romantically involved with Durkin and hates Roback’s guts.

Cristina Rodlo as Rosa Alvarez in "68 Whiskey."
Cristina Rodlo as Rosa Alvarez in “68 Whiskey.”Paramount Network

That’s the basic setup of “68 Whiskey,” which tends to occasionally veer into graphic sexual territory (it’s unnecessary) and drops several f-bombs along the way (to be expected for people living in a war zone and under constant threat). It checks several politically topical boxes: Alvarez is a Mexican immigrant — her father was deported back to Mexico from Texas and now she too faces deportation “just because some a–hole in Washington wants to get reelected,” says Roback — and there’s a reference to unpaid medical bills due to the high cost of medical care in the US. These polarizing footballs are few and far between, at least in the first three episodes made available for review, and the series doesn’t (yet) descend into overt preachiness.

The cast is generally solid and very likeable, with standouts including Coombe — who brings a refreshingly innocent air to Petrocelli — and Thompson who, as Col. Austin, strikes a nice balance between his outward military discipline and obvious humanity (and sense of humor) lurking just beneath his gruff exterior. The series was shot in the mountains of Santa Clarita, Calif., chosen for its topographical similarity to the Langham Province of Afghanistan. That’s a plus, as is the military complex (dubbed “The Orphanage” by the soldiers) and a nearby Afghan village, both specially constructed for the series and both of which make you feel you’re in a war zone (and not a Hollywood backlot).

“68 Whiskey” won’t make anyone forget “M*A*S*H” — or even “Catch-22,” for that matter — but it tries hard to provide at least a taste of what life is like in a modern-day war zone fraught with lurking danger and, at times, death.

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