Six years ago when producer Stephanie Drachkovitch began pitching the idea for a show that followed the lives of real-life soldiers' wives, the U.S. Army was understandably wary. "The feeling was the families have enough stress," says Lt. Col. Steven Cole, an Army public affairs liaison based in Los Angeles. "There was a general reluctance to have our Army families be the object of entertainment."
But Drachkovitch didn't give up, and last spring, the Army decided the timing was right. "It struck me that the stories of the families were just so invisible during this war," she says. "And yet there are thousands of them who are basically heroes on the other side of the battlefield. We've been at war 10 years as of last spring, and while the war in Iraq [has wound] down, we're still in Afghanistan. The Army felt it was important, now more than ever, to keep the stories of its families and soldiers in front of the American public."
The result is Married to the Army: Alaska, which debuted November 18 on OWN. Drachkovitch and her team at 44 Blue Productions were given unprecedented access to the highs and lows experienced by families stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. "The way all the services look at it, they are the people's military," Drachkovitch says. "So their job is to get those stories out there and to tell us, the citizens, what our Army is doing."
The Army wasn't looking for manufactured drama in doing a reality show, and Drachkovitch, who grew up as an Army brat, assured officials that she wasn't looking to make a military version of The Real Housewives. "The Army was really open to all the stories we wanted to tell," says Drachkovitch, who was shadowed by an Army public affairs officer while shooting on post. "I wanted to tell an authentic story, which is why I needed the Army's approval. I wanted to be able to include the soldiers. I wanted to be able to show people in uniform. In order to do that, you have to have them support the show."
In exchange, Drachkovitch says even she's surprised by the amount of access she got. "Everything from being with a sergeant's wife for the birth of her first child, to sitting in on a family's first therapy session when dad is home on R&R." Cameras also captured an Army post in mourning when word of a brigade's casualties hit home. "It was a real moment for all of us."
Married to the Army marches onto screens right when TV is taking a renewed interest in series with a military bent. In its 10th season, CBS' naval-themed NCIS is TV's top-rated drama; Lifetime's Army Wives was just renewed for Season 7; and Showtime's Homeland has dramatically depicted how one family copes with the return of a POW. "These glimpses into military life are important to keep the American people and the military in touch," says Cole.
Several armed forces—oriented projects are also in development for next season. Taylor Hackford has a Navy drama at the CW; CBS is working on an NCIS:Los Angeles spin-off; and FX has a coming-of-age comedy based on writer Steve Agee's experiences at a military academy in the 1980s. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has the service comedy At Ease in the pipeline at NBC, while at ABC, ER alum Christopher Chulack is working on Warriors, inspired by stories from within the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
"It's a matter of timing," says one producer who has a show in development. "The military has become a 'workplace' and one that makes a unique backdrop." The producer says the fact that there's now a timetable to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan makes it easier to crack jokes in a war zone. (M*A*S*H, on the other hand, marched against the grain by debuting in the midst of the Vietnam War.)
Adds Drachkovitch, "We're seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Whether you're watching Homeland or Army Wives or [Lifetime's] Coming Home, by seeing these stories it's putting it in our consciousness that there are folks still serving out there."
The military consults on some projects, depending on how the service is depicted. Army Wives, for example, has been produced with the Army's blessing since Season Two. Sometimes it's simply about getting facts straight, particularly on scripted series and movies. (One common complaint, according to Cole: TV and movie projects that get the uniform wrong.)
But obviously Hollywood producers don't need official cooperation to move forward. Cole says his office turns down a great deal of requests, for a variety of reasons. "Either they're not a good fit, or they don't have much to do with the Army but just want to use our equipment," he says.
Still, Cole says, "If you want an Abrams tank, you need to work with us; you can't get it anywhere else. We provide value to those production companies that want our help to tell accurate stories."