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David Mamet brings skills to ‘The Unit’

Playwright teams with the producer behind ‘The Shield’ for military drama
/ Source: The Associated Press

The unit behind CBS’ new military drama “The Unit” represents one of the more impressive gatherings in the name of television.

Filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) is an executive producer and is writing or directing some of the 13 episodes. Shawn Ryan, creator of FX’s Emmy-winning “The Shield,” also enlisted as an executive producer.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Haney, whose “Inside Delta Force” details his years in counterterrorism and covert operations, serves as adviser to the series that his 2002 book inspired.

But, according to Haney, all that creative and ex-Army firepower wasn’t what drew CBS chief executive Les Moonves to the drama about Special Forces operatives at work and at home, where their families cope with a life of secrecy.

“Had you come in here with only an action series, I would have passed. But when you said the wives, the sweethearts, that depth of humanity, that’s when you had me,” Haney recalled Moonves saying after a successful pitch meeting.

Wags have dubbed the series “Desperate Housewives Meet G.I Joe.” The quip draws a measured response from Mamet.

“Maybe. It gets pretty desperate on both sides,” he said.

Dennis Haysbert (“24”) stars as Jonas Blane, respected leader of the unit that includes a recruit played by Scott Foley (“Felicity”) and Robert Patrick’s (“Walk the Line”) Col. Tom Ryan. Holding down the homefront are Regina Taylor, Abby Brammell and Audrey Marie Anderson.

In “The Unit,” perilous missions are mixed with domestic dangers that include an extramarital affair, adolescent angst and wives who resent the camouflage needed to protect their husbands and the national interest.

Born out of rum-drinking sessions
The series, debuting 9 p.m. ET Tuesday, deliberately avoids identifying the unit as Delta Force to keep its dramatic options open and, Haney said, to limit the carping he expects from ex-colleagues over whether every detail is true to life.

“The Unit” draws heavily on Haney’s experiences, both from the book and from memory — with sensitive information omitted, he said.

“David and I drink a lot of rum together and I tell stories,” said Haney, 53, who spent a decade running an international security firm after retiring from the Army in 1990. He spent his last four military years in Panama, which included combat duty.

Cable newshounds may remember him as a terrorism expert who popped up regularly on CNN and Fox News Channel.

Haney met Mamet while serving as a consultant for Mamet’s 2004 film “Spartan.” They bonded, and Haney shared his vision of seeing his book brought to the screen — the small screen. Film offers were being dangled but he wasn’t buying.

“I was stiff-arming that because in my grand naiveté — never underestimate the power of ignorance — I said, ‘I want a television series because it tells the story more fully about this world and this life.”’

When Mamet brought in TV-savvy Ryan to help navigate the industry (the series was rejected by two networks before CBS said yes), the writers knew Haney was adamant about avoiding a cliched view of the military.

“One of my purposes for writing the book is I was so disgusted with the normal Hollywood portrayal,” Haney said. “It was cartoonish, one-dimensional. It’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone film portrayals of this Neanderthal-like person who speaks in monosyllables and slaughters the whole world and there’s no repercussions, there’s no cost involved.”

In “The Unit,” he said, the intent is to explore “the life and death moral issues and the gray area, because there’s where this world lives, in the gray area and the shadows.”

Mamet, who doesn’t watch much TV these days but speaks fondly of oldie faves “Gunsmoke” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” (he got a boxed set of the latter as a gift from his sister), doesn’t consider himself slumming in the medium.

He’s directed a couple of shows before — it was his work on an episode of Ryan’s “The Shield” that brought the two together — and created pilots for series that didn’t make it to air.

Tackling that Mamet dialogueKnown for a writing style that creates poetry out of an unusual cadence and unabashed profanity, Mamet doesn’t spring to mind as an easy fit for network TV. But, as he once told Haney, if swear words are “all you’re depending on for drama, then you’re a charlatan.”

Mamet is “someone that the networks, the studio, I think, in the past viewed a little dangerously,” Ryan told TV critics. “And I’m hoping that any success we might have with this will change their opinions of that, because I’ve never met someone as committed and professional and intent on making good dramas as he is.”

Asked in an interview to compare TV drama with film and stage, Mamet described television as having a “wonderfully curious” structure more akin to an epic than a play, then spun off into a theater riff that touched on Pinter, Chekhov and the Second City improv troupe of his native Chicago.

None of whom, of course, ever coped with commercial breaks.

In that regard, TV “harkens back not to drama but to the medicine show. You’re offering someone legitimate entertainment ... but once in a while you’re going to take a break and sell them snake oil,” Mamet said.

In return, “The Unit” audience gets to visit a realm known to a handful of insiders, he said.

For Haney, sharing his past has given him a great second act.

After a long day on the set, he said, a realization set in: “I thought, ’Gosh, I love this.’ This is the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done in my life.”