How do you top one of the greatest series in television history? If you’re David Simon and Ed Burns, you apparently get right back to work. Less than four months after HBO aired the final episode of their epic American crime series The Wire, the network debuted Generation Kill, a seven-part mini-series that the duo wrote with Rolling Stone scribe Evan Wright. The series was based on Wright’s book, which chronicled his time embedded with the First Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corp during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.Wright’s up-close-and-personal narrative proved an ideal vehicle for Simon and Burns’ straightforward writing; their scripts for Generation Kill are in much the same no-nonsense style as their previous show. The first episode features little preparation and no proper introductions—we get to know the characters throughout the series, and our impressions of them come from observation of their actions instead of signposting dialogue. What little exposition we get comes through Wright himself, who is a character in the show (the Marines sneer at his RS credentials, but are duly impressed when they find out he used to write for Hustler). And as in The Wire, the characters speak in their own language of lingo and jargon, which viewers are trusted to piece together on their own, from context and repeated usage.
But the writing and directing really are the stars here; White and Jones’ filmmaking is smooth but never predictable, and their scenes propel forward with force and genuine momentum. And the scripts are marvels of efficiency and low-key realism—everything, from the broad strokes of military hierarchy to the tiny details of desperate mission preparation (“When the Army goes to war, they get it all… but the Marines, we make do”), feels authentic and inhabited and imbued with a fully realized notion of that particular time, place, and mood. This is excellent, riveting television.
“So what’d you see, reporter?” asks “Godfather” towards the end of the final episode. It’s a hell of a question. What the viewers of Generation Kill see, through the eyes of Evan Wright and his protagonists, is a ground-level view of the Iraq conflict that is neither romanticized nor didactic; it is direct, unvarnished, and feels as honest and real as anything this side of documentary. Kudos to Burns and Simon, for again expanding the conventional wisdom of what television can be, and what it can do.