While most of the people who read this are probably too young to remember, there was a time when John Wayne was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. He was capable of giving a great performance (check out "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), but during his biggest years, he was primarily just playing the same "John Wayne" character in every role. Whether Western or War film, the beefy John Wayne persona lumbered his way through the movie. Because that is what the audience knew and that is what they wanted to see.
Wayne's heyday came to mind as I watched the first two episodes of the new CBS action drama "SEAL Team," starring David Boreanaz. Like Wayne, Boreanaz is the type of actor that fills up the screen. He's a likeably solid actor who has been a TV fixture since his days on "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer." He's coming off a long run as one of two leads on Fox's "Bones" and he's one of the select group of actors who can draw an audience no matter what the project.
I just wish this project was a better one.
"SEAL Team" is one of three Special Forces-related dramas to premiere this fall and while they each take a slightly different approach to the subject, they all face a similar problem. This isn't exactly a fresh idea, so how do you make the subject compelling enough for an audience to tune in every week? While NBC's "The Brave" opts for cramming a lot of action into each episode, "SEAL Team" focuses as much on the home front as the mission at hand. Boreanaz plays Jason Hayes, whose career as a SEAL has resulted in a broken marriage and a family that has a mixed reaction towards him. And in fact, each of his squad's members have their own personal backstory that will be revealed in the upcoming weeks.
Filling out those spaces in the characters might seem like a good idea in the writer's room, but at least in the two episodes I've seen, it just reinforces the impression that "SEAL Team" is a likable collection of every special forces trope you've ever seen on television. It's the kind of show in which one character orders another to "stay put" and you instantly understand that is not going to happen. The plot twists and turns aren't just familiar, they're predictable and when the episode is over, your first impression is to shrug and say "Well, okay."
The show also doesn't do Boreanaz any favors. He swings back-and-forth between gruff and moody, and his efforts to exude that special forces leader confidence just comes off as flat and one dimensional. Boreanaz is a good actor, but he doesn't have much chance to show it in this role. Which is why I thought of John Wayne when I watched "SEAL Team." These roles were the ones that Wayne specialized in later in his career. Rote performances that only required him to be the John Wayne the audience loved and expected. And while that led to a lot of box office success, it didn't do much for John Wayne the actor.
I can see a scenario where "SEAL Team" is a ratings success. The topic is non-threatening and Boreanaz is the type of actor audience will watch even if they don't love the show. But he deserves better, especially come off of a show like "Bones" which gave him more to do. In the right role, Boreanaz could be as good as any actor on television. Sadly, "SEAL Team" is not going to be that role.