Tuned In: On board
"Carrier" is an unusual project for PBS on several fronts.
This docu-reality series, airing two one-hour episodes nightly Sunday through Thursday and concluding on May 1, takes viewers on board the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier to show what life is like at sea. There's no narrator as "Carrier" allows a few of the 5,000 people aboard the ship to guide viewers through their daily lives.
What sets "Carrier" apart is the amount of time devoted to this single topic, a whopping 10 hours. I made it through the first three hours without losing interest, but I wonder how many viewers will gut it out for the duration.
"We live beneath the runway of a major airport," explains the ship's chaplain of life on board. "We live on top of an ammo dump that has enough ammunition in it that it could do a lot of damage. My biggest risk in my civilian ministry was falling out of the swivel chair at my desk."
"Carrier" is distinguished from most public television fare by the youth of its stars. "Barney" may be the only other PBS program with a younger cast. The show's rock soundtrack (The Killers, Five for Fighting in tonight's first hour) matches the youth of its cherry-cheeked sailors.
Conspiracy-minded liberal viewers, particularly those who notice that Mel Gibson is an executive producer, may raise an eyebrow, thinking "Carrier" is a commercial for the Navy (sponsor CSC is a Department of Defense contractor). But "Carrier" is a warts-and-all presentation that strips away "Top Gun" glamour to depict the drudgery that is the reality, especially for young sailors who signed up for military service fresh out of high school.
Cindi Costa serves as a seaman recruit E-1 and culinary specialist. She joined up because she wanted to learn to be a chef. West Virginia native Chris Altice arms and de-arms jets on the deck of the Nimitz while thinking about his pregnant girlfriend back home.
"Carrier" introduces these characters, but doesn't stick with them in a strict fashion. They tend to come and go, weaving in and out of episodes, which are structured both chronologically and thematically. In early episodes, Altice and undesignated airman Christian Garzone are among the more primary characters.
Filmed from May to November 2005, "Carrier" is not just about these green newbies. More experienced personnel are also showcased, but the drama springs most often from the young'uns, one of whom describes the Nimitz as a "big-ass floating high school."
One sailor gets disciplined after she's caught in posession of alcohol; a female sailor is sent back to her quarters to change before shore leave because her outfit is deemed too revealing; a sailor who counsels others on the dangers of fraternization gets reprimanded after a drunken hook-up in episode three, "Super Secrets" (9 p.m. Monday, WQED).
"Seven hot dogs for every one bun," says one sailor, explaining the male-to-female ratio on the Nimitz. While an officer cautions that the Nimitz is not a cruise ship in his lecture on the evils of interpersonal relationships between crew members, one sailor responds, "5,000 people? There's gonna be relationships going on, give me a break."
The "don't ask, don't tell policy" regarding homosexuality is addressed with one sailor essentially coming out on camera (he's no longer on active duty and now serves in the Navy reserves, according to a "Carrier" publicist) while a lesbian crew member's image is blurred.
Episode two, "Controlled Chaos" (10 tonight, WQED), focuses on the culture among the pilots -- their call signs, relationships with the deck crew and the feelings of a lone female pilot in a squadron of guys. Crew members also walk the flight deck, looking for debris that could damage the departing or arriving aircraft.
"A carrier landing is like having sex during a car accident," says one pilot. "There's a great reward to it, it feels wonderful, but it's a bit violent and when it's over, it's pretty quick."
Upcoming episodes feature the Nimitz's deployment to the Persian Gulf (9 p.m. Tuesday), where pilots are frustrated to not be dropping bombs; a violent storm on the ocean that makes landing on the pitching deck more harrowing than usual (9 p.m. Wednesday); and an exploration of the assorted faiths onboard, including a coven of Wiccans (10 p.m. Wednesday).
First Published April 27, 2008 12:00 am