Lifetime's Army Wives (Sundays at 10 pm/ET) doesn't take a stance on the war, but it's still making a big noise. Since its June 3 debut, the soap has smashed the female-friendly network's ratings records with almost four million viewers a week. It doesn't hurt that the show stars popular TV veterans Kim Delaney (NYPD Blue) and Catherine Bell (JAG) and that it's lustier than Lifetime's usual fare. But Army Wives also seems to be striking a chord with its depiction of military family life — a world full of rituals, duties and sacrifices unknown to most of America. "People keep coming up to me saying it's about time we see the female perspective on war," explains executive producer Katherine Fugate. "We have rarely ever stayed at home with the wives when their husbands are deployed."
Here's our briefing on why the show hit home:
1) A book about real-life military spouses inspired the series. The source was journalist and army brat Tanya Biank's popular 2006 nonfiction book Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives. (It's been retitled Army Wives for the new paperback edition; buy it at Amazon.com) "I wrote the book because I wanted to humanize our military and military families," says Biank, now the wife of a lieutenant colonel and a show consultant. Most of Army Wives' characters are based on the book's actual subjects. "When I was doing a radio interview recently, I got a call from the real Roxy," says Sally Pressman, who plays irrepressible newlywed Roxy LeBlanc. "She said that she was crying hysterically watching the first episode because it was so moving to see her life on the screen. We're not enhancing things at all."
2) Producer Katherine Fugate thought she was turning the book into a movie — and even had a dream cast lined up. When Mark Gordon — who also produces Grey's Anatomy — came to Fugate with the book, she thought she was adapting it for the big screen. "I was looking for a project for Reese Witherspoon and thought she'd be great as Roxy," recalls Fugate. "I even met with Sandra Bullock, who I was thinking of to play Denise. No one had bothered to tell me it was for a television series!" Once she found out, Fugate started handpicking her TV cast. "I basically seduced Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell into doing it." How? "By mapping out the entire season's plotlines." (Read on for scoop.... )
3) There are no catfights on this army post! "No one has to be declawed — the women get along great," says Sterling K. Brown, who plays the civilian husband of Lt. Col. Joan Burton (Wendy Davis) and the only male "wife." Adds Bell, whose last series was the testosterone-heavy JAG, "It's so nice to have girlfriends on set. We all hang out together on weekends. There's a lot of joking, too. The biggest joke is about having sex with each other. We've done these fake blooper reels where one of us pops up in the bed of another couple. It's 'Desperate Army Housewives.'"
4) The in-your-face sex may be new to Lifetime, but it's true to military life. "There are more affairs that happen in this setting than normal because of the long absences," Fugate says. "There are Internet affairs, emotional affairs and physical affairs." Later this summer one of the main characters will succumb "because they're lonely," teases Fugate. But most of the on-screen coupling is the married kind. "All of our characters have had pretty steamy love scenes with their spouses," says Bell, whose repressed and buttoned-down Denise will get a makeover and "start to assert herself sexually." Pressman says that when she first read the script she thought the show was for HBO. "It was so real and gritty, and right away there was a scene with Roxy ironing in her underwear!"
5) Real-life army wives love Army Wives — mostly. "I was recently told by a military couple that they love the life," says Delaney, who plays queen bee Claudia Joy Holden. "That's what I hope we get across: the passion they have for the military, for America and for each other." So far the series is getting plenty of salutes on various websites devoted to military families. "Army Wives is important because it shows the bonds between women," reads one entry. One dissatisfied blogger does sniff, "We real army spouses are not desperate housewives!" But Lori Twichell, the real-life wife of an Air Force sergeant, says, "Those women on Wisteria Lane have no idea how desperate our lives can be. I hope we'll see these TV wives overcome the kinds of adversity many of us have had to."
Not to worry: there are plenty of triumphs coming up. Joan finally seeks treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder, Denise returns to nursing despite her husband's objections, and the reason behind Claudia Joy's decision to drop out of Harvard Law School is revealed as she deals with her daughter's relationship with Denise's abusive son. Looks like all is fair in love and war.
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