Catherine Bell by Fred Norris/Lifetime Catherine Bell by Fred Norris/Lifetime

Not many TV shows earn promotional shout-outs from both John McCain and Barack Obama. But endorsing Army Wives? A political no-brainer. The hit Lifetime drama (Sundays at 10 pm/ET), after all, depicts with sensitivity - and soap-operatic flourish - the lives of American military families. The candidates' high-profile tributes were the latest signs of success for the network's most popular show, which scored record ratings for its second-season opener as well as an official thumbs-up from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The upshot of that seal of approval: permission to film inside an actual C-17 transport plane at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, near the set used as the show's fictional Army post. The DoD also provided a medical evacuation crew to reenact their duties nursing wounded soldiers. "We want to help the show portray the military not only in a good light but in a realistic light," says Air Force public affairs officer Capt. Wayne Capps.

The series also gets a high-five for authenticity from the airmen and air-women checking out the action on the set. "Our wives all watch," says one master sergeant. "The people who play the officers are spot-on." It's this positive feedback, says Brian McNamara, who plays post commander Michael Holden, "that makes me stand a little taller in this uniform."

Not that blunders aren't duly noted. The NCO chuckles when Lt. Col. Joan Burton ( Wendy Davis) gets hugs from her staff after revealing her pregnancy. Such a PDA would never happen. It's not the first time the show's only female officer has been chastised by service members. Davis' new slicked-back bun resulted from complaints about her previously unruly 'do. But her tough-as-nails character has bigger challenges ahead, like trying to maintain her troops' respect as she suffers morning sickness and mood swings and ensuring that the old-school male officer who'll step in for her won't usurp her deputy commander position permanently.

More problems fill the duty roster this season. In his first deployment, Trevor ( Drew Fuller) takes a bullet, which opens up an ethical can of worms for the idealistic grunt. "His dilemma is that he feels he was just doing his job, but the Army needs a hero," says Fuller. Back home, his wife, Roxy ( Sally Pressman), takes a job sorting shrimp because her car needs a new motor. "There's a military-family joke that says as soon as your husband deploys, everything he's responsible for breaks down," Pressman says.
And that includes their marriage. "Roxy's going to expect that Trevor's the same when he returns, but he won't be."

Trevor's survival is good news in a show that promises loss and delivered it with the tragic murder of Amanda (Kim Allen), the daughter of Michael and Claudia Joy ( Kim Delaney). "We've been working through the stages of grief," Delaney says. That sad story line weighed on the actors as well as their characters, admits Brigid Brannagh, who plays Delta Force wife and out-spoken radio host Pamela. "We're finally going into a lighter stage," she says. "We need a little levity around here!"

They seem to be achieving it, judging by the playful banter on the set. "We bond a lot," confirms creator Katherine Fugate. "It's almost like being on our own Army post. We spend weekends together, live together." In fact, McNamara and Sterling K. Brown, who plays Joan's beleaguered civilian spouse, Roland, share a place. "He cooks like a beast and I eat like one," jokes Brown. "A match made in heaven."

A new on-screen match will rev up this season when desperate housewife Denise ( Catherine Bell) finds a new passion - riding motorcycles - and a possible new love (Seamus Dever). "That relationship will force her to look at what she really wants in a partner," Fugate says.

During hiatus, the actors spent some time with their real-life counterparts in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As a result, says Fugate, "The stories this season will be more meaningful and accurate." But don't expect the show to take a political stance about the Iraq War. "There's always a war," she says. "What's consistent is the soldier's sacrifice and the family's struggle. That's what we aim for." No candidate could dispute that. - Ileane Rudolph

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