Death had come to visit Kevin Biegel. He was a healthy 32-year-old on his honeymoon in Italy and his heart suddenly stopped.
Perhaps it was a freak occurrence or a by-product of the daily stresses he dealt with as a Hollywood writer and producer. It wasn't cocaine, as some might have guessed. Doctors plugged stents into his heart but couldn't install anything to keep Biegel from obsessing about his own mortality. Thoughts about death crept into his children's playtime, on the highway, and most significantly, into his creative universe.
An alumnus of the South Park writing room, Biegel, now 37, created the series Cougar Town with Bill Lawrence and wrote for Scrubs.
The setting for Cougar Town looks much like his Florida hometown but an important element from his life was missing - the military. His dad joined the Army just before the Vietnam War draft ended, and his grandfather served in World War II. While on the set of Scrubs, he kept returning to an idea to swap out surgeons for soldiers: a workplace comedy in fatigues. A nagging insistence on authenticity drove him to write what he knew, which was how to be the oldest of three brothers who grew up in a military household - and how trauma can suddenly have its own gravitational pull on lives.
The result is Enlisted, one of the only military TV comedies since M*A*S*H and one that runs in a post-Vietnam age when veterans are lazily written into television and film as unstable psychopaths with weapons training. Goofy yet soulful, the show's view of life in and around a fictional military garrison is unique when compared with sensationalist portrayals of veterans in other programs.
With the war in Afghanistan quietly humming in the background, Enlisted is a show about normal men and women in a workplace not many Americans know or understand.
It also confronts the duality of an American society that applauds 30-second beer commercial bromides of returning soldiers while admitting fears of having PTSD-addled veterans in the workplace prevents some from hiring veterans and contributes to a relatively high unemployment rate for returning troops.
Tragedies such as the recent Fort Hood shooting also offer a reminder of the deep, ugly partitions between civilians and military personnel, the latter recast from heroes to pitiable, damaged victims. American society tends to view its military through those binary lenses, and neither view easily lends itself to an acceptance of military slapstick. Indeed, most portrayals of veterans on TV and in film are decidedly negative.
In House of Cards, one war veteran is an opportunistic sadist, one discharges his weapon on a residential street, and another botches a suicide bombing. And in NCIS, Iraq and Afghanistan serve as backdrops to countless PTSD-fuelled crimes.
Yet it took a comedy to quickly produce the most nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder in modern popular culture. Geoff Stults (of short-lived Bones spinoff The Finder) plays the swaggering but mentally struggling soldier Pete Hill, who brings a load of survivor's guilt home when soldiers in his unit are killed in Afghanistan.
Enlisted is an ensemble comedy but it is really Hill's show. The characters around Hill help soften the landing of their leader back home; these include his two subordinate brothers, Derrick and Randy (Chris Lowell and Parker Young).
Flip the channel to any other show and war veterans are transformed into goons and monsters. On Enlisted, Hill is traumatised but capable, afflicted yet undoubtedly competent. Hill's soldiers know he deals with PTSD, but their conception of him as a leader is not affected by it. It's a groundbreaking way to illustrate the coexistence of professionalism and mental health challenges in order to erode the long-standing stigma of seeking help within the military.
"Post-traumatic stress doesn't mean you're a crazy guy with a gun," Biegel said, alluding to the stereotypical depiction. "It's a natural response to trauma that can happen to anyone."
With that guiding principle, Hill's character was created to reflect the hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans combating the symptoms of PTSD, which is linked to the military's ongoing suicide problem.
Enlisted has done that better than any other show on television. But disappointing ratings paired with a public burnt out on war unfortunately killed the show before it could move the needle on damaging cultural stereotypes, with news last week that it had been cancelled by Fox.
Biegel is happy Enlisted will exist on DVD and other formats, and it could help alter the perception of veterans for some time.
·Alex Horton served as a US Army infantryman in Iraq and recently worked in public affairs with the US Department of Veterans Affairs.