After watching the first hour of Monday night’s two-hour premiere, I began to wonder whether “Stars Earn Stripes” would have had more resonance during the darkest days of the Iraq war, when, for reasons that crossed the ideological spectrum, we all could have used a deeper understanding of military ops.
But now that we’ve become inured to the standard-issue “hero” appellation given to each and every enlistee — when even some returning soldiers complain that gratitude isn’t backed up with real benefits — “Stars Earn Stripes” feels too much like a “Be All You Can Be” advertising refrain. If you’re antiwar to the core, then the show is just more empty jingoism.
If, however, you have an abiding admiration for combat maneuvers, training, weaponry and specialized skills, the show can be fascinating and even exhilaratingly virile. Most of us are probably somewhere in between — respectful of service; wary of warmongering; and perhaps still nursing a crush on the anonymous Navy SEALs who took out Osama bin Laden.
Eight men and women celebs (mainly C-listers such as Dean Cain, who once played Superman on TV; Olympic skier Picabo Street; Laila Ali, who followed in her father’s footsteps as a professional boxer; and Todd Palin, whose celebrityhood is better than C-list but nevertheless requires a giant asterisk) are paired up with highly trained military and law enforcement veterans, including a Green Beret, a SWAT officer, two Marine sergeants, a retired member of the Delta Force and two Navy SEALs.
Under the orders of the show’s co-host, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the teams try to outdo one another during strenuous, timed combat exercises. In the first episode, they have to leap out of a helicopter into a lake while weighted down with automatic weapons and full gear; swim to a motorized raft; wade ashore under enemy fire; destroy a lookout tower with a grenade; shoot at paper “enemy” targets with live rounds; wade through mud to seize the enemy’s ammo cache and then, finally, blow it all to kingdom come.
The goal is to complete the mission and earn a stripe, which means a donation to a military-related charity of their choice; the ultimate winner will get $100,000 to donate.
Why are they doing this? For the troops, of course — to raise awareness about how hard our fighting forces work, how much they sacrifice, and so on and so on, until it begins to sound like nebulous praise. “Stars Earn Stripes,” which bears the imprimatur of executive producers Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”) and Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice”), is draped in the verbal equivalent of too much bunting. The celebrities are awkwardly effusive to their new heroes/BFFs; even Chris Kyle, a SEAL sniper who boasts a confirmed-kill count of 160 (and wrote a best-selling memoir about it), starts to feel self-conscious when Cain, his teammate, won’t stop fawning over him.