If seeing promos for The History Channel’s upcoming series Six is giving you a sense of deja vu, it’s because the series had been primed to launch this past summer. At that time, Joe Manganiello was set to star, but an illness forced him to quit the production. Two episodes had already been shot and had to be scrapped after a recasting took place, putting Walton Goggins into the lead role. The change feels like it may have been to Six’s ultimate benefit, because what can otherwise feel like a rote tale of an elite military unit becomes something much more nuanced and compelling in Goggins’ hands.
Six follows a team of Navy SEALs in a way that seeks out their humanity and gives them context beyond the mythos. The series mixes in flashbacks to training, as well as their current missions and their home lives. Sometimes the overlapping of these has a devastating effect, like in the third episode when Goggins’ Richard “Rip” Taggart starts to see his wife slip away from him as he’s increasingly affected by the horrors witnessed on his missions. Rip is a complicated character who starts out as a hero and a mentor, but who allows a murderous darkness to overtake him after his personal life falls apart. After leaving the SEALs to work for a private contractor in Nigeria, he is captured by Boko Haram alongside a teacher and a group of school girls. That moment sets in motion Rip’s redemptive arc as he works to escape and save their lives.
Unfortunately perhaps, the show isn’t just about him. The other side focuses on the rest of the perfectly affable SEAL team, which includes Bear (Barry Sloane), Alex (Kyle Schmid), Buddha (Juan-Pablo Raba), and Robert (Edwin Hodge). This is where Six turns more into Army Wives, as each of the men deal with problems at home: Bear and his wife, both devoted to their faith, can’t have a baby; Buddha struggles to provide for his family and his children’s education because he keeps choosing the SEALs over a regular job; and the snarky, wayward Alex is coming to terms with a daughter with whom he has never had a relationship.
This is all fine, but it’s a very different story than the one being told about Rip. As of the first few episodes (of an eventual 8), these other characters are thinly drawn, relying strongly on stereotypes (the moral compass, the family man, the sarcastic one, the new guy). This is all in stark contrast to the layers Rip has from the start, as a man who is a leader but also someone who is quickly unraveling due to the pressures of his job and his personal life.
Once the SEAL team hears about Rip’s capture, they reunite to find him. But while that works fine for a serialized drama (Six benefits greatly from TV storytelling rather than a movie because it can dig into some of these deeper character moments, even if it doesn’t always take full advantage of that), the most compelling moments remain with Rip, as he struggles to survive and lead his fellow captives. His interactions with the school teacher, Na’omi, (Nondumiso Tembe) are also an important part of both of their stories, and the focus on Boko Haram rather than ISIS is admirable as a change of pace for a modern war story.
And yet, orbiting out on its own is another subplot that does pull ISIS back into the fold, as a terrorist leader, Nasry (Dominic Adams), has a personal vendetta against Rip for killing his brother. Here, Six also touches on interesting narrative territory, as the Nasry runs a sleek, modern recruiting organization that uses social media and gaming networks to communicate. But in a series already full of plots jockeying for time, it feels overly ambitious, even if the idea is sound.
When it comes to Rip, Six gets in about as much nuance as they can reasonably muster for a military series that also peppers in plenty of gunfire, explosions, and utterances of “Let’s roll!” (And yet, isn’t as obviously patriotic as one would think). It’s also fast-paced and full of jargon, while also giving time to consider life away from battle, and how it’s deeply affected by it. Six is not Band of Brothers or even Generation Kill, and it doesn’t always get the balance of its many storylines right (though I respect it trying). Still, it’s an engaging series that could continue to get better as it goes deeper with the drama and character building. In the meantime, Goggins — as he so often does — steals the show.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Six premieres Wednesday, January 18th on History.