“HOMEFRONT” RETROSPECT: (1.01) “S.N.A.F.U.”
There are only a handful of television shows that I am very emotional about. There are only a handful that I consider to be among the best I have ever seen on the small screen. One of them happened to be the 1991-1993 ABC series, “HOMEFRONT”. Not only do I view it as one of the few television series that turned out to be consistently first-rate from beginning to end, it also has one of the best pilot episodes I have ever seen.
“HOMEFRONT” followed the lives and experiences of a handful of citizens in the fictional town in Ohio, right after the end of World War II. In fact, its pilot episode, (1.01) “S.N.A.F.U.” picks up not long after the war finally ended with Japan’s surrender. Army war veterans Hank Metcalf and Charles “Charlie” Hailey are in New York City, awaiting a train to take them home to River Run, Ohio. Hank is unaware that his longtime girlfriend, Sarah Brewer, has been dating his younger brother Jeff, while he was overseas. And Charlie has an unpleasant surprise for his longtime girlfriend and fiancée, Ginger Szabo – he has married a British woman named Caroline. Other surprises loomed for some of the citizens of River Run. Hank’s sister, Linda, had been dating his and Charlie’s friend, Mike Sloan, before war. Yet, unbeknownst to her, he has married an Italian woman named Gina, who is also a survivor of the Holocaust. Both Linda and her mother, Anne Metcalf, employees at Sloan Industries during the war, were unceremoniously fired with other women employees to make room for returning male veterans. And the Sloans’ chauffeur and housekeeper, Abe and Gloria Davis, receive a surprise in the return of their son Robert from the war. They are even further surprised by his embittered attitude toward the racism he had encountered in the Army and that a job as janitor awaits him at the Sloans’ factory.
I really do not know what to say about “S.N.A.F.U.”. I had never paid much attention to it, when I last saw “HOMEFRONT” on TVLAND, during the summer of 2000. After my recent viewing of the episode, I cannot understand how I could have ever ignored it in the first place. Not only is “S.N.A.F.U.” an outstanding episode, I now realize it is one of the best in the series. Is it the best? I have no idea. I would have to become reacquainted with the other forty-one episodes. I will say this for “S.N.A.F.U.” – the screenplay written by Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick could easily compete with the 1946 movie, “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES” in regard to a narrative about World War II U.S. servicemen returning home. Not surprising, Latham and Lechowick’s transcript won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Long Form in Television.
In a way, I can see why this episode strongly reminded me of “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”. For an episode that mainly focused on the return of River Run’s U.S. servicemen, it seemed filled with a good deal of bitterness, despair and a surprising tragedy. Discrimination seemed prevalent in this episode. The Metcalf women – Anne and her daughter Linda – lost their wartime jobs at the Sloan Industries because owner Michael Sloan decided women were no longer needed as employees, due to the war’s end. On the other hand, the episode revealed Robert Davis’ bitterness over the racism he encountered in the U.S. Army. This bitterness carried over when he discovered that the promised job at Sloan Industries turned out to be a janitor. “S.N.A.F.U.”featured one interesting scene regarding both the racism and sexism faced by some of the characters. In one scene, while office manager Sam Schenkkan fires Linda, he hires Robert for the janitor job. The emotional response expressed by both Robert and Linda proved to be very interesting. Bigotry against foreigners and anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in a story line that featured the Sloans’ discovery that their only son, Michael Sloan Jr., had married an Italian-Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor named Gina. Most of the episode featured the couple trying to find a way to annul their son’s marriage before his return.
Romance certainly proved to be a problem in “S.N.A.F.U.”. Both Linda and her best friend, Ginger Szabo, expected to resume their romances with respective boyfriends upon their return from the war. Linda, who was in love with Mike Jr., learned about his marriage to Gina, upon the latter’s arrival to Ohio. And Ginger, who had been engaged to her longtime boyfriend Charlie Hailey, discovered he had married a young British woman named Caroline, while stationed overseas. And Caroline, as this episode later revealed, will prove to be a handful throughout the series’ run. Thwarted romance also struck another member of the Metcalf family. While Anne Metcalf’s oldest offspring, Hank, was fighting in Europe during the war; his younger brother Jeff got caught up in an unexpected romance with Hank’s girlfriend and fiancée, Sarah Brewer. Both Jeff and Sarah had decided she would break her engagement with Hank, so that both could declare their love for one another. However, Jeff found himself at the losing end of the lollipop when Sarah decided to remain with Hank. I have seen my share of movies about war veterans returning home. But I have never come across so much aborted romances and betrayal in one production in my life. And yet . . . Latham and Lechowick, along with the actors and actresses who portrayed these characters, made all of this romantic entanglements and betrayals seem emotionally true, instead of the usual second-rate melodrama.
If I must be honest, I believe “S.N.A.F.U.” is a prime example of what made “HOMEFRONT” one of the best television shows I have ever seen. Like the other 41 episodes that followed, “S.N.A.F.U.” explored the post-World War II world with a skillful mixture of drama, melodrama, romance, history, comedy and some action. To be honest, no action was featured in “S.N.A.F.U.”. But it did manifest in a few episodes during the series’ two-year run. I also have to comment on Latham and Lechowick’s exploration of racism, sexism, class and other issues in such a seamless, yet believable manner. I can only think of one or two other television shows that managed to achieve this . . . even to this day. And the more I realize this, I cannot help but wonder if most of today’s television producers are incapable of dealing with more than one or two particular issues. If this is true, then “HOMEFRONT”managed to achieve something rare that may never happen again.
The excellent writing featured in “S.N.A.F.U.” could have come to nothing without the first-rate cast for this show. I tried to think of a performance that seemed out of place or just plain ineffective. But I could not. Everyone gave it their all, including the likes of Kyle Chandler, Tammy Lauren, Dick Anthony Williams, David Newsome, Ken Jenkins, Harry O’Reilly and Hattie Winston. But there were a handful of performances that especially impressed me. I once read that when A.B.C. eventually cancelled “HOMEFRONT”after two seasons, Mimi Kennedy had broke into tears in the privacy of her dressing room. If this is true, I can understand why. I think that the role of Ruth Sloan, the haughty and blunt-speaking wife of industrialist Michael Sloan Sr. may have been the best in her career. I have always been amazed at how she conveyed both the unpleasant and sympathetic aspects of Ruth. I also enjoyed Sterling Macer’s performance as the embittered Robert Davis – especially in this episode. There is one scene in which the returning veteran is being welcomed home by his happy mother, grandmother and their friends, while he sits at the kitchen table trying . . . and failing to share their happiness. With very few words and his eyes, Macer skillfully conveyed Robert’s unhappy memories of the Army and his eventual inability to share his family’s happiness over his return.
Another performance that caught my attention came from Jessica Steen, who portrayed Linda Metcalf – middle child and only daughter of Anne Metcalf. Looking back on it, I believe Steen had a difficult job in this episode. Her emotions seemed to be all over the place, due to what she had experienced in “S.N.A.F.U.” – brother Hank’s return, anticipating Mike Sloan Jr.’s return, discovering Mike’s marriage to an Italian war refugee, dealing with best friend Ginger Szabo’s anger over Charlie Bailey and losing her job. And yet . . . she kept it all together with some first-rate acting skills. I was impressed by one last performance and it came from Sammi Davis (1987’s “HOPE AND GLORY”) as Charlie Bailey’s war bride, Caroline Bailey. Caroline has never been a popular character with the show’s fans. Many found her selfish and manipulative. I had also felt the same. But . . . I also recalled that Caroline was such an interesting character, thanks to Davis’ excellent performance. And at times, I also found her likable. I certainly found her very likable in “S.N.A.F.U.”. The scheming manipulator revealed her claws in her effort to regain the down payment Charlie had given to a landlord, who welshed on them and I cheered. I also understood her anger and confusion from Ginger’s hostile attitude toward her, especially since she obviously had no idea why Ginger was being rude.
What else can I say about “S.N.A.F.U.”? That it was a superb premiere for a first-rate series like “HOMEFRONT”? I have noticed that most television shows with excellent pilot episodes tend to go downhill by the end of the first season or the beginning of the second. Fortunately, this never happened with “HOMEFRONT”. Like “S.N.A.F.U.”, it remained an excellent piece of television entertainment throughout its two-year run. And it is a damn pity that the entire series has not been released on DVD.
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