- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

LOS ANGELES

Denise Sherwood tugs on her necklace as she watches her husband board the bus. There are no tears, but her sullen look reveals her fears as the Army major embarks on a three-month tour of duty in the Middle East.

It’s an all too familiar scene around the country these days — and one played out in the pilot episode of the new Lifetime ensemble drama “Army Wives,” about the lives of the women — and one man — left behind when their soldier spouses go off to war.

Premiering at 10 tonight , the 13-episode series is billed as one of the biggest summer debuts in the history of the female-focused cable channel.

“I wanted to make the premiere a special event,” says Lifetime entertainment chief Susanne Daniels, who has high hopes for the show.

During the past few seasons, the once top-rated network has failed to garner a hit original series. So with ratings and revenues down last year, Miss Daniels is using “Army Wives” to anchor a slate of new scripted projects designed to flip the channel’s fortunes.

The closest thing Lifetime has had to a defining hit in recent years was “Strong Medicine,” which ran for six seasons. Yet “Army Wives” could do it again, Miss Daniels says, because it has “a unique voice, and we’re always looking for stories that aren’t being told on television right now.”

The series centers on the stresses of military life for civilian spouses and the unlikely camaraderie between five of those sharing a common bond: the soldiers each loves. It stars Kim Delaney (ABC’s “NYPD Blue”) as Claudia Joy Holden, the respected colonel’s wife, and Catherine Bell (CBS’ “JAG”) as Denise Sherwood, a housewife with a violent teenage son.

“There have always been stories about the home front during war,” says executive producer Mark Gordon (“Grey’s Anatomy”). “But we haven’t seen anything really about what’s going on today with the women and men whose husbands or wives are in the military here at home or overseas.”

“Army Wives” is based on the book “Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives” by Tanya Biank.

Unlike the failed FX drama “Over There,” about soldiers on the front lines, or CBS’ “The Unit,” which tells the stories of both the covert operatives in the field and their significant others at home, “Army Wives” dwells entirely on the families back on the base.

” ‘Over There’ was a great series, but most people have a harder time relating to what’s going on over there than they do what’s going on over here,” Mr. Gordon says.

“And whether you believe in the war or you don’t believe in the war, our show is not in any way political,” he adds.

“These are the heroes at home,” says Miss Delaney, 47, via phone from Charleston, S.C., where the series is filmed. “These are the women that take care of the kids, the houses and themselves.”

Miss Delaney and the cast recently spent time with military spouses of the nonprofit support group Operation Homefront.

“It’s amazing how passionate they are about what their spouses do,” she says. “The Army wives all take care of each other, but there is a code … a pecking order.”

Miss Delaney’s character would be at the top of that order, Sally Pressman’s Roxy LeBlanc somewhere near the bottom. However, the 25-year-old New York newcomer gives a standout performance in the series as the sassy Southern mother of two from the wrong side of the tracks who is newly wedded to her soldier boy after knowing him for just a few days.

“She’s really the audience’s window into the world,” Miss Pressman says of LeBlanc, “because she knows just as little as anyone else would.”

The one man on the base not in khakis is Sterling K. Brown’s Roland Burton, a psychiatrist struggling with being one of the “wives.” He’s also coping with the post-traumatic stress episodes of his wife, a lieutenant colonel just returned from the war.

“He’s not military, so he can’t bond with the men, and he’s not really one of the women, so as an Army husband, he’s in a very interesting place,” says Mr. Brown, 31. “When the husbands are gone, most military wives have their children, so the nest is not completely empty. Whereas my character, when his wife leaves, it’s just him, and he cannot have a family unless his wife is willing to put her military career on hold.”

Early on, the show was pegged as “Desperate Housewives” on an Army base, but for Miss Delaney, it’s much more.

“I don’t want to say that it’s heavier because it’s not,” she says. “There’s actually joyful moments. It’s funny. It’s romantic. It’s tragic. It’s about real life.”

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