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Brent Gleeson, Dale Comstock, J.W. Cortes, Chris Kyle, Andrew McLaren, Grady Powell, Talon Smith and Tom Stroup as Military Operatives; Laila Ali, Dean Cain, Terry Crews, Nick Lachey, Todd Palin, Dolvett Quince, Picabo Street and Eve Torres as Celebrity Contestants; Samantha Harris and Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.) as Hosts
Paul Asay
Stars Earn Stripes

Stars Earn Stripes

Support our troops.

We hear that phrase a lot, and well we should. Sure, we may live in an anxious, angry time defined by bitter divisions. But there are still a few things we can all agree on: Puppies are cute. We should never misuse handicapped parking spaces. And even if we disagree with the morality or validity of a given military conflict, we should support the troops involved.

But for those of us who aren't in uniform, those three words, support our troops, can sometimes be just that: words. Words stripped of meaning, bereft of context. Sure, we know they're doing a hard job … but how hard? We know that it's dangerous work … but how dangerous?

With its new show Stars Earn Stripes, NBC hopes to fill in some of the blanks for us. No reality show can get to the heart of what makes a hero. But can it illustrate just how tough serving in the military really is? You bet it can.

To introduce us to this rough-and-tumble world, the series focuses on celebrities who look like they could be in a shoot-'em-up actioner (and a couple of them have). They range from top-notch athletes (boxing champion Laila Ali, Olympic gold medalist Picabu Street) to small-screen superheroes (Dean Cain of Lois & Clark fame) to pop singers (Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees). "Nothing prepares you for battle like a boy band," Lachey quips in the premiere. No matter: They all look like they have the right stuff, and image is everything, right?

Not so much—not here, anyway.

This is a place where the stars fall to earth—crawling in the muck and mud, learning how to operate complicated weaponry, jumping into lakes with 70 pounds of gear strapped to their bodies. Each celeb is paired with a real-life military expert tasked with teaching their civvy the ropes: Navy SEALs, Green Berets, members of the Army's elite Delta Force, SWAT team leaders. And some of the stars seem star-struck themselves. When Cain learns his partner is legendary sniper Chris Kyle, he admits to having a "man crush" on the guy.

The show's celebrities become stand-ins for us, then, acting not so much like stars as they are regular Joes and Janes who learn what hard-core military work feels like. "I'm used to 'action' and 'cut,' but here it's real," says Terry Crews, an actor who appears in The Expendables 2. In the movies, he says, "They figure out how to make you look good for five minutes, then you sit down and have a smoothie."

Crews is overstating things a little when it comes to how real this reality show is. Contestants may be using live ammunition and participating in "missions" that superficially resemble the real work done on the battlefield. But they're still competing for money (which goes to military-themed charities), not fighting for their country. And even though explosions are going off while they shoot at moving targets, no one's in danger of dying. At worst they'll get wet and muddy and cranky and then "dismissed" from the elimination-style tourney.

Some critics, it's worth noting, want NBC to dismiss the whole series. A group of nine Nobel Peace Prize winners protested the show in an open letter, saying that "preparing for war is neither amusing nor entertaining." And a group called Roots Action asked that NBC remove Stars Earn Stripes from its schedule, saying, "NBC promoted the show during its Summer Olympics telecast as the next big sporting event. But the sport it's exhibiting is war."

Certainly the specter of war is never far away from Stars Earn Stripes. We all know that's what the military personnel here have been trained for. But there's more to consider:

NBC did indeed spend quite a bit of time promoting its new reality show during the Olympics. So it's interesting to note that many Olympic sports, archery, shooting, judo and boxing among them, draw their inspiration directly from military training, and many others contain echoes of martial glory. Even the marathon has its roots in war, when a Greek messenger ran 26.2 miles to bring news of a glorious victory to his king. So while war itself should never be "amusing or entertaining," war games, ranging from chess to Call of Duty, undeniably entertain a great many. Should we deem it unseemly, then, to simultaneously acknowledge the skill, the courage and often the honor of combatants?

Does that make all the moral quandaries clear? No. But it does give cultural perspective to what we're watching when we see staged, movie-like conquests and campaigns show up on Stars Earn Stripes.

Retired general and former U.S. presidential candidate Wesley Clark co-hosts the program, by the way, and his presence cements its standing as something of an extended commercial for the armed services. And I wouldn't be surprised if there's an uptick in military recruiting as a result of it.

Foul language and the overlay of violence, danger and conflict are the content downsides. The upside? Stars Earn Stripes gives a handful of celebrities a chance to applaud someone else for a change: our troops.

Episode Reviews

"Amphibious Assault"

In the two-hour premiere eight celebrities and their military-grade partners hop out of a helicopter and into a lake, swim to a boat, shoot targets, wade through mud and blow up a building while they're being extracted.

We see them struggle through training ("I do not like funkiness under my nails," says Laila Ali), and two fail to complete the mission: Actor Terry Crews and The Biggest Loser trainer Dolvett Quince require rescue when their gear nearly pulls them under the water. The two have to face off in a "shoot out" competition to see who'll stay and who'll go—which is just fine with Crews. "It's called Stars Earn Stripes, not Stars Given Stripes," he says. The action star survives the challenge and responds as if he's won an Oscar.

In addition to two or three bleeped obscenities, contestants say "a‑‑" five or six times, and "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑" twice each. God's name is misused a half-dozen times.