Shortly after her husband leaves to serve in Iraq in the docu-series ''American Soldier," Maritza O'Neal gets a package in the mail. It contains a T-shirt on which there's an image of the couple and the words ''As One Always." Overwhelmed, she stands at her mailbox and holds up the T-shirt to cover her face.
''Show those tears," her friend urges her affectionately, and she finally does.
CMT's ''American Soldier," which premieres tonight at 9:30, is all about showing the tears. It's a six-part series following the difficult separation between four National Guardsmen on a tour of duty in Iraq and the families they've left behind in Georgia. It's unerringly respectful of its subjects, politically disinterested, and emotionally charged.
The guys try to be stoic, as they prepare to fly to Kuwait in tonight's first half-hour: ''I reckon we just gonna have to look at the bright side and move on," says Specialist Matt Clements. And the women try to be supportive, promising to send videos and letters. At a barbecue for the four families, Angie Willis, Sergeant Steve Willis's wife, makes a comforting speech, noting ''I love all y'all." But despite the personal efforts at restraint, anxiety and sorrow clearly take center stage in each half hour.
In the second episode, which airs tonight at 10, the soldiers have made it to Iraq, and Sergeant Willis phones Angie while she's at work. In a sequence that stands out from the show's usual briskness, she becomes so stricken with emotion she can't get her voice to work for an endless minute or two.
The series is on CMT, which features country-music videos and artist profiles, and it has a strong ''country" flavor. Old pals from Georgia, the soldiers and their wives talk in Southern accents that are so heavy they sometimes beg for subtitles. The soundtrack is filled with bittersweet anthems such as Alan Jackson's ''All American Country Boy" and Tim McGraw's ''Please Remember Me," songs whose inspirational arrangements and lyrics lend an almost romantic aura to the images of desert dust and heat. The bonds of friendship among the men also give the scenes in Iraq a sentimental tinge.
In the first two episodes, the show avoids portraying the ugliness and intensity of battle. The men are clearly nervous; they keep reminding us of that as they inch closer to the explosions. But despite the use of nighttime cameras, the show is not about maneuvers and strategies and gunfire. It's tempting to think that that's because the filmmakers were ''embedded" and therefore restricted by the Pentagon in what they could show. But I suspect that executive producer George Moll (cocreator of VH1's ''Behind the Music") simply had more interest in dramatizing the interpersonal links. ''American Soldier" keeps its focus off politics and on Americans whose lives are profoundly affected by it.
The short length of ''American Soldier" -- ultimately, the series is only three hours long -- hurts its impact. While cameras followed the sprawling cast for two months, the narrative is pared down to almost nothing. You can tell a lot of material has been left on the cutting room floor, perhaps to keep the action driving forward. But when it comes to showing sadness and longing, moving fast can be counterproductive.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org