"Married to the Army: Alaska" is the rare reality show that doesn't need to manufacture drama to be dramatic.
It's easy to overlook the OWN series, which wraps its first season with three episodes Saturday, given the slew of trashy reality soaps about feuding wives. It's also easy to confuse it with "Army Wives," the Lifetime drama that takes a fictionalized look at the struggles of women whose husbands are away at war.
But "Married to the Army" is both serious and real. There are no fights here, as there are on Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise, over who will go to who's charity gala.
"Their dramas are different, " said executive producer Stephanie Drachkovitch. "Their dramas are, 'My husband might not come home, and we got our first KIA (Killed in Action.) We're hoping we don't get the phone call.'"
The seven women that "Married to the Army" profiles aren't just separated from their husbands, but are isolated from much of the country. The series takes place at Alaska's Fort Richardson, a location so remote, Drachkovitch says, that the Army considers it as challenging for families as an overseas post.
Drachkovitch knows the subject well. Her parents met at Fort Richardson when her father was deployed to serve in Vietnam. As an Army brat, she knows the struggle of long-distance marriages, and the fear that overtakes a base when someone dies overseas. The base goes on what's called "blackout" — meaning there is no contact with loved ones at war — while the Army notifies the next of kin.
We talked to Drachkovitch (pictured with the stars, seated furthest right) about what makes her reality show different from any other.
TheWrap: You're dealing with a group of women who are much more disciplined than the people we typically see on reality shows. One of the women used to be a bikini model, who met her husband while working at a Hooter's. And that's treated by one of the women as almost a scandal.
Drachkovitch: It was, admittedly, very different from producing one of the others "wives"-type shows. I haven't produced any of those, so I can't speak for them. Really we approach their world as a subculture. It's a world that has never been seen before except in a dramatized fashion. I'm an Army brat so I grew up in it. I grew up with all the protocols and who lives where and what rank you're wearing. It is part of what they live with. There is definitely an adherence to certain unwritten rules. And by the way? Not everybody follows them.
This is the only reality series where one of the husbands could die.
We have seven castmembers and all seven of their spouses were in danger every day in Afghanistan. And in fact, by the fourth episode, their forward operating base gets attacked by insurgents. And the ladies go on blackout again. There are real ups and downs on our show.
How do you avoid being exploitive? With other "wives" shows, we're seeing fairly ridiculous people who we don't care all that much about, to be blunt. But here you have good people making huge sacrifices. How do you avoid exploiting their turmoil for the sake of drama?
I felt very compelled to tell their stories in a way that was the most authentic way possible. When we did our casting call, as it were, we had 500 submissions in two weeks. So we're not twisting anyone's arm to be on the show. The seven women we ultimately cast are seven women who really wanted to share their stories.
What was interesting to us is when you go to a group whose stories have never been told it's almost like they didn't know that they were special. … But the more they started to think about it as we interviewed them, a lot of them were like, "Wow. I never thought my life was any different from anyone else's, but I guess it is."
We approached it with as much integrity as possible. If somebody didn't want us to shoot some part of their story, we didn't push our way in or force our way into that story.
That said, very little was off-limits. We sat in on the first family therapy session between a major and his kids when he came home on R and R. They wanted to do family therapy because the wife was really struggling with depression this time around with teenagers who were really pushing back and her having to be mom and dad and kind of co-parent over Skype. When he got home, and there we are with cameras, she said I want to go into family therapy.
If they had said to us we really don’t want you to shoot that, this is private, we wouldn't have. But they said no, come on in. We think this is really important to share with people. … Every story we showed was a story we were invited into.
Something like 1 percent of all Americans serve. Do you think people outside the military realize the sacrifices these families are making?
During the height of the surge, I'm watching the news every night, it's statistics, it's officials speaking, it's Baghdad and air strikes. And then when I got tired of watching it in Los Angeles, I could turn it off. Especially living in Los Angeles, where we don't really see people in uniform, most of us have been able to go live our normal lives. We haven't really been asked to sacrifice. We haven't really been asked to think about the people serving.
The soldiers have all volunteered to do it. One thing that struck me is what amazingly fine young men they are. They could be doing anything and be a success at it. They could be working in corporate America. They could be entrepreneurs. They could be doctors, lawyers, business owners, executives. But they've all decided to serve their country. And you certainly don’t do it for the money or the glory. And the families. Some of them married a man in uniform and knew what they were getting into, and some of them did not marry a man in uniform. They married a civilian and then he decided to pursue this career.
We can walk through an airport, see a man in uniform, and say thank you to him. But the families don't wear uniforms. So we never get to say thank you to them. A part of me wanting to do the series was to be able to give back to them and say, your lives count. Your stories count. We care about you.
To a lot of people, supporting the troops just means putting a sticker or ribbon on your car. What can people do that isn't just about making themselves feel good?
When you think about the number of single soldiers, male and female, they don't necessarily get a lot of care packages. … Send a care package to a soldier this holiday season. Operation Gratitude is a great organization that does that.
"Married to the Army Alaska" airs its final three episodes of the season Saturday morning at 10/9c.
Watch the first five minutes of the first episode: