David Boreanaz returned to the small screen Wednesday night as CBS launches its new military drama SEAL Team, where he plays Jason Hayes. But, despite the pilot being bookended by two SEAL ops, led by his character Jason Hayes, viewers shouldn’t expect a mission-of-the-week-style format from here on out. Instead, says executive producer Benjamin Cavell, “We regard the show as stories about the guys who do that work, rather than about the work itself.”
So they’ll follow Hayes’ outfit — rounded out by Ray (Neil Brown Jr.), Sonny (AJ Buckley), and, eventually, Clay Spenser (Max Thierot) along with CIA intelligence analyst Mandy Ellis (Jessica Paré), all introduced in the premiere — around the globe and back home again.
Below, Cavell and fellow EP Ed Redlich fill EW in on their new military drama, which premiered Wednesday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted both of you to developing this story?
BENJAMIN CAVELL: I’ve always been fascinated by these tier one operators that exist in the U.S. military, but I never wanted to write anything because I also kind of live in fear of being inauthentic. So the thing that piqued my interest was that there was already the involvement of at least one legendary former operator when I came on board — and since then, we’ve added a number of others. [We wanted] to create a show in which those guys are baked into the DNA of it. We regard the show as stories about the guys who do that work, rather than about the work itself.
ED REDLICH: Yeah, what’s so exciting is to be authentic to the personal details of the experience that these people have. None of us involved ever wanted to do a mission-of-the-week show just about catching bad guys. We wanted to explore the effect that that work has had over soldiers over the 15 years that we’ve been in this war.
So much of the work that these operators do never gets talked about, and actually, there’s a sense of pride they often take in not talking about it. With that in mind, how hard is it to figure out how to get this team to, in a way, open up to the audience?
CAVELL: That is one of the fundamental questions of the show. But one thing that we have learned in getting to know so many of these guys, is that [while] they are quite different from each other, they do, to an extent, share some lack of introspection — but some of the great shows are about guys who are fundamentally not introspective! I mean, that was one of the magical things about The Sopranos, that it was about the inner lives of guys who aren’t aware that they have inner lives. It’s about finding ways to get at their inner lives.
REDLICH: What you see in the pilot is that we’re opening a small crack or view into the David Boreanaz character. His character has been doing this for 13 years and as we meet him, he’s beginning to have a new sensitivity to the work. That’s the starting point for the series.
Boreanaz’s character, Jason Hayes, gets put up against the newcomer Clay (Max Thieriot) pretty immediately. He finds Clay a little too smug and, also as we saw in the premiere, he’s also maybe got some beef with Clay’s father. Where does that relationship head? Does it become a mentorship?
REDLICH: I think that is where it is headed. Jason is a reluctant mentor — the last person he mentored is his friend Nate, who dies in the pilot. So he’s reluctant, I think, to do that with Clay, who reminds him of his old friend. And Clay has a lot to learn.
CAVELL: Clay’s father is a legendary former member of this unit and it’s a very complex relationship between Clay and his dad, because the dad was really pretty absent during his upbringing — which is very true to the lives that these guys lead. They’re away 300 days a year. So Clay and his dad have a very complicated relationship and his dad has also written a book about his time in SEAL Team 6, or DEVGRU, and that is a big no-no in that community. There are guys who served with him who love and respect him, but the official line is, “Well, he’s dead to us because he’s told secrets and he’s gone public.” All of that stuff informs, then, the relationship between Clay and Jason because Jason is, to an extent, a stand-in father.
Mandy Ellis (Jessica Paré) from the CIA is our lone woman in this outfit as the team’s intelligence analyst. Tell me about her.
CAVELL: She’s an amalgam of the intel people who the guys we worked with most trusted and respected, and it’s such an intimate relationship. Those people really are helping the team in some way risk their lives, helping them know what they’re walking into.
REDLICH: It’s really a mutual reliance. They’re told by the CIA, “Go to this location,” because that’s where the CIA thinks this person is and that person better be there. And we have that in episodes coming up, where she talks about what it means to know that her job is to get it right or otherwise she is putting these people in danger.
In the pilot, you never break from the perspective of the team. We don’t see the bad guys before they do, we don’t even go home without them. Does that continue?
CAVELL: Yes. Because the truth of the life is that, for one thing, you’re absent for much of the time from your home life and when you go back, much of it is fraught because you’ve been absent for so long. And we want to be faithful to that. And one of the realities for these guys is that when they go through those doors [on missions], they really don’t know what’s on the other side — in fact, the only information they have about what’s on the other side is what’s been provided by somebody like Jessica’s character.
REDLICH: And it’s hard to get it right. The world of intelligence is a lot of human beings talking to other human beings and probabilities and she comes from a whole different agency that has its own political challenges. She has a boss who has a boss who has a boss who has a president, so she is under that pressure. But we want to find ways to explore her life and so we’re exploring interesting notions of what her relationship with Jason might have been in the past, or what might not have been. There’s a brief sense in the pilot, at least after that raid, that they have the ability to talk about things.
I was going to ask about that, if there’s a romantic undertone there.
REDLICH: We’re actually not sure. They have an emotional connection that goes beyond just professional and whether it went beyond that in the past or might in the future, we don’t know. But what we do know is Jason is trying to make his marriage work and he’s been with this woman since they were in high school and they’ll go through the problems and we’ll go through them with them.
You’ve said a few times that this is not a political show and it’s not going to get involved in the current situation.
CAVELL: It all comes back to the desire to be faithful to the guys and the guys we know, really, are apolitical. It’s not as though they’re making decisions about how they’re going to carry out these missions based on whether or not they voted for the guys who are sending them. Their work really transcends politics. Going after Osama Bin Laden, that’s really not a partisan issue. That’s just the forces of good and civilizations against evil!
REDLICH: We’re aware that what SEALs do in real life in many cases involves really familiar targets in Afghanistan and the Middle East but we’re trying to keep that broad. We’re not simply going after Arab terrorists every week or Muslim terrorists every week. The SEALs operate everywhere. They can operate in Eastern Europe, they operate in South America, and we’re making sure the missions reflect that.
Where, aside from the Middle East, have you been going?
CAVELL: We were laughing the other day because it felt like we really hadn’t done anything set in the Middle East for like six episodes and it was like, “Well, when are we going to go back to the Middle East?” We’re in Brazil, we’re in Africa, we’re in Paraguay, we’re in Estonia. Oh, and in the Philippines…
REDLICH: The fun of it is also the fun of how these guys do missions in different environments. So it’s like, not only do you get to write about great people but you get to get on boats and get helicoptered off of boats.
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