Just when you thought television had irretrievably descended into the morass of "reality" shows and other cheaply produced forms of what has been dubbed irritainment, along comes a high production values mini-series like The Pacific. Instead of Survivor: Guadalcanal or Solomon Islands Got Talent, we have the option of watching a 10part series about the Pacific front in the Second World War in which the producers put so much emphasis on the accuracy of their depiction that they commissioned old Indian looms so the soldiers' herringbone twill uniforms would look exactly the way they did in the 1940s.
Instead of capitalising on the relative cheapness of fame-hungry armatures, The Pacific's production team had a budget of between $150m and $200m (Dh551m-Dh734m) to tell real stories from the conflict as recounted in memoirs by two of the soldiers involved. The Pacific is just one of several television series that have defied the accountants and boosted budgets in recent years. CSI, the original of what became a franchise of crime-lab dramas, invested $400,000 for a two-minute Matrix-like opening scene of its 10th series, which screened late last year, and succeeded in reversing ratings that had been steadily flagging. The ninth season had attracted an average of 18m viewers but for the tenth, the numbers have risen to more than 25m.
HBO, the network behind The Pacific, is working on a pilot episode with a vast budget. Boardwalk Empire, which is a prohibition-era drama set in Atlantic City, is being directed by Martin Scorcese and is reported to have a working budget of $50m. The Pacific has a similarly A-list team behind it, which had already earned its pedigree nine years earlier by creating Band of Brothers, another Second World War mini-series, but set in Europe, where it followed a group of American paratroopers after the Normandy landings.
Band of Brothers was created with a budget of $100m, making it the most expensive television mini-series yet made, but The Pacific is set to cost twice that. The executives of both mini-series included Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who had collaborated in the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, to create an equally unglorified and gritty depiction of war. The Pacific is based on the stories of three real-life Marines. Two of them, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie, wrote well-received memoirs about their experiences. The case of the third, John Basilone, is well-documented through his Congressional Medal of Honor citation for his actions in Guadalcanal.
The span of the action goes further than Band of Brothers, with the storyline beginning with the Pearl Harbor attack forcing the United States into the war and following the protagonists until the survivors return home and attempt to put behind them the savagery they have seen and participated in as they seek to reintegrate into mainstream American society. One of the difficulties for the production team is that, compared with the familiar European landmarks against which Band of Brothers is set, The Pacific involves a series of obscure islands.
Iwo Jima, the scene of one of the battles depicted in the series, is the most familiar name, but few could locate it on a map. Others, like Guadalcanal, might generate a flicker of recognition but battles such as that for the island of Peleliu - described by the National Museum of the Marine Corps as "the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines"and contentious because it reflected politics between two American generals rather than for its strategic importance - remain effectively unknown despite the casualty toll of nearly 10,000 Marines, including 1,794 deaths.
The series was filmed entirely in Australia, ranging from Melbourne in the south to tropical scenes shot in northern Queensland. Compared with the European front, the war in the Pacific was "more like the wars we've seen ever since", Hanks said - "a war of racism and terror, a war of absolute horrors, both on the battlefield and in the regular living conditions". The level of violence - justified, the production team says - has been a factor in all the Hanks-Spielberg war depictions since the graphic opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Hanks told American media that the level of violence and savagery was greater in The Pacific because that was the reality of jungle warfare.
Bruce McKenna, one of the writers of Band of Brothers and who began working on The Pacific as a co-executive producer almost as soon as the previous series was completed, told reporters The Pacific would "probably be the most violent 10 hours that will ever be put on television. But there is not one gratuitous second." One critic for National Public Radio who saw the series said the central question posed by The Pacific, even more than Band of Brothers, is how war has irretrievably changed the young soldiers involved.
If the production team is A-list, the cast is almost entirely made up of actors that few people are likely to recognise. The main actors were given huge tracts of information about their characters and the nature of the conflicts they were portraying, including hundreds of hours of videotaped recollections by veterans and their families about what a soldier in the campaign would have seen. Before filming began, they went through a 10-day training camp run by a retired Marine captain and located in northern Queensland, where many of the beach scenes were filmed.
They dug ditches, camped in the jungle, slept for only three hours a night, trekked with 20kg packs, practised hand-to-hand combat and familiarised themselves with the weapons used by the Marines whose parts they played. Joe Mazzello, who plays Sledge, said he lost more than 5kg during the camp but gained a far better understanding of the soldiers they were portraying. The Pacific begins screening on Orbit Showtime Network from tomorrow.