Marc D. Allan

The first two episodes of The Unit, a military drama from playwright David Mamet and Shawn Ryan (of The Shield), are distressingly routine. We're introduced to a group of special-forces operatives who answer only to the president of the United States. These military men work hard, carry out extraordinarily dangerous missions with relative ease and come home to Wisteria Lane-like problems.

For these hours, the series (9 p.m. Tuesdays beginning March 7, WISH Channel 8) feels like little more than JAG meets Desperate Housewives without the humor. This, after all, is CBS, where grim-faced problem-solvers always complete their task in an hour.

We expect better from Mamet and Ryan, though - more realism, more grit, more intensity, more uncertainty, more dark humor. And in the third hour, we get it. That's the holy-cow hour, the hour that suggests The Unit can be elite TV.

In that episode, the men are sent to SERE School. SERE is short for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. It's where the men are subjected to beatings, psychological torture and other manners of abuse to determine whether they'll break if they ever become prisoners of war. Those who don't make it through this training receive an automatic discharge.

The exercise is supposed to be a drill, but you'd never know it from the brutality the men suffer and the mind games they must endure. We've heard a lot about torture in the past year; this episode gives us a glimpse of how inhuman it can be.

But it's only a glimpse because this is network TV. Circumstances are never quite as harrowing as they were in, say, The Deer Hunter or on The Shield. But they're ugly enough.

As for the first two episodes of The Unit, they're more ridiculous than anything else. The first hour finds Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert, who's already endured so much peril as the president on 24) foiling the work of terrorists who booby-trap a commercial airplane. In the second hour, Blane goes to Indonesia to rescue eight young missionaries who, in his words, are "building churches no one wants."

There's some tension, sure, but anyone who watches knows Blane and his men will find their way out. They have to. Otherwise, there's no series.

The first two hours also are heavy on the home front, where men are men and women are instructed "you do not tell your mother, your best friend, your priest what your husband does." The Blanes are a stoic military couple, and Regina Taylor, who plays Molly Blane, is particularly good as the neighborhood matriarch. The Gerhardts (Max Martini, Abby Brammell) have marital troubles, so much so that while Mack is away, Tiffy plays - with Mack's commander, Col. Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick). The Browns (Scott Foley, Audrey Marie Anderson) are the newcomers. He's trying to fit in; she doesn't want to.

Their future - maybe the future of the series - depends on what happens in episode four.