“I don’t love the show, but I love what it wants to be and has the potential to be.”
Episodes Reviewed: S01E01 - S01E06
Creator: Kyle Jarrow 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Kyle Jarrow 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Anna Fricke 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Josh Reims 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Bret VandenBos 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Brandon Willer 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Céline Geiger 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
Of the new slate of military shows, Valor is the only female-co-run, female-led show, and it hasn’t been given the credit it deserves for bringing something new to the table. Critics have been hard on the show, giving it a paltry 24% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and complaining that Valor doesn’t go for subtlety. It’s not without merit - the most egregious example of this is the recurring appearance of the orange pill bottle carried by the series’ central character, Warrant Officer Nora Madani (played by Christina Ochoa). While it’s commendable that the show takes on the effects of PTSD, it’s baffling that anyone trying to keep a painkiller habit on the downlow wouldn’t think to carry their pills in something a bit less obvious. The pill problem once again serves as a symbol of how little Valor relies on nuance when we get a glimpse into Nora’s past and an added (and unnecessary) layer to her unfolding addiction by way of a flashback - angst-filled color wash and all - in the fourth episode.
Given that the CW tends to target a younger audience, and with a slate of issues including post-traumatic stress, addiction, and grief, it may be excusable to give viewers at least some slack when it comes to navigating the various threads the show lays out. To its credit, Valor avoids any ill-advised attempts to flaunt a sense of geopolitical literacy it doesn’t possess, sticking instead to building three-dimensional characters whose relationships to one another are strong, though not terribly complex.
The groundwork the show lays in fleshing out its characters raises the stakes for the episodic missions and the longer-term mystery framing the season. Ochoa’s strength as a lead actor has the potential to give the show a solid anchor around which to adjust and evolve if given the opportunity. Importantly, it has something to say, which, on a personal level, makes it a more valuable investment than the procedural, unoriginal nature of its cohorts, SEAL Team and The Brave.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES*
The show’s most openly feminist moment comes early in its first episode - aboard a helicopter, Madani responds to a CIA officer’s query as to how she’s able to handle herself around “all these hot, sweaty men” with a snappy “only hard part’s the smell, sir.” The clip, notably, is replayed at the outset of most episodes in the “previously on…” segment, establishing and reestablishing a central point of the show: she’s every bit as good as the boys. In a later episode, a female senator gives Chief Madani an admiring look, telling her, “I’ve heard of you,” asking if she’s really the “first female pilot in special ops aviation.”
Beyond a handful of such moments, Valor doesn’t spend much time delving into what it means to be a “first female” in the military or the challenges that come with that mantle. One of the few areas in which the show goes for subtlety is in regards to how little room for error there is for a woman like Madani, who must constantly prove and affirm that she’s up to the task. One of the most pervasive arguments against women in combat positions is the notion that they aren’t able to keep up, and while Valor challenges that stereotype, it’s not entirely clear if it knows why.
More deliberate is the choice to dispense with the female stock characters associated with nearly every military story. Instead of the “beleaguered wife” trope (which its fellow freshman military drama SEAL Team has several times over) or “grieving wife/mother” (as its other contemporary, The Brave, relies upon for artificial character depth), Valor takes the role of a missing soldier’s wife and places a major storyline on her shoulders, giving her enough agency and complexity to stand on her own. Corbin Reid’s Jess Kam - the wife and now-single mother of the missing soldier who acts as a Maguffin for the show’s central storyline - is far and away the most compelling character besides Chief Madani.
One significant moment of weakness for the show’s feminist message is the brief, frenzied make-out session between its two leads, Madani and Matt Barr’s Captain Gallo - who happens to be Madani’s commanding officer. While Gallo expresses remorse and notes that because of his position as her superior, he shouldn’t have allowed it to happen - which is important, given the complicated power dynamics inherent to the military chain of command - the entanglement gives fuel to the other main rationale for keeping women out of combat. The notion that men and women can’t serve beside one another without finding themselves distracted by sexual attraction is both heteronormative and ridiculous, but here, Valor gives it a shred of credence, and has the poor judgment to tease the chemistry between Madani and Gallo in promotional videos and interviews. It does seem to have abandoned that subplot, and in the process of giving Gallo a new romantic interest there was an important acknowledgement of consent, giving Gallo the opportunity to ask his romantic partner if “all systems are go” before proceeding. Given how rarely consent is explicitly addressed on television, it’s not a throwaway moment, even as part of a scene that cast doubt on its representation of queer characters (see below).
*Five out of the seven episodes pass the Bechdel Test as I apply it in my work at The Telefeminism Project, outlined here.
Valor features a genuinely diverse cast in which white characters are the minority, and does so without billing itself as a “black” or “Latinx” show. Though it’s clear that the majority of Madani’s unit is white, the focus is on a group of characters that reflect the growing diversity of the military and political world. Given that Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic group in the armed services - making up 12% of of active-duty personnel in 2015, three times as much as in 1980 - it’s meaningful for Valor to have its central character played by the Spanish-born Ochoa.
Likewise, it’s noteworthy that the show has a number of black characters in military roles, given the disproportionate share of black active-duty military personnel compared to the U.S. population. Two of those characters are commissioned officers, roles in which black personnel are vastly underrepresented in the military, and there is even an exchange between Madani and her commissioned boyfriend, First Lieutenant Ian Porter, about how his lack of combat experience makes it difficult for him to relate to her. It’s a moment that changes up both traditional gender roles and race-based expectations, and the fact that Valor goes further than adding one or two characters of color to a predominantly white cast is one more way in which it offers something that SEAL Team and The Brave don’t.
One of the show’s lead women - and the only white female lead - is revealed to be a lesbian in the series’ third episode. As with Valor’s racial and gender diversity, there is very little fanfare surrounding the revelation, simply choosing to show the character, Thea, waking up with Zoe Cho, a minor character who happens to be the only other woman in Madani’s unit. When the two characters catch one another’s eye in the seventh episode, it’s noteworthy, because - yay! - it seems as though they might actually be planning to explore a lesbian relationship. Alas, no such luck. By midway through the episode, Thea has made a point of telling the male lead, Captain Gallo, that she’s bisexual. The characters have thrown back a few drinks, so it’s commendable that this isn’t just a case of a character whose sexuality becomes fluid with the addition of alcohol (a popular and incredibly insulting trope often used to fetishize girl-on-girl action). If Thea had been given any real opportunity to explore a relationship with a woman, it would be less of a suspect move, but here, it seems like a handy excuse to give Gallo more scenes with his shirt off, and immediately falls into the trope of “But Not Too Gay,” giving the opposite-sex hookup much more heat and skin than Thea’s comparatively chaste scene with Cho.
All that is not to discount the validity of bisexuality and the need for representation of bi characters on television. It’s a matter of motivation, and Valor seems to have suited the character’s sexuality to its own convenience. Given that co-showrunner Kyle Jarrow has previously stated that he would love to explore “a trans soldier’s human experience,” there’s still hope that Valor might treat Thea’s sexuality with the respect and nuance it deserves, but it hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt just yet.
Mediaversity Grade: C 3.25/5
Am I advocating for critics and the network to treat Valor differently because it goes out of its way to include women, characters of color, and queer characters? Absolutely. I don’t love the show, but I love what it wants to be and has the potential to be. I’d rather give a second chance to a show that has a voice but needs work than waste a primetime hour on another high-action, low-message show about a band of mostly white men shooting at the bad guys. There are only so many slots in the schedule, and every one of them has an opportunity to do more than simply entertain. Valor gives the CW’s teen viewers an array of characters to identify with and aspire to, not to mention an hour of reassurance that there’s nothing wrong with who they are.