Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: September 24, 1987 (CBS)
Nielsen ratings information: 10.6/17 in Households
I decided to watch CHINA BEACH, because I figured I would come to love the show for its cast, writers and producers, with some of them going over to make one of my all-time favorite shows ever. With CHINA BEACH in my schedule now, I thought I could do the same with TOUR OF DUTY, which may or may not be the lesser known show about the Vietnam war that aired alongside the Dana Delany-led vehicle, and judging by its first episode I understand why that could be the case. CHINA BEACH certainly has something special to it, by focusing on the story of the Vietnam war from those who aren’t directly fighting in it, but constantly see the repercussions of the uselessness and mortality of the war. TOUR OF DUTY on the other hand is essentially the TV version of PLATOON — a group of men with machine guns walk through the jungle and kill a few Viet Congs here and there. It’s an action spectacle that has a lot of shootouts and explosions, essentially making it the 24 of Vietnam War television dramas, only minus the real-time stuff. CHINA BEACH focused on the characters and how they were living with the ordeal of being in this country and witnessing its destruction from left and right and in front, all while you also go through the destruction of your own soul. The first 46 minutes of TOUR OF DUTY looked like it wanted to be an action film. After all, characters in a war are supposed to use their weapons and fight for survival, and when it comes to fictional stories of a war, you better depict that with action scenes. For the first hour of TOUR OF DUTY, that kind of action was quite impressive, considering its 1987 date stamp, but here is to hoping that not every episode of the show is just about the action of the war and instead focuses on the characters as well.
This episode did a little bit in that regard, although it didn’t promise that it will be doing these things for the remainder of the series. You could say that Horn is part of the emotional aspect of the Vietnam War, as his character shows us what the war was like for a conscientious objector — it’s such a shame then that the character had to kill his first Vietnamese enemy at the end of the episode, essentially pulling his protest moves away from under him and letting the viewers forget that Horn started off the show as someone who did not want to carry a weapon and who would have tried his hardest to never kill a man. Johnston could also be a character whose emotional side will keep him up at night after his best friend Mickey was killed during the action-packed opening minutes of this episode, but since Johnston was able to avenge the death of his friend by blowing up a bunch of Viet Cong weapons (and presumably some enemies, too), it’s also a character arc that could vanish with the next episode, never to be seen or heard of again.
Meanwhile, as thrilling as the pilot may have been when it comes to the battle scenes between the American characters and the nameless and sometimes faceless enemies, some of the other characters were used to bring some lighthearted comedy into the story, which felt a little misplaced. I get why a television show about the Vietnam War needs to be salted and peppered with a few funny scenes by having Sergeant Zeke Anderson be the snippy platoon leader and Mr. Goofy be the dumb big guy who could easily rock out an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger during his Hercules and Conan days, comedy in a world full of darkness and terror and death seems like the writers were thinking about a different war than what is known as the Vietnam War. Maybe it was only CHINA BEACH who decided to take on the real stories of the war and turn them into premises for a television show — after all, Bill Broyles’s show premiered seven months later, which means the writers and producers of CHINA BEACH may have learned from TOUR OF DUTY how not to structure their Vietnam War drama through depictions of action and violence, but through the point of views of the veterans and what the war does to you on an emotional level.
This episode was still somewhat impressive though. This is 1987 television, and consider me surprised that a year after I was born, CBS was able to push out an episode of television that was as close to looking like a real movie as possible. That either shows the producers knew how to turn their back lot into a war zone, or it’s pretty easy to produce a war film or television show, especially when said war film or television show only needs grass, mud, a lot of water, fake guns, a couple sets of the same clothes, and cast members who aren’t shy throwing themselves on the ground and screaming about like they are about to die. For the pilot alone, all of this looked pretty great and brought over a feeling of watching something unique on television (at least that was the thought back in 1987), but one can only hope that the future of the show will get into the character arcs and maybe move away from the constant war and action the soldiers were facing. Maybe it could be something like GENERATION KILL: When you get to the violence, life is pretty much fucked, but in-between the confrontations with the Viet Cong, Anderson and his men could be dealing with procedure and lieutenants and majors who have no clue how to lead a platoon or fight in a war.
Of course this hour had to say goodbye to an established platoon member already, as Lawrence, the kid from Motown, who sounded like he was not the smartest of the bunch, put himself on a hot wire and was then blown to the smithereens of the Vietnam War. At first, Lawrence did look like he was one of the central characters of the show, but the fact that he got blown up during his introductory episode means that Vietnam is never safe for all of the actual central characters, making me wonder how many of them are going to be killed off and how extensive the revolving door of characters will be in TOUR OF DUTY. Considering this show is putting its characters straight into the jungle, it must mean that at least half of the main character pool get shot at least once, and a minimum of one should die either midway through or by the end of the season. Also, I’m wondering when TOUR OF DUTY will have its first woman character show up. Or be anything else than PLATOON, only less dark and more televised.