Tour of Duty (“Dislocations”)

Season 1, Episode 3
Date of airing: October 8, 1987 (CBS)
Nielsen ratings information: 12.0/19 in Households

What I have come to learn about TOUR OF DUTY after three episodes is that zero women have been involved in the making of the show, and that women weren’t really of importance here anyway, as TOUR OF DUTY wasn’t supposed to be the serious character drama set during the late 1960s in Vietnam and instead was created to give the TV viewing audience a weekly action spectacle. It is 1987 and maybe executives thought that delivering action-packed shootouts each week like this is THE A TEAM, but set in Vietnam was a good idea — the thing is, it is definitely a good idea for 1980s standards, but I am waiting for the moment the constant action becomes boring, annoying and generic, all at the same time, and TOUR OF DUTY becomes a horrendous show that once tried to make the viewers familiar with the nightmares of a decades-long war and will become a silly action show at the end. I am also wondering if the CHINA BEACH premiere seven months later has changed TOUR OF DUTY as a show and it will start focusing on the characters a little more with the second season.

What I also have come to learn is that TOUR OF DUTY is a testosterone-filled macho action hour, which must have had its target audience back in 1987, who liked the way Anderson was talking and behaving, like he could not have been cooler and more snippy about the things that happen around him, and who like the constant battle scenes in the bushes and between the tree lines, because big strong men take their machine guns in their hands and shoot about like this is the “kill the jungle” scene from the first PREDATOR movie. Who knows, maybe TOUR OF DUTY wasn’t just inspired by the success of PLATOON, but also by the way PREDATOR turned into a jungle war movie all by itself. So, the conclusion may be that TOUR OF DUTY isn’t at all a version of 24 set in the jungle and with the real-time premise removed, but it’s a mixture of THE A TEAM and PREDATOR, having been given life by the success of PLATOON. It makes for an interesting show for a few seconds, because what it gives you is how television shows come to be in the first place. Things are an unexpected hit, and what follows is writers, producers and executives wanting to recreate that hit. That’s why TOUR OF DUTY exists. That’s not at all how CHINA BEACH came to be half a year later.

Americans like to burn down Vietnamese villages.

The episode was okay. A few more things I have come to learn about the show were depicted in this episode, like it’s a proceduralized action show without character development (after three hours, barely anything is known about the characters, except Horn is a conscientious objector and Baker is a vegetarian), and the soldiers in this fictionalized version of the Vietnam War were as much pigs when it comes to Vietnamese women as some of the real-life soldiers probably were. When Ruiz, Taylor and Steve Akhahoshi’s character (has he been given a name yet?) were taking three of the Vietnamese women in their arms, suggesting that they should keep each other warm and interested, offering their services to the women, I was flashing back to all the stories I have heard about soldiers raping Vietnamese women, because it’s what the world has come to in the middle of a green muddy hell. Turns out TOUR OF DUTY wants that kind of realism for their show, but things went a little creepier than that when Goldman started to have a crush on Tia Carrere’s character. Before he covered her with his rain parka during the second half of the episode, he had a very weird and almost dangerous look on his face, like he was hungry for her, like he was about to do something to her. Consider my eyes popping out the back of my head due to rollage, when Tia Carrere’s character suddenly put her head on Goldman’s chest after he covered her with the parka, essentially reciprocating his affection for her. Those weird scenes happen when you don’t have any women in your writers room, let alone among the producers — it’s the prime example why TOUR OF DUTY is a testosterone show and not an honest depiction of the Vietnam War.

There was no surprising twist at the end, when Tia Carrere’s character was picked up by her Viet Cong husband at the end of the episode. During the first gun fight with the unseen enemy in the middle of the night, she looked like she recognized the Vietnamese voice that was yelling out into the jungle, hoping for a response. She was talking earlier about her husband being a fighter, so I was naturally expecting then already that she may be married to a Viet Cong, just so the writers can make things a little more interesting for Goldman later. When she and her husband were finally reunited, there was no surprise there, although the notion of an American soldier and a Viet Cong soldier not killing each other could be seen as something to talk about within the story. Then again, TOUR OF DUTY is a testosterone action fun hour, so it was predictable that Goldman would mention that he wasn’t killed by a Viet Cong and that was the end of that conversation with Anderson. The writers didn’t want to follow up on that story, because it didn’t gel with their agenda of wanting to write THE A TEAM set in the world of PLATOON.

Forbidden love goes straight through the jungle.

Ruiz’s story was a little more interesting, because he cared for a particular Vietnamese woman for the first time, giving him an experience on what he is actually fighting for in this jungle. What a shame that he wasn’t able to communicate with the elderly Vietnamese woman – I would have loved to hear them talk about how she sees him as her son or something like that, and how he may have been remembering his own mother every once in a while, seeing her in the eyes of the woman he was protecting and fighting for. It led to the fine Spartacus moment at the end when he told off William Sadler’s character, and every one of Ruiz’s comrades went with the “I am Spartacus” kinda quote to show the General that his orders were piss and that the platoon did the right thing by not following those orders and leave the Vietnamese stranded in the middle of the jungle. It’s a great way to depict what soldiers were thinking when fighting in Vietnam, and it’s a way to respect the veterans of the war, who may have been watching this show in 1987 and figured it was either crap and dishonest, or the greatest fun they ever had experiencing the war they lived through from another point of view.

Tour of Duty (“Notes from the Underground”)

Season 1, Episode 2
Date of airing: October 1, 1987 (CBS)
Nielsen ratings information: 10.3/17 in Households

The action fun hour of TOUR OF DUTY continues, which means this show is supposed to be light entertainment set in a pretty green and dark place. Viet Cong attack, maybe kidnap an American soldier they hold hostage for information, and while a team of soldiers goes into the battle to save the kidnapped soldier, there is still a little bit of humor going around with the rest of the troop, as depicted through Baker and his chase to catch the wild boar before it eats all his muscle protein powder, as well as the arrival of the three tunnel rats, which was kind of weird all by itself. I have no idea if Baker really is just a dumb blonde who doesn’t know crap about life and may even be an idiot when it comes to being respectful to other humans, but the way the leader of the tunnel rats came out of Baker’s attempt to be funny (and confuse elves with dwarves in the process) and returned the favor by threatening him with his pistol was kind of worrisome for someone like me who does not have any kind of factual knowledge about the Vietnam War, since I was not visiting an American high school (I can tell you a whole lot about World War 2 from the German perspective though). Did soldiers in Vietnam really “play” with each other like that? Did some of them get pierced by a bullet, because someone did not understand the humor and thought that he was getting verbally attacked?

Here, have some of this white powdering this green country!

The tunnel rats seemed to have been sort of the punchline of the episode, and not just because Baker made fun of them when they arrived. They got into the tunnel, they saw Anderson and Goldman, they said that they would be out of there in 30 seconds, but two seconds later they get blown into pieces. I had a bit of a chuckle during that scene, although I am pretty sure that reaction of mine was an unintended one. The death of the tunnel rats was supposed to show that the Viet Cong tunnels were not only a maze and a city in their own right, but boobytrapped until the cows come home to roost the chickens, and that there is practically no way out for an American soldier who gets stuck in one of those tunnels. Anderson and Goldman were jumping over a few wires during their trip through the tunnel maze, but the fact that not even the tunnel rats were successful in getting out of there alive (which is their freaking job) must mean that Vietnam is a hell hole. Yet someone like Baker, who isn’t really bright to begin with, still thinks he is cracking jokes.

Meanwhile, I did like Taylor’s story and how he led the viewers to see the point of view from the Viet Cong for the first time (in the second episode no less). CHINA BEACH needed a while to do that, although its second episode had a Viet Cong nurse be both troublesome for the central characters, as well as a great help, so in a way both CHINA BEACH and TOUR OF DUTY can still be compared nicely. The thing that was working well in that story was the Viet Cog doctor, who was knowledged enough about American culture to remind Taylor that maybe he shouldn’t be in this war at all, because at the end of the day he is still being seen as a slave (like he said, drafting could be defined as “legal slavery”). Of course, the story turned into a predictable mess at this point, as the Viet Cong doctor expectedly turned into a friend of Taylor’s, leading to the inevitable showdown between those two guys and the doctor’s platoon leader. Of course the doctor wouldn’t be able to end a life, and of course the writers would make an attempt at humanizing the Viet Cong – it was 1987, and America was a decade and a half out of the Vietnam War, which means they were able to learn what the other side was thinking about it and how they fared during the war. That is not a bad idea for the show, but as long as TOUR OF DUTY still tries to be an action series, humanizing the Viet Cong won’t work that well. The doctor himself merely felt like a Vietnam-American character than an actual Viet Cong. Hell, he even looked American with the shadow on his face, as well as the glasses. I’m actually surprised his commanding officer didn’t kill him before the events of this episode, as he clearly liked Americans in general.

A Vietnamese asks an American if he has read an American biography.

Anderson and Goldman’s journey through the tunnel maze was pretty good as well. They didn’t like each other much during the pilot, but this episode gave them an opportunity to bond. They saved each others lives a few times, and they even did some mouth-to-mouth (granted, Goldman was saving Anderson’s life then), which can only help getting the viewers used to gay storylines. That makes me wonder though, has there ever been a romantic relationship between two men coming out of the Vietnam War? Would that be a possible storyline in TOUR OF DUTY, considering how much it’s going to focus on a platoon and therefore men?

Tour of Duty (“Pilot”)

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.

The men are ready to be inspected by their new Sergeant.

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.

Ruiz has the hunger for tiny lizards.

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.