Sunday, Jun. 24, 2001

War As Family Entertainment

Two Viet Nam shows tackle the issues but avoid the politics


War, being a pretty depressing human endeavor, has never been a favorite subject for network entertainment. The Viet Nam War, being pretty depressing even as wars go, would seem to be nearly untouchable. Not only was there too much R-rated action (drug abuse, massacres of civilians) but the story had an unhappy ending. Such recent movies as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket could immerse their audience in the muck and moral quicksand for a couple of hours and then let go. But TV series must keep viewers coming back week after week, adhering to standards of "family entertainment" along the way.

The surprise, then, is that two weekly shows about Viet Nam have established themselves on the prime-time schedule. To be sure, both of them -- CBS's Tour of Duty and ABC's China Beach -- add plenty of TV fabric softener to the abrasive material. Each fills its sound track with '60s pop songs, as if Viet Nam were just another trip down nostalgia lane, like high school mixers and afternoons at the malt shop. Both have taken a predominantly male experience and leavened it with female characters and soap-opera story lines closer to Dallas than Saigon.

China Beach revolves around a hospital-and-entertainment complex near Danang, and its protagonists range from a dedicated nurse (Dana Delany) to a hard-bitten war profiteer (Marg Helgenberger). Tour of Duty focuses on an all- male combat platoon, but this season has added two prominent female characters -- a wire-service reporter and a psychiatrist -- and, of course, a love interest for each.

Yet credit is due: no other dramatic shows on TV deal with such relentlessly uncheery subject matter. Tour of Duty is the more conventional of the two, an L.A. Law-style mix of characters, subplots and issues that are introduced and neatly resolved by episode's end. The show's flaws are familiar: characters who are too simplistic (the hotdogging helicopter pilot, the streetwise black private), and plot twists that are too patly "illuminating." When a battle- fatigued soldier is sent back into combat before he is ready -- over the objections of his sergeant and a psychiatrist -- you can bet that five minutes into his first mission he will go berserk and get shot. Still, the show has broached some touchy subjects, from officer corruption to cowardice in battle, with honesty and dramatic fluency.

If Tour of Duty is the war genre's L.A. Law, China Beach is its thirtysomething: narratively loose jointed, laced with ironic dialogue and moody introspection. Created by John Sacret Young (screenwriter of A Rumor of War) and former magazine editor William Broyles Jr., the show lurches between the fey (a macho war hero parachutes into camp and romances all the women) and % the loquaciously self-important, as if it were a sorority bull session with grenade sound effects. But the writing is a notch above standard-issue TV fare, and the show follows its own adventurous, if sometimes bumpy, path.

Both shows reflect the way dissent has become domesticated in America; what were radical antiwar views in the '60s are now mainstream TV attitudes. High- ranking officers and other authority figures are mostly buffoons, insensitive martinets or corrupt sleaze balls. Heroism, at least as the military tries to market it, is usually a sham; public relations is the name of the game. A lieutenant in Tour of Duty gets drunk in a bar and empties the place by wildly firing his gun. A few seconds later, a bomb explodes inside, and he is hailed as a hero. Notes a smarmy major: "You're the first good publicity the command has had since Tet."

Most of all, there is disillusion and frustration. Sergeant Zeke Anderson (Terence Knox), the sympathetic Everysoldier in Tour of Duty, confides to his ex-wife his feelings about the war: "It's just like everything you hear. It's death and destruction, it's hell on earth, it's twisted limbs. I just want it to be over." An injured grunt in China Beach expresses his despair even more starkly: "Nobody here gets out alive. Breathing maybe. Eating. Sleeping. You ride the bus to work, cash a paycheck, wait. But your life is out there . . . always."

These sentiments, however, are largely denuded of their political context. Rarely are they linked to any specific complaint about the conduct of the war -- a policy mistake or a battlefield blunder. It's just the eternal tragedy of war. At the same time, the angry pacifism once expounded by M*A*S*H (a TV series about Viet Nam that was set in Korea) has been tempered by sympathy for the average grunt. There is still a place, in TV's current view of Viet Nam, for courage in battle, duty and loyalty to buddies. At a champagne dinner for officers in China Beach, a Red Cross worker blurts out a drunken toast to the men in the field: "Out there, it's not your war. It's not our war. It's their war." And it's their war that TV is finally trying to tell.