The New York Times
September 24th 1987
TV REVIEW ; 'Tour of Duty,' in Vietnam
By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
LEAD: WITH the Korean War as a backdrop, ''M*A*S*H'' managed to bring to CBS a long-running, enormously successful weekly series. Now the network is obviously searching for more of the same in ''Tour of Duty,'' the new series getting under way at 8 o'clock tonight.
WITH the Korean War as a backdrop, ''M*A*S*H'' managed to bring to CBS a long-running, enormously successful weekly series. Now the network is obviously searching for more of the same in ''Tour of Duty,'' the new series getting under way at 8 o'clock tonight.
The problem is that the backdrop this time is the Vietnam War, a conflict that doesn't conform easily to esablished gather-round-the-flag patterns. The war itself left much of this country shattered by widespread protests and open resistance to military service. Riddled with scandals about drugs, ''fragging'' and massacres, it was a war the United States eventually lost. We are still recovering from the trauma, only recently attending to neglected veterans.
The painful subject of the Vietnam experience has been explored in a series of thoughtful and provocative films, from ''Apocalypse Now'' to ''Platoon'' to ''Full Metal Jacket.'' The success of ''Platoon,'' in particular, seems to have prompted CBS to conclude that prime-time television entertainment is ready to tackle the Vietnam experience. Executives have conceded, of course, that certain realities would have to be toned down or eliminated. Foul language is still frowned upon at the commercial networks. And with an anti-drug campaign being widely publicized, it just wouldn't do to show soldiers strenuously smoking marijuana. Hurdles, perhaps, but not insurmountable.
But ''Tour of Duty,'' made in Hawaii with Zev Braun and Bill L. Norton as the executive producers, goes further. The network has stated that it is interested in ''not the fatigue, not the sweat, not the atrocities, not all that,'' but rather, ''it's the brotherhood, the kinship.'' One executive summed it up: ''We aren't going to wallow in grimness and negativity.'' In short, Vietnam is going to be processed through the same uncomplicated-heroism mills that John Wayne and Victor McLaglen made popular in World War II, when there was no doubt about commitment and issues of right and wrong.
The result is television revisionism of the worst, most pandering sort. With grimness and negativity out, buddy stories and inspiration are in, generally with a thud. Following a platoon on a 12-month tour of duty, the show is determined to transform Vietnam into an experience of uplifting tolerance and reconciliation. With a deep bow to ''M*A*S*H,'' the opening credits feature helicopters appearing over the top of a hill. The year is 1967 and, as more and more North Vietnamese soldiers are spotted in combat, the Americans are beginning to realize that they are in ''a whole new war.''
As luck would have it, Zeke winds up with a cross section of America: a black from the Motown area of Detroit, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, a blond surfer from California, a gung-ho volunteer from Iowa and so on, right down to the unit's medic, a Japanese-American from Santa Monica. Complicating matters slightly is the presence of Private Horn (Joshua Maurer), an antiwar college dropout from Chicago. Why would Zeke choose a war protester for his platoon? Well, it seems Zeke is just crazy about blues music and Private Horn plays a mean blues harmonica. ''Paul Butterfield is a friend of mine,'' the private tells an astonished Zeke.
By the first episode's end, Private Horn, who has refused to carry a rifle into battle, is saving Zeke's life by stabbing a ''gook'' sniper. ''I killed him,'' says the shaken private. ''No, what you did was save our lives,'' Zeke assures him. ''This war is wrong,'' insists the private. ''Maybe, but that's not the point,'' says Zeke.
In trying to be all things to all people, if possible without offending anybody, ''Tour of Duty'' winds up firmly on the side of saying nothing and distorting everything. In search of feelings, it succeeds only in being pointless and even offensive.
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