Judge Neil Dorsett likes to begin stories with "I was in 'Nam," but the closest he's ever been was a bowl of nuoc leo.
Whatcha watchin' son? Don't give a damn. Next stop: Viet Nam.
At the tail end of the 1980s, the Vietnam film fad was on the second half of its pendulum swing. With Rambo relegated to a syndicated cartoon series (though his ill-fated final hurrah was yet to come) and people starting to get sick of talking about Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, not to mention the defunct and loathsome camoflage fashion fetish (no revivals, please), Hollywood got the hint and began to abandon Vietnam as a focus for billing. So what does that mean? Time for a TV series! Thus CBS began its Tour of Duty.
Tour follows the career of the generically named Bravo company from the beginning of Lieutenant Myron Goldman's command of the unit. Goldman (Stephen Caffrey, Longtime Companion) is a fresh West Point graduate, but the team bears a battle-scarred sergeant, Zeke Anderson (Terence Knox) and several experienced PFCs. The existing team is joined by other newcomers, machinegunner Alberto Ruiz (Ramón Franco), and conscientious objector Roger Horn (Joshua Maurer), who is assigned to radio duty. Yes, the radio officer is named Horn. Ha, ha. But they never once punch the joke, so don't worry about it. The team experiences internal struggle as well as fighting the enemy and other menaces from without, such as racists, relegators, romances, and relatives. Sound familiar? Hey, it's an episodic war show, it's meant to fill a niche, whattayagonnado. The key difference here is the setting—indeed, the familiar structure serves only to throw the setting into sharper relief. Tour runs through several stories that viewers of the movies mentioned above would find very, very familiar—but since it's a full season of hour-long television, the show has little choice but to present something new now and again. And the quality, on relative terms, is fairly high.
Like many episodic television shows, this one gets off to a deceptively cheesy start. The pilot episode is crude in its characterizations, particularly the whole seasoned sergeant with young lieutenant thing, and it's only a regular hour-long show, so things are a bit rushed at the very start. Over the course of the season, however, Goldman and the soldiers under his command gain a weathered maturity to become the characters this show is actually meant to be about. The clean faces and shaves the men (including Zeke and the seasoned guys) incongruously wear at the head of the show are slowly replaced by grime and stubble. For CBS in 1987 and a non-soap opera format, this is pretty progressive stuff; presumably the show's full season contract allowed for such slow development. By midway through the season, the blues-playing peacenik RTO has donned a manly 'Nam do-rag, indicating the Bravo Company's evolution into a crack fighting team is complete. Most of the characters have feature stories of their own, such as "The Battling Baker Boys," focusing on Eric Bruskotter, and an episode guest-starring Ving Rhames that revolves around a racial conflict and spotlights Stan Foster. As far as Terence Knox's Sergeant Zeke, he acts as the rock; his development as a soldier is complete before the series begins. Knox, though, as well as the others, develops greater believability as the series progresses. Knox is an interesting actor. He moves his head a lot and has sort of a theatrical approach, but at the same time it's really casual, like it's just what he does anyway. He sort of combines Ed Harris and Stephen Furst (with whom he shares the reasonably distinguished St. Elsewhere screen credit).
On the whole I would have to say that the producers, cast, and crew of Tour of Duty did a pretty good job at what they were doing. Each character is well-drawn, reaching just beyond the necessary requirements of formula and into real character—although in some cases this takes a good while to emerge. The question in each episode of Tour is: when will the violence come, and what will be the consequences? Whether internal or external, Bravo company will encounter violence and war in a given episode, and one or more of them will be forced to make critical decisions. Sometimes this is an easy one—"The Battling Baker Boys" must come to terms or die; sometimes it's harder, as when Zeke takes on an infant war orphan; and sometimes, as this war would increasingly teach the characters, the situation is just plain impossible. Worse than that, sometimes the impossible situation is pointless, as with the celebrated final episode of this season, "The Hill," in which Bravo is forced to repeatedly conquer the same ground, only to give it right back up in some kind of holding pattern. This is the situation which finally proves to be too much for Private Horn; while over time he's reconciled himself to making war, he cannot abide the foolishness of throwing life away for what seems to be pointless ritual. Of course, team spirit wins the day as is the rule in all such shows. And how about the action? Well, a lot of it consists of soldiers firing away into bush at things they can't even vaguely see. Which is to say, it's pretty realistic. The series's combat scenes are at their best in night fights, where the show's limited budget is put to excellent use, making what must have been fairly small environments seem quite large. The producers use the confusion and poor visibility to make the most of their extras and effective if not elaborate sets. The show also provides the requisite amount of explosions. What would action entertainment be without explosions?
One factor I came to appreciate about Tour is its eschewal of the preliminary teaser segments traditional to action TV. Instead each show, following the credits, opens with a title card of a relevant factoid about the war that leads us into the episode. Pretty nice, and it enhances the gravity of the presentation. We're used to that kind of thing now, but it was fairly uncommon for TV at the time.
Notable guest stars in the first season include Tim Thomerson (Trancers), William Sadler (Demon Knight, The Shawshank Redemption), the aformentioned Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Rosewood), Mark Rolston (Aliens, Shawshank), Tia Carrere (Wayne's World), Everett McGill (Twin Peaks, Quest for Fire) as a renegade Montaignard, and Pamela Gidley (Fire Walk With Me), as well as pretty much the roster of Asian-American actors working regularly on television at the time.
On the technical side, Tour of Duty's preparation for DVD is something of a conundrum. First of all, the show hasn't visibly been remastered, so this is the same soft and low-contrast video that was originally broadcast. This softness seems in part to be intentional in order to replicate the grainy news and other stock footage which is occasionally spliced in. However, much of this softness also seems to be an artifact of the old video transfer used. It may have actually been necessary to use this; the show dates from 1987, which was toward the beginning of the heyday of network television shows which were shot on film but edited on video. On the other hand, Sony's TV department has moved a step closer to righteousness on this release. They have taken the trouble to remove the 3:2 pulldown necessary to display film on television and done their best to present a progressive transfer. For the most part these efforts are successful. Motion, even during difficult vertical pans across the copious vegetation necessary for any show about Vietnam, remains quite smooth and appealing for a five-show-per-disc package, and the also copious still shot dialogue scenes fare very well indeed in this department. The softness of the image may actually be helping out on this front, allowing the compressor to function more evenly. The only failure in this case is the cuts, which in many cases have retained an interlaced frame between the two progressive frames that should really play alone. This isn't really a problem, though; set-top owners won't notice it at all, and even those who use a software player will only notice this, if they do, as an instantaneous change of resolution—and back as quickly. I only mention it because the steps taken to improve this video transfer indicate that Sony is working on these issues to make a better product with longer shelf-life. The only unfortunate factor here is that the source elements for Tour of Duty are not that strong. Basically what this means is a sort of soft image and poor contrast. Dropping your brightness down a notch or two for this show will make a big difference. The effort needed to remaster the series thoroughly from original film elements is probably not cost-effective, though. This is about as good as Tour can be expected to look under those conditions, barring the interlacing detail mentioned earlier in this paragraph. It looks significantly better than a cable rerun once the brightness adjustment is made.
As far as audio goes, don't expect too much. Tour is monaural, and the DVD utilizes the existing soundtrack without any detectable remastering for dynamic range, so we're listening to something here which was created to play in living rooms before the popularity of home theater in its present form. There are practical considerations in such a mix that preclude the extremes of volume that would benefit a war show; it would perhaps have been nice for Sony to provide a bit of extra oomph in the low end, but the mix does its job adequately, presenting clean voices and gunfire. And authenticity is always good. I will note here that Tour of Duty's use of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" as its opening theme—which I seem to remember from original broadcasts—has been omitted, so those expecting to rock out at the beginning of each episode may be disappointed. Other licensed rock tracks have also been removed and replaced with library music, which tends to be sort of anachronistically '80s-oriented toward the beginning of the season, a keyboard sound perhaps meant to be reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. This is regrettable, and the show seems to get a clue about it as time passes, taking on a more generally bluesy quality to its scores. More likely, the show moves into a more confident use its own original soundtrack material and away from the licensed tracks.
As with so many of their television boxes, Sony has seen fit to provide each and every disc of Tour of Duty: The Complete First Season with an auto-playing menu for the PC that pops up links to the website and a crappy on-disc software player. This is only marginally less annoying than PC-Friendly, and I really wish we could see the end of this practice fairly soon. That stuff is never really even useful the first time through, and only becomes more and more tiresome the more you see it.
In all, Tour of Duty deserves a qualified recommendation: if you know what you're getting in a CBS television series from 1987, and can be interested in war material that's produced on that level, go for it; it plays a mean game on those terms. The music replacement is unfortunate, but non-fatal. If you are apt to be turned off by the conventions of that era of television either in general or as regards to war programming specifically, stay away.
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