After watching this war drama, Judge Diane Wild knows that war is heck.
Brothers in arms. Brothers to the end.
I could admit that I had never seen an episode of Tour of Duty before preparing for this review, but even that wouldn't properly convey the complete cluelessness with which I approached the second season DVD release. When I scanned the cast list on the front of the Digipak case, I saw Kim Delaney's name and thought to myself: "Hmm, I always thought it was Dana Delany who starred in this." Reading the back cover, I thought: "Hmm, I always thought this series was about nurses in Vietnam." Then it hit me: I was thinking of China Beach. I knew nothing about Tour of Duty. Except now I knew it didn't star Dana Delany and was about non-nursing personnel in Vietnam.
But to put an optimistic spin on my ignorance, you could say I came to it with no expectations or preconceptions.
Facts of the Case
Tour of Duty aired from 1987-1990 on CBS, and, as I learned, it is about the soldiers of the Bravo Company. This season, the boys are stationed near Saigon, which gives them many opportunities to make headway in the city's nightlife as well as on the battlefield.
Sergeant Zeke Anderson (Terence Knox, St. Elsewhere) is the hardened career soldier, while young Lieutenant Myron Goldman (Stephen Caffrey, Longtime Companion) leads a group of even younger men through battles and personal and professional tribulations.
This second season saw an injection of X chromosomes to the cast mix, with Kim Delaney (NYPD Blue) as Alex Devlin, a war correspondent and love interest for Goldman, and Betsy Brantley (Double Jeopardy) as Dr. Jennifer Seymour, the base psychiatrist and a love interest for Anderson.
The second season includes 16 episodes. While some minor relationship points carry over from one episode to the next, except for the first couple of episodes, most are self-contained stories.
The phrase that kept coming to mind while I watched this series was "low key," which is a strange descriptor for a war show.
Each episode starts off low key, with a very long, very boring credit sequence. During my puzzled perusal of the cover earlier, I had seen the dreaded boast "Includes new music!"—which of course means the studio couldn't get the rights to the original soundtrack for the DVD release. Turns out, the theme song used to be "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones, and was replaced with what sounds like something by Zamfir, master of the pan flute. Rock, easy listening—it's all the same, right?
Unfortunately, the easy listening opening sets an oddly appropriate tone for a show that shifts tone and plot frequently. Episodes often begin in mid-battle, then meander over to a romance or two, followed by a soldier going on a psychotic rampage, then some jovial male bonding scenes to round things out, all to the tune of elevator music. Muzak really shouldn't work here, but it kind of does. This is not necessarily a rant against their inability to secure the music rights—though couldn't they have at least tried to match the mood of the original?—but rather a commentary on the unassuming way the show treats its stories. Low key, just like the new music.
It's a glass half empty observation, really. Because there is so much going on in each episode, and because of the respect with which its themes are treated, it's a compelling show…in a low key way. Each episode jumps right in to the plot with little story introduction, and the editing is often choppy. It's an effective way to keep the viewer slightly off-balance and involved while we catch up with what's going on.
Tour of Duty aired on network TV, so there is a limit to its grittiness. The fate of a newbie in this Bravo Company is as sealed as that of a red-shirted ensign on Star Trek, but death is not always predictable on this show that isn't afraid to kill off main characters. Characters are wounded and killed, sometimes in horrifying ways, but gore is kept to a minimum. Hardened soldiers use harsh language like "friggin'." Still, it isn't afraid to show the brutality of war, and touches on lofty issues like racism, the futility of war, and the psychological consequences of the military actions on these young men. One of the best episodes is "Promised Land," where Anderson accompanies a soldier's body back to the United States. It shows the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination and highlights the anti-war movement on the home front. Despite the bravado of the heroic helicopter pilot and the pretty-good-for-TV action sequences, there is no glorification of war here.
However, the actors often seem detached from the material, and occasionally the wooden lines of dialogue seem like too much of a mouthful for them. That's more a fault of the writing than the acting, however, with conversation that tries to explain the plot more than express the character. Most of the actors fare reasonably well, particularly the likable Caffrey, but Terence Knox stands out for all the wrong reasons. I liked him during his days on St. Elsewhere, and was heartbroken at his character's exit under a dark cloud from that show, but his uncomfortable performance in Tour of Duty makes me doubt my earlier judgment. All those old jokes you heard about Al Gore and his stiffness—feel free to recycle them here.
The DVD menus are awkward and don't include scene selections, but the real flaw with this release is the extreme graininess of the image. The show appears to be trying for an old-style look, so some of the grain is possibly intentional, but there's more grain here than in a…a…grain silo. The picture also suffers from softness and poor contrast. Better, though not great, is the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo for rendering the occasionally silted dialogue and loud battle sequences. There are no extras.
Sure, we've seen the war-is-hell theme before and since, but war dramas aren't prevalent on today's TV schedules…unless you're watching the news. Tour of Duty is a reasonably satisfying genre show that fills a niche. None of the elements in its mix of battles, drama, intrigue, black humor, and romance are extremely well done, but taken together, the mix itself is fairly entertaining.
I'm feeling a split decision on this one, but my soldier's instinct says not guilty. Case and company dismissed.
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