TV Guide, Jan. 23, 1988:
Tour of Duty is CBS’s serious, well-intentioned effort to do a series about the Vietnam War. It is carefully scripted and is directed and performed to achieve as much authenticity as is acceptable on broadcast television. Which means no obscenities, limited bloodshed and little depiction of the widespread use of drugs in that war.
To many in the audience, television is at its best when it reaches beyond their funny bones to their brains, evoking thought and emotion. Tour of Duty comes to each of us with all the baggage of the Vietnam War -- whether we were personally involved, politically concerned or merely observing from the sidelines. No one who lived then could avoid at least thinking about the rightness or wrongness of our country’s participation in that controversial war.
Tour of Duty is about one American combat platoon in action against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army troops. Each week’s story, and they’re good ones, deals with an aspect of the war -- the way the enemy used tunnels, the sad necessity of uprooting villagers from their ancient land and moving them to safer areas, the distrust between black and white GIs. The Viet Cong are depicted as human beings fighting for a cause they believed in but fighting in the most ruthless and despicable ways imaginable. Our soldiers are shown as men often wondering what they are doing in Vietnam, existing day after day under near-unbearable conditions, dying in dirty little skirmishes that had no affect whatever on the outcome of the war.
The men who play the soldiers do so with conviction, so that we come to feel for them and with them. Because Sergeant Anderson (Terence Knox) and Lieutenant Goldman (Stephen Caffrey) are central, they must be credited with much of the show’s success in doing its job so well. But each member of the ensemble has been cast to perfection. There just isn’t room to list them all here.
If there is an overall theme, it is the futility of the war, and each week there is another moral struck--subtle but effectively--whether it be the way soldiers of different skin colors put their lives in one another’s hands, the need to stress human values even in the midst of devastation, or some other aspect of the war.
We have seen criticism of this show because it does not offer the language, drugs or gore of theatrical or pay-TV movies about the Vietnam War. Perhaps the addition of those elements would desanitize Tour of Duty, make it even more like the way the war actually was--but then the show couldn’t run on broadcast TV. Let’s be grateful that executive producer Zev Braun has been able to be so effective by indicating, rather than emphasizing, realities of the war that many families would not consider appropriate for a living-room audience.
Let’s also add a word of thanks to CBS for daring to try something different in that difficult time slot opposite Bill Cosby’s Thursday-night comedy. A cop show or two sitcoms would have been easier--and less expensive. Way to go, ladies and gentlemen.