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HOWARD ROSENBERG

New Weekly 'Duty' Dose Of Vietnam

September 24, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Meanwhile, back at Da Nang . . . .

"Tour of Duty" airs at 8 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8). It's American TV's first drama series about the Vietnam War. Nice production. Nice performances. Watch it. You could do a lot worse.

But, well, you know, it's like this.

There was a time when a weekly drama series about the Vietnam conflict seemed a bright idea. TV--whose newscasts had beamed the war into America's living rooms, bloody, raw and ugly, drawing Chu Lai closer to West Covina--was the logical one to dramatize the G.I. presence in Southeast Asia.

This dark, murky, polarizing streak in American history needed illumination and perspective from the distance of time. Americans deserved to be told in intensely human and dramatic terms about the energy, passion, courage, rage, desperation and sorrow of Marines in conflict, as well as the moral and political issues that split the nation over Vietnam.

Rare TV movies on the subject surfaced, sensitive, credible versions of Philip Caputo's "A Rumor of War" and C. D. B. Bryan's "Friendly Fire," for example. But something more was needed, more even than statistics, recriminations, dispassionate monographs and occasional documentaries.

But a weekly series exploring a scorned, troubling, controversial war that still caused bitter arguments and was an open sore? Would any network have the gumption?

Not for years, it turned out. Not until Vietnam proved itself at the box office.

So at last, following the high-profile successes of "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket," following the far less popular "Hanoi Hilton" and "Hamburger Hill," comes "Tour of Duty:" a weekly dose of Vietnam in 1967, set in a remote fire camp surrounded by mine fields, telling the story of Company C. And?

Maybe it wasn't such a bright idea after all.

For one thing, the shadow of the Pentagon may darken prospects for "Tour of Duty" (see accompanying story), raising the specter of censorship.

For another thing, the still-rigid rules of over-the-air commercial television tend to euphemize and soften reality, no outside pressure needed, thank you. The ditch-level, four-lettered Marine language of Vietnam has been laundered in the premiere of "Tour of Duty," for example, sapping it of crucial texture.

Along the same lines, the first episode may be setting the stage for a relatively drugless war in having its hero bar dopers from his platoon.

And another thing, the premiere of "Tour of Duty" confirms how the smallness of the TV screen sometimes constricts. Although moderately realistic, the battle sequences are miniaturized and the scarred landscape shrunk, yielding no sense of war as an inescapable gray universe.

Bigness is not always best. On this level of epic storytelling, however, sheer size is crucial, and comparisons with big-screen counterparts are inevitable--and lethal.

What about the human, personal side that TV sometimes conveys with such intimacy and emotional intensity?

The center of "Tour of Duty" is a diverse group of young men led by tough-but-nice Sgt. Zeke Anderson (Terrence Knox). There are hawks, hicks and honkies, an anti-war college dropout (Joshua Maurer), the inevitable clashes between veterans and greenhorns, the wise and tolerant company commander (Kevin Conroy) contrasted with the straight-arrow Lt. Goldman (Stephen Caffrey).

Knox is a convincing Zeke, despite the patness of his character, and the story is well executed. Even on a human level, however, "Tour of Duty" falls short by not adding to our knowledge or understanding of the Vietnam spectacle.

A Zev Braun Pictures production in association with New World Television, "Tour of Duty" ends up being a caboose. It may be a landmark series, but not a landmark drama.

The generic war-is-hell story was told effectively long ago by TV's "MASH." In the present, "Full Metal Jacket" debunks the manliness-of-war fantasy, "Platoon" covers the Vietnam-was-dehumanizing territory and "Hamburger Hill" appears to find America's real enemy on the home front. And so on and so on.

"Tour of Duty" seems to be out territory.

This is not the fault of the producers, who reportedly had "Tour of Duty" in mind before the industry's present Vietnam chic took hold.

Every worthy concept has the potential to flower and evolve, if given the chance, and perhaps that will be the case here. Granted enough freedom, inventive minds can do amazing things. If tonight's premiere is a true test, however, "Tour of Duty" is arriving too late with too little.

Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) is finally living on campus as a sophomore at Hillman College so that she can have her own series and get enormous ratings in the can't-miss NBC time slot following her old series, "The Cosby Show."

That seems to be the primary purpose of "A Different World," premiering at 8:30 tonight (on Channels 4, 36 and 39).

Except for the presence of Bonet, this won't remind anyone of "The Cosby Show," where she previously resided as one of the Huxtable brood.

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