It was a bold and untested concept in 1988. CBS would air a brand new television drama, one that followed a platoon of soldiers as they fought in the Vietnam War.
And it was called Tour of Duty.
The initial response to the show was mixed. Would people want to watch a drama in which the protagonists weren’t always the winners? Could you make a credible drama about our involvement in a politically divisive war?
Well, CBS made the show and it debuted in the tough Thursday night time slot – right up against a juggernaut ratings weapon called The Cosby Show.
But, surprisingly, the show actually survived. It lasted for three seasons, effectively taking the soldiers from their first involvement with Bravo Company into the theater of war, and then back to civilian life. Tour of Duty was not shy about showing the minutiae of a soldier’s life in Vietnam; enemies from all around, racism and cowardice, heroism and sacrifice were seminal and repeated themes in the show.
And if you thought Game of Thrones killed off characters indiscriminately, Tour of Duty’s characters were lucky if they made it from one season to the next. At least three major characters died in the show’s first season, while several others returned stateside with various injuries and casualties. At the same time, several characters who might have been “gung ho” and “rah rah, let’s fight” at the start of the series changed over time, either through PTSD or other afflictions.
The first season of Tour of Duty was the good season; when the show was renewed for a second season, the producers added more female characters in the hopes of creating romance plotlines. They were also competing with another Vietnam drama, China Beach, that proved more successful on another network. Tour of Duty’s third season saw more guest actors in lead roles, including Carl Weathers and Lee Majors, and recreated storylines that echoed the My Lai Massacre and a failed POW prison break. But in the end, the show finally ended its own proverbial tour of duty in 1991.
Tour of Duty exists on DVD, all three seasons were produced in that format, although the music for each episode (rock and roll songs that represented the era) were replaced with generic music for DVD release. There is at least one episode that exists on YouTube, which I’m featuring here; it’s an episode with guest star Ving Rhames and it features a conflict between black and white soldiers and the racism within the platoon. Word of caution; the N-word is used rather freely in this episode.
And every so often, Tour of Duty pops up on one of the digital nostalgia channels, mostly on channels with military or action themes. And as I mentioned before, the episodes do exist on DVD, however, if you want the episodes with the original music soundtracks, you need to purchase the UK versions of the DVD’s. And even then, you’re looking at converting PAL to NTSC if you want to watch them on your American TV.
But for a show like this … maybe that’s a worthwhile option.