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TV’s ‘60s: War and Remembrance : ‘Tour’ Boosts Role of Women After Success of ‘Beach’

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Last spring, ABC’s mid-season series “China Beach” became an instant hit by exploring the lives of the women behind the lines in the Vietnam War.

This fall, “Tour of Duty,” the CBS Vietnam series, which struggled in the ratings last season as it tracked the men of one platoon through the horrors of combat, will move the action from the jungle into Saigon--mainly to bring women into the story.

“Tour of Duty” producers insist that move was not inspired by the success of “China Beach,” which unveils its season premiere at 10 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42. Rather, the focus on Saigon, according to executive producer Zev Braun and supervising producer Rick Husky, is part of a five-year plan mapped out at “Tour of Duty’s” inception.

“Bringing in women was always part of the plan,” Husky said.

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But that doesn’t mean “Tour of Duty” isn’t feeling competitive with “China Beach.”

In a recent conversation in his office at New World Television, Braun insisted that “Tour of Duty’s” portrayal of women, and the war in general, will be more realistic than ABC’s depiction.

“ ‘China Beach’ is fine, but it has very little to do with the Vietnam War,” he said. “Our women are going to be real women--not just set pieces . . . not just devices to get our guys into bed.”

William Broyles Jr., a Vietnam veteran and the co-creator of “China Beach” with John Sacret Young, defends the realism of his series.

“Our women are much more real as characters than the men of ‘Tour of Duty,’ ” he said. “And as far as our technical details go, I would put them against anything on TV or film.”

While denying any resemblance to “China Beach,” the “Tour of Duty” producers readily acknowledge that the CBS drama--which does not yet have a definite date to begin its second season--is bringing in women to fight for ratings as well as historical accuracy.

The series, which began last season in the Thursday 8-to-9 p.m. death slot opposite NBC’s “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” sought to counterprogram the upbeat situation comedies by giving viewers a violent, brutally accurate view of an unpopular war. Flaunting all TV conventions, a few major characters actually died.

The result: praise from Vietnam vets, critical acclaim--and abysmal ratings. “Tour of Duty” ranked 74th out of 105 prime-time programs last season. (“China Beach,” which aired last spring after the end of the official season, ranked 37th for the months they aired.)

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“Our chief goal is to make the show more accessible to women,” Braun said. “We realized that last year, some of the content was pretty intense.”

Joining the cast will be Kim Delaney as an American reporter covering the war and Betsy Brantley as a government psychologist.

The new season also marks a geographic move for “Tour of Duty”: Filmed last season in Hawaii, this year’s episodes will be shot in Valencia. The producers acknowledge that, besides the convenience of being closer to the studio, New World, the move should save a lot of money.

Braun said that letters from Vietnam veterans, many of whom avidly follow of “Tour of Duty,” have scoffed at “China Beach” for its focus on human relationships rather than combat.

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“They’ve told us, ‘Don’t sell us out, man,’ ” he said. “We are going to keep what we’ve got. We are not going to betray the confidence of these men.”

“Tour of Duty” will, however, make one concession to “China Beach,” he said: Since one of “China Beach’s” strongest characters is nurse Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany--no relation to “Tour” actress Kim Delaney), “Tour of Duty” is unlikely to bring in Army nurses to add women to the ranks.

Other female characters who may appear, he said, include prostitutes, pacifist Quakers working to repair some of the war’s damage, tourists and young Red Cross volunteer workers known as “doughnut dollies.”

“China Beach” already features a prostitute (Marg Helgenberger) and a doughnut dolly (Nan Woods), and is adding a radio personality, Wayloo Marie (played by Megan Gallagher, co-star of ABC’s “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story” last season) and Army Pvt. Frankie Bunsen (Nancy Giles).

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Broyles reacted with some amusement to Braun’s assessment of “China Beach” as unrealistic during an interview in his office at Warner Bros. Although both shows are set in Vietnam, Broyles said it makes no more sense to compare “China Beach” to “Tour of Duty” than to compare “Cagney & Lacey” to “Starsky & Hutch.”

“I don’t see us as competitive,” he said.

“We wanted to do a character show from the very beginning,” Broyles said. “We’re not doing a documentary about the war any more than ‘MASH’ or ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ We want to bend realism here, something in the way that ‘MASH’ did. There’s an absurdity to our show that I think is realistic. If you try to deal with (the war) like a camera, like a documentary, you miss the sort of absurd truth about it.”

Broyles described the community of women surrounded by military troops in Vietnam as a “women’s steam bath within a men’s locker room,” and added that he believes audiences respond to the show the way they did to CBS’ recently canceled police drama “Cagney & Lacey.”

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“With ‘Cagney & Lacey’ off the air, there is no (other) show that shows women in what is normally the province of men, and tests them in that way,” he said.

Nor does Broyles believe that focusing on human situations rather than combat renders “China Beach” a soap opera rather than a war story; most characters are based on women and men he knew in Vietnam.

“I think we’re just too hard-headed for that,” he said. “There’s not a lot of sentimentality or melodrama to our stories.”

Broyles said “China Beach’ opted to avoid becoming a combat story largely because feature films such as “Platoon” can afford to re-create battle scenes more realistically--and because for television, “Tour of Duty” already was doing it so well. “I used to tell people to watch ‘Tour of Duty,’ ” he said.

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“I have no bone to pick with ‘Tour of Duty.’ My biggest worry about the show is that this season they are losing Hawaii; I think people watched that show for the production values. If I were them, I’d keep on doing it (a combat show).”

“I think they’ve managed to attract the veterans. The audience of veterans is an important audience, but we want to reach people who weren’t there as well. We’re not going to restage the Vietnam War, thank God.”


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