"China Beach" is about the Army's 510th Evac. Center (the "Five and Dime") near the front lines of the war, with the pilot set in 1967. The base does triage and emergency surgery for wounded American soldiers just evacuated from the field, so the backdrop of the show is a constant stream of carnage and human misery flown in by the helicopter load from in-country Vietnam. The base also has a recreation center for soldiers recovering from their wounds or taking R&R, so there's a parallel operation to entertain and distract GIs from the war. In the early episodes this can feel strange -- dismemberments in act two, dance contests in act three? But the contrast between these two functions of the base develops and becomes a defining aspect of the series.
It's easy to gush about Delany in her career-making performance, but every cast member of the show is strong, and "China Beach" was the first step in a number of long careers. Marg Helgenberger, who went on to 12 seasons of "CSI," plays K.C. Kolowski, a gorgeous but cynical entrepreneur whose main business is as a prostitute for military brass. K.C. emerges as McMurphy's foil by the second season, the sinner to McMurphy's saint, and Helgenberger also won an Emmy for the part.
The lead cast also includes Robert Picardo (who may be best known as the holographic doctor in "Star Trek: Voyager") as Dr. Dick Richards, a country club gynecologist drafted in to the war, Michael Boatman ("Spin City") as Pvt. Samuel Beckett, the base undertaker. There are a half-dozen others in the main cast who were unknowns before "China Beach," like Concetta Tomei as Maj. Lila Garreau, the anal-retentive base chief, Jeff Kober as Dodger, a taciturn Rambo-type with a 1,000-yard stare and Brian Wimmer as the base's fun-times guy and scrounge, Boonie Leneer. Particularly memorable is Nancy Giles, a tall African-American actress with a distinctive voice who plays a Jill-of-all-trades GI, Frankie Bunsen, and who joins the show in the second season.
Because it's so frequently funny, and because its characters are so nicely fleshed out by the writers and actors, "China Beach" can sometimes feel like a workplace comedy where characters just happen to get covered in the blood of enlisted teenagers -- and in this way it recalls "M*A*S*H" while also presenting a uniquely female-centric perspective on war. The comfort it invites with its cast of characters becomes wrenching in the fourth and final season, when the emotional fallout of the war takes center stage.
What took "China Beach" from being a good to a great show was that it was willing to let its main characters grow and change -- noteworthy at a time when many other shows were defined by a status quo to which they stuck. In the commentary to one of the episodes, series co-creator and executive producer John Sacret Young, who would go on to serve as a writer and supervising producer on "The West Wing," describes "China Beach" as the story of the human cost of war, especially the emotional damage it does to the characters, and the efforts the characters make to deflect or bury that damage to make witnessing the horrors of war at least survivable. In that way, it's not a show about tragedy so much as it is about the ways people cope with and soldier on in the face of it.
Perversely, "China Beach" is at its best in its fourth and final season, by which point ABC had already demoted the critically acclaimed but low-rated series to a tough Monday 9pm time slot against "Murphy Brown." The writing staff saw the writing on the wall and decided, to their eternal credit, to just go for it. This season sees "China Beach" become unstuck in time, tracking its characters over the decades after they leave the Five and Dime or jumping back before the show's beginnings. Here we finally see how pushing the horrors of war down to the back of their psyches has affected the characters, as they struggle to return to a country that's gone on without them or to find a new place with themselves.
"China Beach" aired well before the 1996 threshold for entering the internet's collective memory. Still, it's an important show in the transition from the "quality" shows of the 1980s like "St. Elsewhere" to the high-production value shows of the '90s. Like the cast, the principal staff members of "China Beach" were mostly starting their careers, and they carried the show's tradition of research on when many of them went to "ER" and then "West Wing" -- all shows that defined high-end American TV in a particular age.
"China Beach" is still an entertaining and moving show to watch. It's aged well, partly because it was set in the past to begin with, but mostly because everyone who worked on it understood its quality and felt a strong duty to do their best. The result was some of the finest work of their careers, at a time when groundbreaking TV like this was far from common.