ABC’s “China Beach,” nearly forgotten today, was an incredibly ambitious show for its time. It aired from 1988-1991, long before our current “golden age” of dramas, and is tends to be brought up in context of the longer running series writer/producer John Wells served as showrunner on in its wake — “E.R.” A network drama set in the Vietnam War with a large, strong cast, a big set and a budget that covered helicopters and a prodigious amount of period music, “China Beach” was most celebrated for an ensemble led by strong women characters at a time when this was still a rare thing indeed. The series holds up very well on DVD — and thanks to box set released last month by Warner Brothers, StarVista Entertainment and Time Life, that’s where it can finally be revisited and reevaluated.
“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.
There’s no better reason to watch than Dana Delany, who plays the lead of “China Beach,” Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy, an army nurse (the name is from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). Delany’s McMurphy drinks marines under the table but looks like the girl next door — this was Delany’s first lead role and her breakout, bringing her major attention and two Emmy wins. Delany is the sort of actress whose face is always telling a story, even when she’s not speaking — one of her best moments in the series is when she’s watching a former lover leave the base for the final time and turns away from the helicopter blowback, only to have a single tear blown from her face, perfectly backlit by the falling sun.
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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.
And because “China Beach” was a strong show that needed a lot of actors to fill up its war, there are also a number of now familiar faces in guest star and walk-on spots — there’s Don Cheadle in a small part in a marine unit that Bunsen is mistakenly promoted to lead and Adan Arkin showing up in the final season as a McMurphy love interest. Ricki Lake, just before her talk show days, does an entire season as a Red Cross volunteer — the only character whose death you might root for. Even Stephen Baldwin has an episode, as a white GI convinced he’s Chuck Barry.
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.
It’s a nuanced way to look at the war, and it’s borne from the research the writers and actors did on Vietnam and the veterans who served there. As opposed to World War II, when men would deploy and return with their units, those serving in Vietnam would go on their own, serve a year, bond with the people around them, and then return to an America that was largely ignorant of or opposed to the war and lose contact with their war buddies — which made for an odd, dark and deeply personal experience that was impossible to forget or escape. The bonus features in the box set focus foremost on how the “China Beach” writing and producing staff was constantly talking to veterans and using their real war stories on the show, with Wells describing it as a daily process. Before shooting on a new season would begin, Young would bring in vets so the actors and staff could talk to the people who served in Vietnam and ask questions to inform their performances.
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.
And all of which puts “China Beach” in a weird space, zeitgeist-wise: beloved in its time by the people it affected most, but now a forgotten show about a war we no longer talk about. This box set, then, is the first and best chance for “China Beach” to re-enter the modern American psyche. Why the delay, 25 years after the show’s original airing and 10 years after many of the commentaries were recorded? Reportedly it was an issue of music rights, with Young and series co-creator William Broyles insisting that the DVDs include all the original music selections, which are absolutely central to the show: songs like the Four Tops’ “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” “My Girl” by the Temptations and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
“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.