By the mid 1980s, American pop culture was comfortable enough to finally discuss the Vietnam War. Diverse musical artists such as Sammy Hagar and Charlie Daniels recorded songs about the soldiers’ lives, and mainstream movies began to tackle the subject of the war. The critical and commercial success of Oliver Stone’s Platoon seemed to make it okay for television to begin dealing with it as well. In 1988, ABC premiered China Beach, a groundbreaking dramatic series that was set against the backdrop of Vietnam.
This beloved series, which struggled in the ratings each of its four seasons, has been in demand for a DVD release for years. 60s era music played an integral part of the show and the DVD producers worked for years to get clearance to over 300 hit songs (including the China Beach theme, “Reflections,” by Diana Ross & the Supremes) in order to release the show on DVD the same way it was originally seen on television. The work finally paid off. Warner Brothers, Star Vista Entertainment and Time/Life have just released the entire series in a deluxe box set with most of the music intact.
Drawing from his own experiences serving in Vietnam, co-creator William Broyles, Jr. knew that he wanted to produce a TV show that spotlighted the brave women who volunteered for the war, the nurses, Red Cross workers and USO performers. Originally envisioned as a sitcom (a la MASH), the idea came across the desk of John Sacret Young. He envisioned something darker and more dramatic. The two men worked together and what they came up with was China Beach.
Unlike the other Vietnam testosterone driven stories being told on the big screen and television (CBS had begun airing the series Tour of Duty in 1987), China Beach was driven by the stories of these women who made the selfless act to help the wounded and dying at an Evacuation Hospital and Rest & Recreation facility located on the Bac My An Beach. The 510th Evac Hospital (nicknamed the Five & Dime).
Holding down center stage was Dana Delaney in her first major starring role. She played Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy, a hardened war nurse whose experience at the Five and Dime scar her for life (as we find out in season 4). In the show’s pilot, McMurphy is ready to leave Vietnam for good, but realizes that if she returns to the States she won’t be able to function. Instead she recommits to another year at the evac. Like the soldiers with the thousand-yard stare, McMurphy now feels more at home among the chaos. Delaney would win two Emmys for her work on China Beach.
Marg Helgenberger, who would gain more fame as an original cast member of CSI, was the other dominant female lead. She played KC, a prostitute who takes up residence at the Five and Dime. Her life experiences growing up have made KC so cynical that she sees Vietnam as a business opportunity, a way to get rich.
Robert Picardo portrayed Dr. Dick Richards, the chief surgeon. The borderline arrogant Dr. Dick begins the series very salacious, but his tone softens as the series progresses and he grows closer to McMurphy, for whom he has unrequited love. His time spent in Vietnam causes him to lose touch with his wife and children and eventually get divorced.
Michael Boatman (Spin City) received his first role as Beckett, the head of the Graves Registration Unit. A man who spends most of his waking hours with the dead, Beckett feels like he’s losing his sanity and his soul. However, he finds new meaning when he becomes involved with a Vietnamese villager and her family.
Other cast members included Nan Woods as the naïve Red Cross volunteer, Cherry; Concetta Tomei as Major Garreau, a career Army officer and a veteran of World War II; Brian Wimmer as Boonie, a Marine corporal whose time in the jungle has left him incapable of returning to battle; and Jeff Kober as Dodger, a stoic killing machine who’s protective of his best friend, Boonie, and the staff at the 510th evac.
Nancy Giles joined the cast in season 2 as Private Bunsen in the motor pool, and Troy Evans joined in season 3 as Pepper, the Master Sergeant in charge of the motor pool and a romantic interest for Garreau.
The first season is a little rough around the edges. After the two hour pilot, there are only six additional episodes. The pacing is a little slow and the actors are really trying to locate the center of their characters. Still, Delaney and Picardo show immediate chemistry, and Helgenberger is exceptional as the conflicted KC. The heart of the first season belongs to Chloe Webb, who was around for only season 1 as Laurette, a USO singer. The audience is thrust into the madness of war through her eyes and Webb brings so much warmth and honesty to the part. I challenge anyone to watch the heartbreaking scene in the pilot, in which Laurette comforts a dying soldier covered in third degree burns, and not break down in tears.
By season two, the cast was locked in and the writers, who included future ER and The West Wing creator, John Wells, found their voice. In addition to tackling the serious topics of war and PTSD, the producers began taking risks, covering racism and sexual misconduct. Mid-season, they took a week off from their weekly stories to air a special tribute to real life nurses, Red Cross volunteers and USO singers. The episode cuts between unflinching interviews with women veterans and clips from the series. It’s a remarkable hour of television, one of the most powerful of the series.
The risks continued throughout the show. In season 3, an episode dealt with abortion in a smartly written episode that tells its story in reverse. In it, Red Cross worker, Holly (Ricki Lake, who was around for one year) decides to terminate a pregnancy. We see every character’s response to her decision and they aren’t all what you’d expect. That this personal and intense episode was also told unconventionally made it even more remarkable.
By season 4, the writers went for broke in challenging their fans and discarded the traditional form of storytelling altogether. Remember how we all praised Lost for the way it shifted between the present and past every week? Well, China Beach had already tackled this method in the early 1990s. The season begins in 1985, with Boonie visiting Dr. Dick in California. The story then flashes back to the good doctor’s arrival in Vietnam and his first meeting with McMurphy. So not only did the script begin long after the war was over, but the flashbacks take place before anything that occurred in the previous three seasons. Back and forth the stories go, all season long, and they all connect, leading up to the series finale. In it, the main characters gather in Washington DC for a 25th Anniversary reunion and a visit to the Vietnam Memorial.
Somehow China Beach gets overlooked when the discussion comes up for groundbreaking television, yet its effect is felt in many of the most popular dramas on television, from Mad Men and its artiness, to Grey’s Anatomy and its prominence of strong female characters at the center of the action. When the show originally aired, I missed it during its first run, but I’m so glad that the show is back and available to be rediscovered. There is always a thrill in discovering something old and great that has a lasting effect on the television landscape. Thank God everything got worked out with the music rights because it’s high time for a new generation to discover China Beach.
The series comes housed in handsome case that holds all four seasons on 21 discs. Each season contains its own bonus materials, including interviews and commentaries on prominent episodes. Two additional bonus DVDs are also included that feature highlights from a 25th Anniversary reunion of the cast and crew. It’s obvious that the actors and production team all feel a great deal of love for each other, as well as an appreciation for being part of something significant.
A booklet accompanying the complete series collection also includes some of the letters the producers received from veterans and their family members. For many of the vets, watching China Beach provided catharsis to what they went through in Vietnam. It’s not often that a work of popular art can also serve as a way of healing, but China Beach seems to have been just that to thousands of men and women.
China Beach is being sold exclusively through chinabeachondvd.com
There is also a deluxe 25th Anniversary edition of the series collection that included three scripts from the show, as well as photos of the cast.