TV on DVD Review: China Beach - Season 1 & 2

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“Reflections of the way life used to be…” may have been the pitch-perfect Supremes tune that led viewers back into the world of Vietnam via TV’s China Beach from 1988 to 1992 but upon watching the series today on DVD, I realized these reflections have inherited a second meaning with time.

More precisely, for this viewer who was just seven years old when the show began (but distinctly remembers watching with her parents anyway), taking in China Beach today from the point of view of an adult offered up “Reflections of the way” television used to be.

Simply put, in an era of Full House and Knight Rider, when you look back on China Beach, you realize that – much like Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks – it’s a miracle that it ever found its way onto the air.

While basic and premium cable are the exception, even in today’s TV Renaissance dubbed the Golden Age of Television, you still have to wonder if network executives would still make the same decision to order a series run given their overreliance on singing competitions and police procedurals.

Needless to say the fact that it was on network air over twenty-five years ago is proof that this Golden Age Renaissance television hyperbole is nothing new. Exceptional television series come around once in a blue moon but in the era of China Beach we were in the midst of a creative high that was all the more admirable because (unlike the otherwise brilliant Northern and Peaks) China Beach was steeped in truth as the wounds of Vietnam hadn’t yet healed and probably never would to the fullest degree but certainly not a mere decade after the remaining troops were brought back home.

Honestly, the most daring thing about China Beach wasn’t that it focused on Vietnam as in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hollywood had given us countless cinematic narratives about the war from Coming Home to Platoon and in fact just one year earlier, CBS had kicked off their own visceral, emotionally charged Vietnam based series Tour of Duty in 1987.

But instead of cashing in the recent Best Picture winner Platoon with a male dominated combat plotline, China Beach gave us something we had yet to see thoroughly explored onscreen about any war. Namely co-creators John Sacret Young and William Broyles Jr. served up a series which primarily focused on the role of women during wartime with the action set at an Evacuation Hospital on Da Nang’s My Khe beach that was nicknamed China Beach in Vietnam.

While women had definitely played a part in earlier battles, the fact that Vietnam coincided with Women’s Lib made this all the riper for exploration in a democratic yet largely female-centric narrative that brought some previously unknown points-of-view and realities of the war to American living rooms like never before.

Centered around a conflicted, hard-working Army nurse named Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany) who spent her days and nights dodging mortar attacks and patching up wounded soldiers, civilians and locals, China Beach is steeped in authenticity.

Stemming from the real-life remembrance of Broyles Jr. who recalled the calm professionalism of the brave angelic nurse he remembered swiftly going about her job (that would go onto help inspire the beautiful, brainy McMurphy along with a nurse’s eye-opening autobiography of her service), everything about China Beach feels right.

Likewise, as music played such an important role in the war – whether it was in helping vets get through the day, offering them the words they can’t come up with on their own or as just a welcome distraction from the sound of gunfire, China Beach is filled with wall-to-wall music.

Released as a complete series collection in the fall of 2013 and in individual seasonal sets starting with the first two complete seasons kicking off the 2014 new release calendar in the first week of January, StarVista Entertainment and Time Life’s China Beach discs offer multiple special features including cast interviews, episode commentary, behind-the-scenes footage and featurettes and more.

And thankfully by transferring the same memorable musical cuts that elevated some of the show’s most epic scenes, StarVista and Time Life helped preserve the magical quality of the series in its long-awaited DVD release decades later to bring Beach to life once again.

But more than just the music, it’s the people who have stayed with us thanks to an incredible cast that embodied their fully realized, human portrayals of individuals enduring highs and lows go along with their life during wartime.

And once again, whether it was in setting events during the highly publicized Tet Offensive of '68 or when a race riot almost escalates into a mini war following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. that the show really flourished by rooting the action in as much reality as possible to keep it grounded even when the events depicted are anything but.

This attention to detail was chronicled in an unprecedented way when in the powerful season two episode “Vets,” the editors intercut series footage with the onscreen recollections of the women and men who were there.

While sharing their stories, we realize that some of Beach’s most unforgettable moments were based in fact including the pilot episode’s heartbreaking, against-all-odds coincidence where a bomb-blinded victim tells the woman holding his hand about the beautiful USO singer whose photo he keeps in his pocket, not realizing the two individuals are one and the same.

Yet far from just heartbreaking, the richly layered China Beach defied its genre and subject matter multiple times per episode with some unexpectedly funny moments. Celebrating the gift of friendship, China Beach's other main interest was in applauding the ingenuity of those in 'Nam who had to think fast on their feet.

A main through-line of the series centers of creative, quick-thinking solutions that are employed to counter the unlikeliest problems from building a Virginia Woolfian “Room of One’s Own” for the women to just hang out alone without being ogled or bothered to creating a prom night in honor of so many troops that had missed their own.

Not only about the hospital, the show (which matured and grew into its own in Beach’s masterful second season), developed a signature style of laughter with tears and shocking moments melded with something bittersweet that would become the show’s trademark of an ever-changing tone that series scribe John Wells would eventually springboard off of once again when he created ER a half-decade later.

Although it was anchored by Delany’s wondrous turn, the show is augmented by a gifted ensemble of talented actors that can still be seen on television today in everything from The Good Wife to Sons of Anarchy.

Robert Picardo is an undeniable standout as the boyishly funny, sardonic drafted OB-GYN Dr. Dick Richard whose full name sums up his maturity level in the first season until the husband and father back in the United States grows up and becomes a surrogate father and “work husband” overseas.

Looking after McMurphy when she’d rather work a full week without sleep to avoid thinking about her missing pilot boyfriend whose disappearance nearly sends her to the brink of insanity, we see Dr. Richard’s priorities shift from golf and good times to fighting for his patients (including those not even wearing a uniform) and as his character deepens, so does the show.

Marg Helgenberger’s enterprising hooker/businesswoman whose tough façade covers up a painful past remains one of the show’s most enigmatic creations and her ever-changing dynamic with the rest of the characters sums up a truism about  both life in wartime (and life for an expatriate far away from home), which is that you find yourself becoming bonded to people you’d probably have nothing to do with back in the states.

Constantly challenged and constantly judged, K.C. is just one of many China Beach outsiders and one who learns that loyal friendships shouldn’t be dependent upon what someone can do for you after the sudden, devastating loss of one of Beach’s sweetest first season characters shortly into the second season.

While it takes awhile to adapt to a few of the newer cast members including Megan Gallagher’s annoyingly energetic politician’s daughter and Saigon weathergirl turned ambitious journalist Wayloo Marie Holmes and Nancy Giles’s Army DJ Frankie Bunsen, the expansion of female points-of-view from the first season is important as the amount of plot potential for season one’s aspiring singer Laurette (the amazing Chloe Webb) was minimal at best.

Still far from just centering on women including World War II no-nonsense veteran Lila Garreau (Concetta Tomei) and Elizabeth Lindsay’s hardworking Vietnamese beauty Mai, Beach is a war show after all and never lets us forget how many men served in Vietnam.

While this is best exemplified in the haunting stare of Dodger, Jeff Kober’s diehard soldier who’s been out in the bush staring death in the face one too many times to ever go home again physically or psychologically, we also see through the easygoing, practical joking façade of the likable Boonie (Brian Wimmer) who uses his smile to cover up anything he doesn’t want to talk about.

But perhaps Beach's most fascinating or at least the most certainly unsettling, memorable male character is in the form of Michael Boatman’s death registrar Beckett, who takes care of and inventories the patients that can’t be saved by Dr. Dick Richard and Colleen McMurphy.

The son of a preacher man, Beckett has let his Christian devotion take over his life and provide him with meaning in the madness. As such, he not only talks to the men who temporarily reside in his facility as though they are his buddies alive and having a Happy Hour drink in Boonie’s bar but also plays cards, asks their advice and does his best to show respect and ensure they have not died in vain.

Just one in a long line of coping mechanisms evident on the show that the vets use to try and prevent themselves from giving into the insanity of war that surrounds them, China Beach is one of the most thoroughly engrossing, ever-changing network series on broadcast television.

So arresting that in this – my first viewing of the show on its long-awaited, newly available DVD release since I originally saw it broadcast in my childhood, I was amazed by how much I was still able to remember more than twenty-five years later from memorable musical juxtapositions to character revelations.

Though the visuals are indeed dated as warned by StarVista via an onscreen notation revealing that the age of the materials might explain the flaws (and I only hope someone takes the time to restore it down the road in 1080p high definition), the impact of the series more than makes up for any photographic issue bar none.

Obviously, it goes without saying that I can’t possibly fathom what it was like for Vietnam veterans who’d been so poorly treated on their arrival home to now find their sacrifices and experiences honored on two television series on the small screen at the same time.

However as revealed in the first season DVD booklet essays, the fact that Delany was sent a soldier’s purple heart in thanks for her fiercely moving portrayal goes a long way towards summing up what having this series on the air meant to them.

In fact, the release of this monumental series to DVD at the very time that once again far too many young people are losing life and limb in faraway lands overseas during wartime makes China Beach’s debut on DVD timelier than ever, with its tales of bravery serving as a living testament to those who’ve served our country in the past and continue to do so today.

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