There have been a lot of war shows on TV. Combat, The Rat Patrol, Twelve O’clock High all covered World War II. M*A*S*H showed us what it was like in the Korean War and Tour of Duty dropped us right in the middle of Vietnam. The one thing these shows all had in common was the male perspective. Yes, there were women on these shows but the main characters were always male until China Beach came along.
When you watch the first moments of the opening credits, it looks like Baywatch – surf boards, volleyball, fun in the sun. Then the helicopters swoop in and we’re hit with this amazing shot of Dana Delaney standing stoically in the hospital doorway as the wind from the blades tries to knock her off her feet.
That single moment tells you everything you need to know about this show. It’s about ordinary people struggling to maintain their balance while the world is blowing up around them. It’s about refusing to give up even when the blood is flowing faster than it can be replaced. It’s about that part of our history that people didn’t want to acknowledge then or remember now. And that’s exactly why you should watch China Beach.
I watched a lot of war shows with my dad when I was young. The Rat Patrol is still one of my favorites. I also enjoy Baa Baa Black Sheep and The Dirty Dozen. They’re about war but they’re patriotic and uplifting because the good guys (almost) always win.
That’s not the case with China Beach or Tour of Duty. These shows hit hard and they don’t have all the answers. And if you’re like me, you won’t get through two episodes without shedding some tears. But when things are this bad, you need some levity to lift you up. In China Beach that comes mostly from intrepid girl reporter Wayloo Marie Holmes (Megan Gallagher). She’s like one of those newbie morning show reporters they send to interview pie makers at the county fair.
On the other side, there’s Marg Helgenberger as KC, a cynical civilian who lives on the base and will do what ever she can to make money which generally includes working as a prostitute.
It’s star Dana Delaney that really carries the weight of the show. She plays First Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy, a nurse at the 510th Evacuation Hospital. She’s loosely based on the life of U.S. Army Nurse Lynda Van Devanter who wrote a book about her time in Vietnam and her struggles after she returned home.
China Beach wasn’t a big hit with TV viewers when it premiered in 1988. Still, ABC let the show run for four seasons because the critics loved it. The series won 21 awards including 2 Emmys for Delaney.
If you want to see this series again, you have two choices. StarVista / Time Life just put out Season Two and Season One is also available. If you’re a fan of the show or Dana Delaney, take a look at the anniversary box set. It includes every episode, hours of bonus features, and three scripts.
I forgot to mention one other important thing – the music! This show has one of the best soundtracks of music from the era. And best of all, they’ve left every single one of those songs where it belongs. No switching out tunes because of licensing issues.
“All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, “I Got You” by James Brown, “White Rabbit” by the Jefferson Airplane, and my favorite “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum.
China Beach on DVD. It was groundbreaking then and it’s heartbreaking now.