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Thursday, March 15, 2012

China Beach (1988) - The only TV series I really miss



 I don' t think "China Beach" ever has been released on VHS or DVD in its entirety (the above jacket was a VHS release of just the premiere episode).  It was one of those '80s shows that wallowed in '60s tunes and sometimes even built entire episodes around them.  The theme song was a classic Supremes hit that was epically appropriate and started each episode off perfectly.  Unfortunately, getting song rights to popular tunes can be prohibitively expensive, and even current shows have that problem, which is why shows usually create their own themes and don't just use whatever is currently on the radio.  The standard license permits the original showing and one repeat, and that's it.  Getting a song license for DVD distribution is a whole other (vastly more expensive) ballgame.  It can be justified for a show that has a vast audience, but "China Beach" always struggled along in the ratings and is at best a cult favorite.  We may never see it available in a box set, but if we do, it's likely that many of the original songs will be replaced, thereby eviscerating it.

She may LOOK innocent, but she has the face of an angel and a body made for sin....

 Dana Delany (Nurse Colleen McMurphy) sparkles in this series. I totally fell in love with her. The chemistry between Dana and Robert Picardo (Dr. Richard) was just amazing. Both have gone on to great careers since, but I think this was their best showcase. It may not reflect real life in Vietnam, but it was marvelous as a character study of a beautiful woman with problems of her own making sense out of a crazy world.  Picardo, as always, is slightly eccentric, yet emotes that sense of caring and understanding that makes for a great TV doctor.  Marg Helgenberger, who also went on to TV fame elsewhere, plays K.C. Kolowski, the camp "bad girl" who, this being TV, isn't portrayed as really being that bad at all.  It's a bit far-fetched that a prim and proper McMurphy and a sleazy Kolowski would become such good buddies, but this is TV and I wasn't in Danang during the war.

Dana Delany, Brian Wimmer, Marg Helgenberger - all went on to great careers

The contemporary music, from The Supremes (perfect theme song, sad and wistful) and other major '60s acts, was completely appropriate. In fact, much more so than in other shows in the '80s that thought playing '60s tunes during surgery somehow made the doctors seem hip.

Yeah, he's got it made in the shade, all right

I really liked the later episodes, the ones from after the war. Seeing the effects of their experiences on the main characters' later life made the show seem more substantial to me, like the experience was part of the fabric of real lives and not some phony, caricatured nonsense like MASH (which had its own merits, too, don't get me wrong, but in more comic/political ways). Again unlike MASH, where Koreans were just used to showcase certain doctors' wonderfulness ("Poor Cho Park needs an operation and by God I will see that he gets it!"), China Beach at various times included some fully realized foreign actors, French and Asian. They added real perspective about what was going on over there, the history of the conflict and the effect on the people.  The show stepped outside the box here and there, which was unusual.



I didn't like all of the supporting characters, but most really worked for me. Troy Evans had a marvelous monologue about a soldier being a hero but getting shot down that sticks with me, and Brian Wimmer was outstanding as a live wire marching to his own tune. Harold Russell made one of his rare film appearances, and Tom Sizemore of all people captured a lot of guys' feelings with his tortured attraction to Dana Delany's character. "You won't even remember her name in a year."

Way too cool for school


Personal note: I had to go away for a month during its run, so I set my VCR timer to record it every week. I've never had the urge to tape a show since, this one was that special. It worked perfectly (amazingly) and was able to catch several episodes, but I was truly ticked off when I came back to see that one of the episodes had been preempted by a Carol Burnett holiday show. As of this writing, China Beach is not out on DVD, which is a shame. I miss it.

China Beach had a lot of night-time soap characteristics, but it was the best of its genre, and there really is nothing wrong with shows about relationships. The show never got great ratings and was almost canceled before getting a reprieve for its final season due to fan support. It deserved the reprieve. This gets my highest rating for a TV series.

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