China Beach aired on ABC from 1988-1991, wowing critics and (its tragically few) dedicated viewers with a bold and emotional take on a war series. Set during the Vietnam War at the 510th Evacuation Hospital and R&R center on China Beach, the series recounts the day-to-day exploits of the US Army doctors, nurses, Red Cross volunteers, soldiers and civilians stationed at the “Five and Dime.” What separates the series from others such as MASH is its specific focus on the women who necessarily volunteered to serve in Vietnam, with men predominantly relegated to supporting roles.
From the get-go, this beautifully-written series offers viewers a refreshingly honest look at the emotional turmoil war brings about in these women. Unlike their male colleagues, not just in the series but in their cinematic counterparts in such films as Platoon (1986), the women don’t become numb to the experience. The loss and guilt threatens to overwhelm them at every turn, and in fact, when we meet the series’ central character, Colleen McMurphy, she’s an emotional wreck, breaking down weeping in back rooms and desperately yearning to go home. But Colleen, as all the leading characters in the series do, ultimately embraces the catharsis that helping those in need provides and finds she has a real family at the “Five and Dime.” In this sense, the series covers some of the same ground as 2008’s The Hurt Locker, in which characters become addicted to war. But here, with the focus on women, the addiction is not necessarily because of the rush they get from the action or because nothing else could ever seem real to them (although the series’ male characters occasionally state as much). Instead they become addicted to helping others and to the makeshift family they find themselves a part of. The emphasis here is on people, and in spite of the carnage and heartbreak that the war necessarily brings to the group, the emotional core of the series is overwhelmingly positive. That in and of itself is a welcome change of pace from your standard war story.
Dana Delaney, who won an Emmy for her performance here, leads China Beach’s ensemble cast in the central role of Army nurse Colleen McMurphy, supported by Marg Helgenberger, Concetta Tomei, Michael Boatman and Robert Picardo, as well as Chloe Webb and Ricki Lake who co-starred in one season a piece. The series also features a slew of notable guest stars including the likes of Vivica A. Fox, Dennis Farina, and Stephen Baldwin. The unfortunate thing about a war series boasting such a strong ensemble cast is that some characters are inevitably cycled out. And Chloe Webb’s departure after but a single season– the first season, in fact– having become a lynchpin of the show in but six episode, absolutely broke my heart. She plays an integral part in stitching the cavalcade of characters at the “Five and Dime” together into a family, brings an incredible amount of spirit to the series, and has terrific chemistry with Delaney as the two become quick best friends. Yet she’s gone after a mere handful of episodes and I honestly wasn’t sure how the series could possibly recover. Of course, the second season finds us introduced to a pair of new female characters, and while they’re certainly not Chloe Webb strong, they quickly grew on me, and the rest of the series holds strong through the conclusion of its fourth and final season.
For the first time ever (with the minor exception of a VHS release of the pilot), China Beach is making its debut on home video in a 21-DVD box set from Starvista Entertainment and Time Life. The series comes packaged in a deluxe collector’s case featuring metallic artwork and removable dog tags, along with a 36-page collector’s book containing liner notes by Dana Delany, Robert Picardo and series creators John Sacret Young and William Broyles. For this release, Time Life spent a significant amount of time and money securing the rights to much of the iconic music from the 1960s and 70s that originally played in the series, including 268 tracks from the likes of Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez, The Four Tops, James Brown, Van Morrison, and many many more. What’s more, the set boasts over ten hours of special features spread across the four individual season sets and two additional bonus features discs. Special features include:
-Footage and featurettes recorded at December 2012’s cast and crew reunion held in Los Angeles. These featurettes include “China Beach Memories – Tales from the 25th Anniversary Reunion,” “Castles Made of Sand – The Lasting Impact of China Beach,” “Life’s A Beach — A Look at the Real \China Beach” and “Hit The Beach — How It All Began”
-New, in-depth interviews with stars Dana Delany, Marg Helgenberger, Robert Picardo, Brian Wimmer, Jeff Kober, Nancy Giles, Troy Evans, Michael Boatman, Chloe Webb and Concetta Tomei, along with John Wells and creators John Sacret Young and William Broyles Jr.
-Three roundtable discussions with cast and crew: “The Legacy of China Beach”, a roundtable discussion with series creator John Sacret Young, John Wells, Lydia Woodward, and Mimi Leder; “ChinaBeach and the Vietnam War”, a roundtable discussion with John Sacret Young, Carol Flint, and Toni Graphia, and “China Beach Origins” a roundtable discussion, with John Sacret Young, Bill Broyles, Jr., Rod Holcomb and John Levey
-Four Audio commentaries by a combination of Dana Delany, John Sacret Young , writers Lydia Woodward and Carol Flint and director Rob Holcomb on the episodes: “Pilot Episode,” “Vets,” “Souvenirs” and “Hello/Goodbye”
-Rare, Behind-the-Scenes footage shot by John Sacret Young and Robert Picardo from the final episode of China Beach
-and a Season Three Gag Reel.
The series is also available from Starvista and Time Life in a 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition which additionally features three scripts signed by the entire cast and five 8×10 photos of the original cast throughout the series and the 2012 reunion.