What Happened When I Binged China Beach

My girlfriend Angie and I have binged a lot of television series over the past pandemic year—comedies, dramas, and reality. We’ve bounced from Netflix to Hulu to Amazon Prime to Pluto to Tubi to BritBox to CBS All Access to Disney+, with mixed results. We were between series discussing something I don’t recall when I mentioned the late 1980s ABC drama China Beach, and Angie said she had never watched it. This sent me to all of the above streaming services, but I found nothing. I then tried YouTube, but that didn’t work either. Searching iTunes proved equally useless.

In fact, as I soon discovered, the only way to watch China Beach today is to purchase the series on DVD, which itself wasn’t released until 2013 (apparently because of rights issues stemming from the soundtrack). So I forked over $70 or so, and a few days later got the box set from Amazon.

The series mixes riveting, often bloody medical drama with dark comedy, and ran on the ABC network from 1989 to 1991, which itself is extraordinary. The show is complex and harsh–even to characters we’re meant to sympathize with. Were it to run today, it’s far more likely it would find a home on Netflix, or even HBO.

It’s set at an evacuation hospital and R&R facility near Da Nang during the Vietnam War. Unlike other military dramas before and since, China Beach focused on women—Colleen McMurphy, an army nurse played by Dana Delany, K.C, a prostitute and entrepreneur (Marg Helgenberger), Frankie Bunsen, a sometime mechanic, sometime radio DJ (Nancy Giles), and Lila Garreau, the base commanding officer (Concetta Tomei). Other notable characters included Red Cross “donut dollies” Cherry (Nan Woods) and Holly (Ricki Lake), the singer Laurette (Chloe Webb), reporter Wayloo Marie Holmes (Megan Gallagher), lifeguard Boonie (Brian Wimmer), Marine sergeant Dodger (Jeff Kober), Dr. Richard (Robert Picardo), and Graves Registration Private Beckett (Michael Boatman).  

I was in high school when the series first ran. By the time it ended, I was 19, the average age of soldiers and marines in Vietnam. The series spoke to me then, and it does now as well, though in a dramatically different way. One small example: I had no idea when I first watched the second season episode where McMurphy goes home to see her dying father that the legendary actor Harold Russell (who had lost both his hands in the Pacific during World War II and later starred in the 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives) was cast as McMurphy’s uncle.

Watching the series again, many episodes were familiar to me. I recognized their plots, but couldn’t recall how they ended. I knew certain characters introduced in the first season wouldn’t be around by the third, and I also knew the fourth season, which is pure stream of consciousness, wouldn’t be easy to see.

“The Promised Land” (Season 2, episode 15), which takes place immediately after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., was every bit as powerful as I recall, though I can’t believe some of the dialogue (numerous n-words) and burning cross would make it onto network TV today.

Another very familiar episode, “Nightfall” (Season 3, episode 12), is pure noir, brutal and uncompromising. It focuses on K.C., and Helgenberger is brilliant in it (it also helped her get a well-deserved Emmy).

What I wasn’t prepared for was “Escape” (Season 4, episode 4). “Escape” is Beckett’s story: how he got to China Beach, and how he ended up preparing the dead for their journey back to the U.S. It’s a story of death and suicide. It first aired in October 1990, about 18 months after my best friend had died. At the time, I—along with all his friends and even teachers—had been told he died in an accident, but in fact, he had killed himself, though I wouldn’t find out the truth for nearly 30 years.

Rewatching “Escape,” I was amazed at how much of the dialogue was familiar to me. This must have been one of the episodes I videotaped, and I’m sure I watched it over and over.

When the series first aired, it had the feeling of a warning: the Vietnam War had been forgotten, and we were at risk of repeating its myriad errors and crimes. Ronald Reagan was still President when the pilot aired, and the nation was very much drunk on “American exceptionalism”—the view that the U.S. was touched by God and made into an example of goodness and righteousness for the world. That view was always folklore, which is obvious when watching China Beach now, with both the bloody and pointless Iraq and Afghanistan Wars having dragged on for decades.

What I didn’t realize until I live-tweeted some of my reactions as I made my way through the series was that the final episodes in the series had been filmed during the first Gulf War. Not only had the war infuriated the cast and crew, but they had spoken out about it.

“If ‘China Beach’ got the ratings that ‘L.A. Law’ got, we would not be in the Persian Gulf right now,” Picardo said in this Feb. 15, 1991 Los Angeles Times story. “There’s a very strong and solid anti-war message in ‘China Beach’ toward the policy that had us engage in that conflict. That would be a lesson we all deserve to examine in light of our present conflict.”

Delany herself was filming a scene when the cast got word that American forces had begun bombing Iraq and Kuwait:

“When U.S. planes first bombed Baghdad Jan. 16, Delany was at a Veterans Administration hospital, preparing to film a scene with four World War I veterans, discussing their respective wars.

“I remember looking up and seeing our A.D. (assistant director) weeping,” Delany recalled. “Tears were running down her face. We all were shocked and couldn’t believe it.

“Then to have to do the scene was very difficult because it was so close to home (that) you almost couldn’t use it. You had to distance yourself from it. It was a feeling of being in a continuum.”

That all this happened during the filming of the final season is almost too much. The fourth season is jarring, even chaotic. It jumps around in time and location, and focuses more on character than plot. We see people we’ve grown to love—McMurphy, Boonie, Dodger, K.C.—in difficult, painful places, because that’s what the war did to those who fought in it. The fourth season is all about the lasting trauma of the war, and the way it can hurt loved ones who never got within a thousand miles of the battlefield. 

In China Beach, war and peace are all hell. Watching the series now, we already know what happens when we refuse to learn from its warnings.

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