“‘I’ve been given me the toughest job I’ve ever had in my life, but also the most rewarding. What can be more important to the war effort than preserving the fighting strength of our troops? We must maximize the odds of every soldier that passes through our portal… His country is counting on him. His country is counting on us.”
The first thing you have to understand about Vietnam was that it was unlike any war the country had ever participated in. Up until this time, the United States had not failed in conflict. The Vietnam War was also the very first war to show up in living color each night on our television screens. War correspondents had a new weapon in their arsenal, and it was called the television camera. The nightly news was dominated by these gruesome pictures of death and destruction. As the body count mounted, so did opposition to the war. By the time the war finally did end for Americans, over 60,000 Americans had been killed in action. Approval for the war fell to less than 20%. The war dominated our pop culture. Music, in particular, reflected the frustration of the times. The war even led to the voting age being dropped to 18 so that a soldier could have the right to vote. The war brought on the modern Veteran’s Administration to deal with the thousands of wounded when they returned home and throughout their lives. The impact of the war was huge, and it took a show like China Beach to humanize one of the most divisive events in American history.
The show was originally pitched as a half-hour comedy in the same style as M*A*S*H. It didn’t take long for show creators John Sacret Young who had not fought in Vietnam and William Broyles, who had, to realize that Vietnam was a different kind of experience and required a different kind of take. They decided that the series would not focus on the soldiers and the killing. They made their central character Nurse McMurphy (Dana Delany) a quiet mid-western girl the focus and she would become our eyes and ears inside the conflict. It was a rather nice bit of irony that the main character would be someone who was a volunteer and came to save lives rather than take them.
The show was set in the real-life location of China Beach. It was the American 510 Evac Hospital on the coast of Vietnam near DaNang. McMurphy (Named for the Jack Nicholson character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) is a nurse at the end of her first tour who decides to sign up for more because she believes she can make a difference in the lives and deaths of these young wounded warriors. Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo was the hospital’s main surgeon Dr. Dick Richards. Yes, the name was intentional. He certainly shared things in common with the M*A*S*H doctors in that he was drafted and sick of all the killing. He also shared their irreverent humor. He had an added dose of arrogance that made him far less lovable and cuddly than Pierce and his buddies. He was married with a successful practice back home. He lost it all to come here, and it has made him a bitter man at times. There was a suggestion of romance between him and McMurphy that was never completely realized even though they came close to getting married once. Picardo actually studied medicine in the hopes of becoming an actual doctor. He’s gone on to play a few iconic ones on television.
The base was run by Major Lila Garreau played by Concetta Tomei. Lila was a career officer who often pined for the last era’s ways of war. She tried to run a tight ship and often found rules and compassion a bit of a balance. In later seasons she would have a romance with motor pool head Bob Pepper played by Troy Evans. They were about as unlikely couple as you could find. Both characters would soften over time. Pepper actually started as a bigot and a gruff officer who didn’t appear to like other people very much. He would eventually become the base teddy bear. Michael Boatman would play Sam Beckett (named for the playwright). He was the graves registration officer and spent most of his time preparing the bodies to be flown home. He felt more at home with his dead clients whom he would talk to and even play poker with from time to time. Obviously, it made him a bit socially awkward. Brian Wimmer played Boonie, the company’s Klinger. He was the guy you went to when you needed some horse trading to be done. He was once a patrol soldier but originally came to China Beach to rest and now helps others to recover from what they experienced. His old partner was Dodger, played by Jeff Kober. He was the crazy-eyed Rambo warrior in the unit and seldom spoke.
The military people were not the only characters to dominate the scene. The hospital was also a designated R&R facility and featured Red Cross workers who were often called Donut Dollies. The most prominent of these was Cherry White, played by Nan Woods. She came to Vietnam to try to locate her missing brother and would be killed in the second season during the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968. What she couldn’t provide was usually handled by K.C. played by CSI’s Marg Helgenberger. K.C. was a businesswoman who dabbled in prostitution and black market goods and even ran a beauty salon on base. She wasn’t the most friendly of gals, not the traditional hooker with a heart of gold. Various USO acts would pass through, and there would be snippets of performances by the likes of Bob Hope and Nancy Sinatra.
Of course, China Beach was located on a beach. At times life would appear like a typical Beach Boys afternoon in Southern California… that was until the choppers came and brought the camp to the cold realities of war. And the show did not shy away from the brutality of war. The camp was often bombarded with enemy fire and VC infiltration. As peaceful as the beach might appear there were always reminders that you were never truly safe anywhere in-country.
The series had its followers even if the numbers were never gangbusters. Many thought it might have been too soon and that it would open up fresh wounds. The show runners were sensitive to that fact and did strive hard for authenticity where they could. They brought in plenty of vets and particularly nurses who served in the war. They held seminars for the cast and crew and were always available to them for questions and stories. In the end many vets found the show was good therapy and a way for them to exorcise the demons of their experiences. The show was often contemplative, often going long periods with little action or even dialog. There was no doubt but that the object here was to capture an emotional journey more than a physical one.
In the final season the show began to flash forward to the characters’ lives after the war. It was a unique bit of storytelling at the time. And you thought JJ Abrams invented it on Lost.
This impressive set brings all four seasons together in an attractive box that contains the season releases and a bonus set of two discs filled with extras. That’s 21 discs in all. The extras include hours of interviews and roundtables with cast and crew. There was a reunion of cast and crew on 12/12/12, and there are several features taken from that event. And yes, one of those actually runs 12:12. Go figure. Fans will take delight in just how rich this collection of extras is. Everyone involved gets to talk in detail about the experience, and there are tons of behind the scenes stories shared here. It’s one of the more intimate collections of extras a show has released. You really couldn’t ask for more on that front. There are attractive color booklets for each season and a large bonus booklet that contains photos, fan letters and letters written by cast and crew.
In the end fans have waited over 20 years for this to be released. Honestly, it was a long shot that it would ever see the light of day. The series made great use of the iconic music of the day. Vietnam is often described as the first war to have a soundtrack. It had a tremendous effect on the music of the day, as I said earlier. The series includes an amazing amount of this music. Therein lies the rub. When shows of that time were licensing the music they did not even think about the future home video market. Getting the rights to all of that music basically from scratch has been impossible for many shows. WKRP fans will remember the great scandal over the release of that show’s first season. The music had to be changed or it could not be released. They opted to change it, and in spite of the show’s popularity, the fan reaction was so negative no future seasons are planned. This set includes all of the original music, and it’s no small miracle. Now it’s your turn to show the studios these efforts and expenses are profitable. Vote with your dollars. You won’t be sorry. “Welcome and have a great year.”