Oct. 08--ABC's famous late-'80s show China Beach premiered on April 27, 1988, with a shot of a beautiful young woman in a red one-piece swimsuit, walking across a gorgeous beach. She settles down, facing the ocean, perhaps to catch some rays or read a paperback.
Not a minute goes by before everything is turned upside-down: We hear bomb blasts in the distance, the sounds of helicopters closing in, and screams. Men screaming in pain. The woman, Colleen McMurphy, rushes off, leaving the idyllic beach and stepping into what looks like a totally foreign universe -- an Army field hospital.
It's the 1960s, and we're at war in Vietnam. And McMurphy is a nurse. Played with equal amounts of steely deliberation and heart-melting empathy by Dana Delany, she grabs a lab coat and is soon elbow-deep in a GI's guts.
That was China Beach all the way: A dramedy that defied conventions. Created and written by John Sacret Young and William Broyles Jr., the show sets up a mood only to subvert it, traversing -- often within the space of a second -- from the heights of comedy to the depths of despair. Ironies abounded, including the show's setting: The field hospital is located next to an R&R complex run by USO volunteers.
The ABC series, which aired for four seasons, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a series of new DVD releases, including China Beach: The Complete Series, a 21-disc boxed set available directly from TimeLife.com, and China Beach Season 1, a three-disc set available at all retail outlets. Other seasons will be released in the next couple of years.
"It's probably the best role that I've ever had," Delany said in a phone interview. "I was fortunate enough to get it at an early point in my career."
Of the remarkable ensemble cast, which included Michael Boatman, Marg Helgenberger, Robert Picardo, Concetta Tomei, and Brian Wimmer, she said, "We were young when we started the show, and it was such an important time in our lives."
China Beach was based in large part on the experiences of Vietnam veterans, including those of Broyles. A former Marine, he famously returned to Vietnam in 1984 as a journalist, a journey he captured in the book Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace.
While not a veteran, Young is author of Remains: Non-Viewable, a memoir about his cousin Doug, who was killed in Vietnam.
Young and Broyles created China Beach after casting about for a way to tell the story of the war from a fresh angle.
"We sold it as a show that's not focused on what's been done before by focusing on the women who served," he said in a recent interview. "The 1960s were such an interesting era for women . . . [because of] the women's lib movement."
Picardo's character, hotshot surgeon Capt. Dick Richard, represented the old guard, a sexist, and remarkably randy, bon vivant intent on flirting with McMurphy whenever he sees her.
"He was very much a product of the '50s," said Picardo, who grew up in Germantown. "He felt very entitled and had a very high opinion of himself, of being a doctor. To the point where he is actually pinching all the women in the pilot."
Other memorable characters included Pvt. Samuel Beckett (Boatman), whose job was to register and process dead soldiers.
K.C., played by CSI star Helgenberger, had a more glamorous position.
"K.C. from KC [Kansas City] was a hooker, but we also saw her as a capitalist," Young said. "Remember the saying 'Go west, young man'? Well, for her, it was 'Go east, young woman, and make a lot of money.' "
Chloe Webb, who appeared in the first season, also played an opportunist, a would-be pop star who signed up with the USO.
"She goes to Vietnam to make a name in showbiz, to find fame and fortune," said Webb, whose character is from Paoli.
China Beach is remembered not only for its idiosyncratic characters, but also for its bold experimentation with the genre.
"The show was ahead of its time in terms of what it tried to do," Delany said. "We had flash-forwards to 20 years in the future, we had musical numbers, we had episodes where we left Vietnam and went back home."
Young said he's especially proud of the Season 2 episode "Vets," which had Vietnam vets describe their experiences directly to the audience.
The show's formal experimentation helped express the unique confluence of events that made the 1960s so explosive, Young said.
"Everything was turned upside-down, as exemplified by the changes in music, but also the riots, the assassinations, the war," he said. "Vietnam was such a crucible that everyone who went through it came out the other side so thoroughly changed by what they experienced."
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