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DVD Review: China Beach: The Complete Series

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There are some shows that fans wait years and years for, desperately hoping they will eventually be released on DVD so their favorite episodes can be relived, but are consistently disappointed. One such beloved, critically-acclaimed series is China Beach, the four-season Vietnam War drama that broke new ground by approaching the conflict from a perspective other than male-domination, and is one of the most-requested shows. Finally, China Beach arrives, the complete series being released by Time Life.

China Beach is set at an Evacuation Hospital in Vietnam, and follows the adventures of the women serving our armed forces, as well as those on the civilian side of things. This isn’t a softer tact, per se, but it does give us something other than what we are used to seeing from a war drama, meaning feelings are allowed to be explored, as well as the mental and emotional scarring that can occur from such locals and experiences, often ignored when the focus is on violence and bloodshed.

Portraying women is not the only way that China Beach sets itself apart. It really gets into the characters’ heads, even following them home from time to time. Animated sequences allow the viewers to better understand the people and what they are thinking, and real interviews with real veterans keep the show grounded in gritty reality, even as it tells a compelling fictional story. China Beach is a bit like an intentionally less-funny version of M*A*S*H, with a comparable originality and risk-taking approach, but containing more depth.

The heroine of the piece is First Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany, Body of Proof), who not only stands strong, but also faces her own limitations and emotional wounds. She’s a very striking woman, hailing from Kansas, who puts others first. Delany brilliantly and boldly tackles the role with gusto and talent, winning two well-deserved Emmys during the series’ run.

Among the familiar faces co-starring are: Michael Boatman (Spin City) as Samuel Beckett, an unpopular Graves Registration man; Marg Helgenberger (CSI) as K.C., the fortune-hungry prostitute; Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) as Dr. Dick Richard, surgeon, womanizer, and occasional purveyor of wisdom; Concetta Tomei (Providence) as Major Lila Garreau, the commanding officer; Jeff Kober (Sons of Anarchy) as Dodger, the quiet warrior of the jungle; Brian Wimmer (Flipper) as Boonie the lifeguard; and Troy Evans (ER) as Bob Pepper, motor pool manager, among others.

Many of these names will sound familiar, and if not, then their faces will likely be recognizable. These are performers who are mostly at the beginning of their careers in China Beach but have continued to thrive in the industry. What this means is that the show is stocked with a solid cast that is excellent at making you care for their complex characters and root for their survival.

Not everyone stays around for the duration of the show, despite its short run, and cast members enter and exit with some frequency, in both guest parts and recurring capacities. However, that only adds to the realism of the series, as in a war-time environment, this is a part of life.

All sixty-two episodes are included on this twenty-one disc set. Relive the helicopter crash, suicide bomber, romance, drug abuse, prom night, leopard cub, race relations, kidnapping, parasite, betrayal, reporters, rogue Santa, a mixed-race baby, pirate radio, deaths, stand-up comedy, PTSD, a trip to the Vietnam Wall, and so much more. For those who already love the show, it’s a pleasurable stroll down memory lane, and a chance to possibly fill in some gaps, since it aired in the days before DVR. For new fans, such as myself, it’s a wonderful complete saga primed to dive into and fall in love with.

One of the hallmarks of China Beach is its fantastic music, pivotal to the way the stories are told. It is because of the problems in securing home video release rights of all of these songs that China Beach has proven so difficult to get released on DVD before now. However, the press materials report 268 songs have been cleared, an average of more than 4 per episode, so the soundtrack will be mostly intact in this release.

Not only that, but Time Life has given us a wealth of extras to complement the run, around ten hours in all. There are featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes, commentaries for the premiere and finale, and a gag reel, all spread across the four seasons, each packaged separately within the larger set. There are also two discs dedicated solely to bonus features, with a focus on last December’s 25th Anniversary reunion of the cast.

It’s great to see what the performers thought of the show, and their experiences filming it, all of these years later. Most of the principal players participate, including those who currently have busy careers. There should be plenty here to satisfy any fan.

The packaging itself is pretty cool, too. While the DVD cases are basic, they are housed in a beautiful wrap-around box, with magnetic closure. There’s a thirty-six page booklet with notes and images from the show, and you even get a pair of China Beach dog tags. Not shabby at all!

A Limited Edition version is available with signed scripts and cast photos. This is not the edition I got, so I cannot speak to the value of the extra materials, but they look cool in the picture posted online!

If there’s one complaint I have it’s that there doesn’t seem to be much effort put into restoring picture or audio quality. China Beach hails from before the days of high definition, but it isn’t that old, and other aged series have been restored before release. This one has not been, or not much anyway, and the presentation is not nearly as good as it should be, though it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen, either.

Overall, despite the visual problems, I find it easy to recommend this set. There’s a lot here, both in terms of story-telling and performance, as well as bonus features. It’s a compelling, dramatic series that will make you cry and think. I wish it had run longer, but I’m grateful there are as many installments as there are.

China Beach: The Complete Series is available now, exclusively online.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com
  • Bill Dye

    the worst thing about china beach series is ricki lakes fat annoying ass and tom sizemore, a loser otherwise series is perfect