Over the course of the past few years, I have become an advocate of watching television seasons once they’re finished and you can do multiple episodes over a short period of time. It really is an entirely different way to watch the series and often you can see themes and ideas build in ways you might not otherwise notice watching 22 episodes over the course of 40 weeks. I have, however, finally found a television series which may be better watched slowly – China Beach.
Recently released to DVD in a full series boxed set, China Beach is the tale of the doctors, nurses, donut dollies, and other workers at a hospital/recovery center in Vietnam during the war. While the series has moments of levity on a fairly regular basis, on the whole it is downright depressing and watching the full four seasons (even if season one is a short one) over the course of a few weeks is a tough go.
Starring Dana Delany, Michael Boatman, Robert Picardo, Brian Wimmer, and Marg Helgenberger amongst others, it is well-acted, moderately well told, and just relentless. Barely an episode can go buy where we are not reminded of the horror of war or the inability of those on the home front to understand or racial discrimination or gender discrimination or the horror of war (there’s a lot of horror of war). It just keeps going for more than 60 episodes.
Well, that isn’t true. By the final season, in what seems to be an acknowledgment that a fifth season wouldn’t be forthcoming, the show jumps around in time from 1985 back to the war (actually sometimes earlier in the war than most of the series) and to more than one point in between in order to give us a more full look at the lives of the characters. While it is interesting, it can be both awkward and confusing with a lot time required on the viewer’s part in order to suss out just when any given scene is taking place in relation to what we’ve already seen both in the final season and in the prior ones. The acting remains excellent, Dana Delany (and the rest of the cast) are most definitely deserving of the accolades they received for their work even if the stories/plots aren’t the greatest.
Stepping back, in terms of characters, the series revolves around nurse Colleen McMurphy (Delany) and her experiences with patients and coworkers. Picardo is Dr. Dick Richard, an OBGYN who has had to become more of a general surgeon upon being drafted. Boatman is Pvt. Samuel Beckett who is in charge of preparing the deceased for transport, and Helgenberger is K.C. Kolowski, a working girl with enterprising ideas. Brian Wimmer plays Boonie Lanier, a happy-go-lucky lifeguard hiding his pain. Also present are Concetta Tomei as Major Lila Garreau who is in charge of things at the base, and Jeff Kober as Sgt. Dodger Winslow, a soldier who is regularly engaged in battle. Of course, that really isn’t enough if you’re going to talk about characters and cast — Megan Gallagher, Nancy Giles, Nan Woods, and others come and go and have interesting stories of their own. Whether the stories deal with the main characters, recurring ones, or single episode guest stars, the tales tend to be sad and dark and depressing.
I don’t want to minimize China Beach. Watching the special features included with the boxed set you can hear reactions decades later from those who worked on the series as well as people who were in the war and in the States during it. It is clear that the show is special and not only meant something to those who were working on it during its time of production, but also in the ensuing years. Watching the interviews with the cast and crew that are included in the DVD set are well worth one’s time and offer a great deal of insight into the series and its effect.
But, forget the reaction of those involved. China Beach is a powerful series and the fact that it is so hard to get through is proof of that. What the series requires is not going the four or five (or more) episodes a day, every day of the week route. They need to be far more spaced out than that, given far more time to digest. My reaction, it should be noted, is going to be different than those who were alive during the war and experienced that tumultuous period of history.
If you are looking for feel good television, China Beach is not the way to go. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a dark, brooding series that treats war in a serious manner, you’re going to enjoy your time on China Beach far more than the characters ever do.