I never understood why more often than not, on lists of the greatest TV shows, greatest characters, or greatest anything TV connected, poor China Beach seems to get no love. How can a critically acclaimed show about an historic event so unforgettable be so often forgotten? With the cast recently reuniting for the first time in 25 years, there’s no better time to look back at one of my favorite series of all time. Hopefully, I’ll get the recently released box set for Christmas (and be able to finally get rid of that bootleg first season I’ve had for years).
I wasn’t a fan at first. When it originally aired, I was about 14 and initially thought ‘Who wants to watch a show about a war?’ A long, plodding hour-long drama on late night Mondays that seemed to be going nowhere. But whether it was sheer boredom or nothing else being on, I started watching and quickly discovered China Beach wasn’t M*A*S*H or Tour of Duty. Looking past the army fatigues, ignoring the loud helicopters and explosions, I saw this show was less about the war itself and more about how the lives of medical staff, people in military service, and civilians were affected by it.
In the middle of all the chaos and carnage were characters, sometimes complex, often complicated, and always conflicted. Just when I wanted to write off KC as nothing more than a cheap two bit hooker in a red cheongsam, she’d surprise me with depth. When I wanted to think of McMurphy as nothing but courageous, she showed how afraid she really was. And I was sure that gruff sergeant Pepper could only be cruel and uncaring, but he showed his hidden kindness when you least expected it. As a moody teen, I simply knew I liked the show. But it was in re-watching it as an adult that I recognized and appreciated the brilliant writing and nuanced acting. China Beach gave me a lot of firsts. One of my first TV crushes in Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy aka Dana Delany, the first character death that saddened and disturbed me to no end in the episode “Cherry”, and “Holly’s Choice” was the first time I’d ever seen an entire episode of any show run backward, starting with the end sequence and finishing at the beginning.
In its final season, unlike most series that let characters that viewers came to love forever live on just as we imagined them, the writers of China Beach chose to show us who these characters became after the war. These episodes were less compelling and slightly disappointing. I didn’t need to see KC pull up in a limo and fur coat as a sign of wealth attained through her business, McMurphy’s crow’s feet, or Dr. Richard’s receding hairline, among other depressing facts of how time caught up to everyone. Though created to give a voice to the real life experiences of many of the forgotten, particularly the nurses who served in Vietnam, it will always be a show that taught me about how common experience can create long lasting bonds and how volatile life can be. Maybe it’s better that China Beach never had the appreciation of the masses. Without it, it has developed a sort of cult status, a true sign that any show is more than good, but great.