TBT: China Beach (1988-91)

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Who here remembers China Beach, the late 1980s/early 1990s TV show set in a US army medical facility in Vietnam during the Vietnam war? Trystan has her M.A.S.H., I’ve got my love for China Beach. Someone in my college dorm had the series on VHS (yes, this was the 1990s), and we would all cram on her tiny single bed to binge episodes.

China Beach was set in the late 1960s (episode one started in 1967), and focused on the staff of an American evacuation hospital and Rest & Recreation station on My Khe beach (nicknamed “China Beach” by Americans) during the Vietnam War. In the first episode, we meet Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delaney), an army nurse who has just finished her tour of duty in Vietnam and is about to go home. Over the course of the episode, she changes her mind and decides to sign up for another tour, and over the course of the show’s four seasons we meet various characters, primarily American army personnel — both the doctors and nurses of the hospital as well as the soldiers and others who come through for medical attention and breaks from the war.

Sadly the show isn’t available for legal streaming, probably because of the expense of the music rights (which delayed its release on DVD for decades), although you can purchase it on DVD (why don’t I own a DVD player??) and find it on some Russian sites.  So while I can’t rewatch the show, I can remember it fondly for truly emotional drama that gave me just some inkling of what it might be like to go through such an intense experience. There are some interviews with the filmmakers and cast on YouTube from when the DVD was released, which are pretty interesting.

The show was costumed by Paula Lynn Kaatz and Darryl Levine, who won an Emmy for the pilot episode. Sadly that’s about all I can find out about their work, so let’s just take a wander down memory lane:

1988-91 China Beach

Colleen McMurphy: she’s strong, brave, caring, and like everyone on the show, has her own war trauma to deal with.

1988-91 China Beach

There’s the will they/won’t they banter and sexual tension with surgeon Dick Richard…

1988-91 China Beach

Who is played by Robert Picardo, and I am freaked out every time I see him on Star Trek because he IS his China Beach character to me | Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

1988-91 China Beach

Then you’ve got K.C. (Marg Helgenberger), part-time prostitute who’s always looking out for number one, except…

1988-91 China Beach

She’s drawn to Boonie (Brian Wimmer, right) super cutie, lifeguard, and former soldier dealing with trauma.

1988-91 China Beach

Cherry White (Nan Woods) is the super innocent Red Cross volunteer who’s just arrived from the States and has to grow up really fast | Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

1988-91 China Beach

Probably the most compelling character is Dodger (Jeff Kober), a soldier wrestling with PTSD who comes in and out of the hospital/station. Watching McMurphy try to help him with his emotional wounds has stayed with me to this day.

1988-91 China Beach

Samuel Beckett (Michael Boatman) has to deal with racism and death constantly.

1988-91 China Beach

After McMurphy, Laurette Barber (Chloe Webb, aka Nancy Spungen in Sid and Nancy) is probably my favorite character. She’s a Janis Joplin wannabe with dreams of stardom. She comes to Vietnam to entertain the troops and, she hopes, become famous. The episode where she comes to understand the true horrors of the war is probably my favorite, and made me WEEP.

1988-91 China Beach

In part of that episode, she loses one of her backup singers and enlists McMurphy to join her act | Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Which leads to this wonderful scene, which is immediately followed by an attack and the harsh realities of the hospital’s work:

1988-91 China Beach

Core cast members from season one.

If you can get your hands on an episode or season of China Beach, watch it. You’ll be glad you did!

 

 

Did you catch China Beach and remember it as fondly as I do?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

10 Responses

  1. Holly Nicole

    The theme song popped into my head as soon as I saw that first picture of Dana. I loved that show (and her) and I had to have only been like 12 or 13 when it was on? Haven’t re-watched it since, but I bet there was a LOT that went over my head. Didn’t remember Robert Picardo being on the show, to me he will always be the PE teacher from the Wonder Years.

    Reply
    • Lily Lotus Rose

      Yes, gotta echo HollyNicole, though I think I was probably 11 or 12 when it came out. It was a “grown up” show that got my attention. To me, Dana Delaney will always be the nurse from this show. I just remember it being well done and interesting, though, as Holly said, I’m sure so much of it went over my head. Would love to re-watch this as an adult.

      Millenial YouTuber Jenny Nicholson did a very long video essay called “THE Vampire Diaries Video.” In her essay she mentions that whatever platform she watched it on kept playing promo ads for China Beach at nearly every commercial break. This was outrageous because, of course, she’d never heard of China Beach before and because the audience for The Vampire Diaries is definitely NOT the audience for China Beach! She then used the China Beach ads to hilarious effect throughout her own video essays. It made me smile. You can check it out here: https://youtu.be/p4AdFD3E2ok

      Reply
  2. Michael McQuown

    Yes, although we got a bit fed up with Delaney’s character later on; she got too much time feeling sorry for herself.

    Reply
  3. SarahV

    I will NEVER forget the scene where Laurette was pressed into service to comfort a horrifically wounded dying soldier and she was trying to ease him as much as she can by discussing a singer he saw at a USO show and how she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and he directed her to a snapshot her took of this fantasy woman and she looked and it was a picture of HER. NEVER FORGET IT. Chloe Webb was haunting.

    Reply
  4. gelasticjew

    I have a vague memory of this show being on but … didn’t watch it? Maybe it was opposite something I liked better, or maybe I was just busy being a new mom during those years. But Brian Wimmer! I loved him in Late for Dinner. I might have to watch this just to see more of his work.

    Reply
  5. Melponeme_k

    I watched this show the first year it was on and then kind of fell away from it. But it was a good show. It was a very raw show in the beginning. There was one episode in which McMurphy (in the first of many episodes of feeling sorry for herself), got drunk and danced in the rec hall in front of a lot of (very depressed) soldiers. It was really awful of her and it impressed me that they would toss in a lot of anti-heroine scenes for her.

    I never got the romantic vibe between the Dr. and McMurphy. So when I watched some of the later episodes that whole development surprised me.

    Reply
  6. red*razors

    We watched it in the early 90’s in Ireland and were completely obsessed with it at the time. I was about 11 or 12? Just seeing the name China Beach gets Reflections playing in my head – perfect choice of theme song and a testament to the strong links between music and memory. I don’t remember much about the actual show except for Dodger and the war setting, but I remember the excitement of waiting for it to air every week.

    Reply

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