China Beach (“Pilot”)

Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing:
 April 26, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 18.0/29 in Households

It was only thanks to BODY OF PROOF, of which I have watched about two episodes, that I ever got to learn about the existence of this very dramatic and emotional show. It was a darling with the television critics, a darling during the Emmy awards, and a potential hit with the audience — at least for some of the audience. Yet CHINA BEACH was not really a long-lasting show for some reason, and a few of those reasons might have already shown themselves during this 96-minute endeavour into the Vietnam War from the point of view of a beach full of doctors, nurses, entertainers and teenage soldiers. It made me wonder whether one of the reasons for the show’s cancellation was the budget. Yes, having a standing set is great and cuts down on the spending for future episodes, but having to shoot on exteriors for most of the episode might have inadvertently made the show a lot more expensive, even if there could have been ways to make it cheaper. Another reason for the show never having been a huge success could also be because of its narrative. There wasn’t much of a story to go through during the pilot, there was no murder to be solved and it wasn’t a Whodunit. It was a war experience from the point of view of veterans who went through the war and their experiences were being simulated by actors. If there is not a big story to go through and you instead focus on character and emotion, chances are the viewers won’t connect with it, simply because something like CHINA BEACH has ever been on the air before.

The pilot was slow, sometimes tedious, barely had major storylines, and knew how and when to focus on the characters. Almost nothing happened when you look at it from the angle of storytelling. A lot happened when you were hoping for character exposition and interpersonal drama. When I take COMBAT HOSPITAL for comparison, then the 2011 version of the setting “hospital in a war zone” does not only have more action, but also a lot more character stories (thanks to the twenty-first century though, as writers learned how to put more pep and spices into character storytelling, making character interactions more meaningful for the long run of the show. Also, COMBAT HOSPITAL had more action due to it being a medical drama). What I got during the first two hours of CHINA BEACH was essentially an introduction to the introduction. Heavily focused on the characters, to have them introduced to the audience, but when it comes to the setting, it’s like the writers were waiting for the next episode to kick themselves into gear. Because when you think of the show’s Vietnam War angle, almost nothing was seen, as the soldiers at China Beach were scarce, and the bombing during the final act seemed generic and swappable with any other bombing during the war, or maybe even a twenty-first century small-stakes terrorist attack.

In Vietnam, friends greet each other with knives in hand.

Besides that, my history with medical dramas defined my experience with this episode of television. ER being my all-time favorite television drama, and COMBAT HOSPITAL being the show I consider most underappreciated for a show from the 2010s, I was expecting a bit more from this, although I was able to adjust my expectations, knowing that CHINA BEACH is a 1980s show, and after the first one or two acts, realizing that it’s more a character study about the emotional torture of the war and not a hospital drama set in Vietnam during the 1960s, although it’s what I would love to see — another COMBAT HOSPITAL might not be such a shady idea at all, as it would combine one of my favorite television genres with the most failures of television shows, with the genre of war and action. Guns and gore? Hallelujah! Then again, all this doesn’t mean I was wholly disappointed with the show’s opening. In fact, the Red Cross portion of the episode could open up the show to intriguing storylines that have nothing to do with the war and medicine, and the entertainment section of China Beach could lead to some unconventional character drama, as viewers are being faced with the notion of prostitution being a thing, even among Americans during the war. I never realized that some bases might have something going on like that, and if you do realize it, you start wondering why no one would do something about it. Marg Helgenberger’s character is surely an intriguing point of the show right now, although it is to be expected that she won’t be the on-base girlfriend for hundreds of men for every episode. She must have more value as a person than that, right?

Anyway, Colleen McMurphy is the central character of the show, and she was an immediately likable character. Issue on top of issue, talented in her field, scared of the future in Vietnam, hopeful that everything will have an end at one point. I love my fair share of emotionally tortured characters, and McMurphy looked like she was about to burst into flames of emotion, ready to throw it all away, just to save herself from one more example of how terrible the war actually is. She might see the patients as part of her job, and the time might fly when she is treating them, but damn, if you have nothing to do and you sit on the beach, taking time for yourself, there is enough time to build yourself an opinion about the uselessness of war. That, and the moment she tried to take off her scrubs and failed to do so. I am expecting an emotional breakdown at one point, especially when she officially decides to stick around, because Dana Delany can’t just leave the show after a couple of episodes, right?

Elsewhere, Cherry could bring on the political aspects of the show’s premise, leading the viewers int depictions of war, as well as the horribleness that is the nightmare of men alone in the jungle. Holy crap, the show isn’t even two hours old, and Cherry was almost raped by a white asshole with power in his hands, because he was sitting in an official office, wearing a suit, probably financed by tax payers. McMurphy has her emotional issues with this place, but two days in, Cherry also gets something to deal with when thinking about Vietnam. Seen by the men as a looker, wanting to be used as such by the men, realizing that the Vietnam War is not just about fighting the Vietcong.

In a world full of green, silver glitter stands out.

Laurette felt like she was the real main character of the show, but the fact that Chloe Webb was credited as a special guest star made me wonder how long she will be on the show. It’s actually intriguing to think about the fact that CHINA BEACH will have a rotating door of characters, and the base is repeatedly being visited by new faces, both in the medical field, as well as when it comes to soldiers. Teenagers get killed in war, and the US needs to send new men, so it would only be logical to see more boys than just Jeff Kober’s character. Besides that, Laurette was also a weird character for me, being so into the notion of getting looked at by men, to dance and sing in front of a sea of men, and always thinking about men. Men everywhere. Men-o-rama. I have no idea if she joined because she was thinking of getting screwed by soldiers, or if there is a different angle to her character, if there is more to her decision to go to Vietnam than wanting to meet men every day.

The rest of the character pool was short on scenes or character depth, but this being the pilot, I can excuse it. Boonie seemed like a troubled scared young man, running away from the war while being in it, yet with distance. Sam Beckett (In a year and a half, he won’t be the only broadcast network TV character with that name) looks like he is about to lose it when he has to look at another corpse, but here those two men are, barely having been given attention. Other than that I love the setting, as it gives me a picture of a historic event I don’t have a lot of knowledge about. Vietnam War films might exist left and right, but they barely focus on the characters for multiple hours, or give them the opportunity to do more than just being emotionally abused by the work they do.

All in all, the pilot was here to make you think about what’s happening here, and how troubled its characters really are — but that can’t suffice a television show in its entirety, and knowing it’s a drama from the 1980s, I shall prepare myself with stories that don’t have value as soon as the episode ended. I would be surprised to find stories that keep the characters busy for more than just one episode, and stories that develop the field of characters. Will Boonie learn how to cope with the war? Will K.C. be more than just the base girl who gets paid for sex? Will Cherry grow out of her shy and hardened Red Cross cocoon and become an advocate for lost soldiers? Will McMurphy realize she is more than just “one of the guys?”There are three and a half seasons to find that out.

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