China Beach (“Chao Ong”)

Season 1, Episode 7
Date of airing: June 8, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 11.1/20 in Households

The writers managed to craft a very well-done season of television, if this season had been the only one and ABC would not have renewed CHINA BEACH for a second season. Thank the heavens I am completely spoiler-free when it comes to the show (I only know of the series finale premise, as well as which character is removed from the show in a specific season for a specific reason), because I do not know whether Laurette will return in the next season premiere, or if this was truly the end of her story, and the writers not only closed the season like they would have closed the series (just in case of cancellation), but they also gave the viewers closure, as well as a look of how goodbyes looked like in Vietnam and probably any other situation in which you have to say goodbye to a friend. By the way, I was impressed that this episode was in fact the season finale, instead of the previous one. It’s almost like this season had two finales, but now I can sort of understand why the writers decided to finish Cherry’s arc in the previous episode — it was a big series arc after all, and maybe the writers didn’t want it to carry over to the next season, and there was no room to finish the story in this episode. Which is perfect, because Laurette needed this big a goodbye episode, as she was a charming character, always a good sport, always with a positive attitude, which you can’t find anywhere in Vietnam (and if Laurette’s goodbye story would have been paired up with Rick White’s story, the different styles of both stories would have been biting each other). All this makes me wonder whether she will return though. If she is back in the next season premiere, all the goodbye moments she had in this episode would be negated. I mean, the “With a Little Help from My Friends” scene was freaking great. It would be less great when Laurette shows up in China Beach to hug Boonie in the next episode, continuing their romance.

It’s a date with the women of the beach.

I can also imagine that the remainder of CHINA BEACH would look like how the first third of the episode looked like: A medical emergency opens up the episode, and as soon as that section of the episode is done, the characters move on to some personal free time, making out, talking with each other about each other, followed by scenes in which the group hangs out during their time off, with a few jokey scenes in them, like the women sending the men on their ways — which was both hilarious and weird, and scenes like that need to be in the show more often. Also, it felt great that McMurphy wasn’t blasted with an emotional angle of her story, that Cherry didn’t need to deal with the fear of finding her brother dead on a gurney, that Beckett didn’t seem to have an emotionally traumatic experience among his dead men. Throwing away the emotional character depth ballast away for this episode made for a better hour, although I can see it was being thrown away for the sake of Laurette’s goodbye arc, which was already emotional enough (an I did almost cry when she sang “With a Little Help from My Friends”). With all that in mind, the writers might have thrown out that ballast, knowing this was the season finale, knowing they would need new and better arcs for the characters with the next season. In a way, the second season starts with a clean slate, which can be a good or a bad thing. For the sake of this season, it was a great thing.

Anyway, McMurphy had to deal with a missing body, and it quickly tuned into a bureaucratic story, which quickly ended with the predictable ending of the body turning up alive at the end of the hour. I knew that would happen, because there are only two reasons a body walks away from a Vietnam base: One, the body took medication to slow down the heart rate and pulse for the sake of desertion, and as a dead body you have an easier way of getting through the hurdle of deserting he war. Two, someone stole the dead body for whatever reason. Both are different stories, and both are bigger stories that fill airtime, but since this episode needed to focus on Laurette, there was no time to have Lazaro be a bigger character here, trying to run way from the terror that is Vietnam. By the way, the line “I didn’t even know I was dead until this kid from Missoula came out to replace me” was pretty hilarious. If that ever happens to you — a new guy or woman replacing you at your job — you know that everyone thought you were dead. By the way, did Lazaro’s parents back home got the sad news of their son having died in Vietnam? Was the letter of condolences already sent when McMurphy threw her eyes at the mossing, still living body?

Learning what life in Vietnam really looks like can be heartbreaking.

All in all, this might have been, along with “Home”, the best episode of the season, and while I see “Home” as the prime example of what the show should look like narrative-wise, this episode shows what CHINA BEACH can be when the writers don’t want to particularly care about deep and emotional stories, and just want to show the activity on the base, which are mostly random and forgettable, because that’s what life should be on a military base or in a hospital. People come and go, the revolving door is always moving. And every once in a while the goodbye arc of a certain character gets expanded to an entire hour because you got to love and appreciate the character over these last few days, weeks and months.

China Beach (“Brothers”)

Season 1, Episode 6
Date of airing: June 1, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 10.5/19 in Households

This episode felt like it was the intended season finale of this midseason of television, judging by the premise of Cherry finding her brother and letting go, as well as the final image of the hospital workers running towards the injured soldiers, ending up in a freeze frame, which is usually something you would do to reinforce the image of what most of the characters are about, when the show isn’t about the character arcs: McMurphy is still a nurse, Dick is still a doctor, albeit without a wife at home, and China Beach is mostly a base that is famous for its hospital (and maybe the bar).

The episode was okay. I didn’t mind that Cherry’s story of searching for her brother has found an end here, because now the show can focus on why she is really in Vietnam, and how she is growing out of her shell and becoming an accepted member of the China Beach family while successfully connecting with soldiers who think they already lost themselves in the wilderness of the war before they were dragged out of the black hole by the angel that is Cherry. That should be her arc in the second season, all while Cherry may be losing herself, having to deal wth all these traumatic storylines coming her way thanks to all the traumatized soldiers. At least that’s how I would approach the show in the second season, if I would have had a hand in it. Still, I was hoping for a bit more excitement in the end of Cherry’s reason for her stay in Vietnam. It was somewhat to be expected that Rick got lost in the craziness of the Vietnam world, especially after she (and Lyla and Laurette) met Captain Osborne’s men after the chopper crash a few episodes ago, but I was thinking that the drama between Cherry and Rick could have been bigger and better, and there could have been a more clear picture of Rick having lost himself fully and entirely to the black and dark world of Vietnam, instead of seeming like he still has some of the mugs in the cupboard, when he talked to Cherry at the end and pretty much said goodbye to her. But all this doesn’t negate the fact that Cherry finding, and yet still losing, her brother in this episode was a great premise. One that hopefully helps along her arc and pushes her forward to the next story arc.

Time for basketball in the scathing heat of a war zone.

Meanwhile, Dick returned after an episode off, and of course his story had to restart with a divorce. When he said he learned a new word, I immediately thought that word was “divorce” (knowing that he had R&R to get back to his wife for a few weeks), but when he said “Aloha,” I had to remember that the word also means “goodbye,” so in a way it’s still the same. It’s nice to see that the characters (and soldiers) have to deal with troubles at home, too, which I see as one of the cliches of the genre, as it was a stereotype of real life as well — soldiers are gone for too long, and their girlfriends and wives simply said goodbye to them, because it’s not like they were always able to live without their soldier husbands and boyfriends on the battlefield. One can only hope Dick isn’t the only one having to deal with this issue, and that there will be soldiers here and there getting letters from home with bad news. Like the three soldiers Cherry was talking to at the end. Something like this is a good way to fill some airtime with guest characters, since it’s the most approachable storyline which you could do a lot with.

Meanwhile, Laurette’s story was here for comic relief, and I was happy to see that the very complex and deep CHINA BEACH can also do comedy. I was certainly amused by the playback show turned comedy skit (albeit the predictability of it happening during the number), and I was almost laughing out loud when both Lyla and Boonie contradicted themselves about how to treat Laurette’s laryngitis, and in comes Dick, only interested in talking about the divorce, and finding a good person to talk to in Laurette, since she couldn’t respond anyway. The show needs those kind of comedic moments more often, which is why I’m hoping the second season has some of them. After seven episodes of the show in this season, the writers had chances to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and employed the lessons they have learned for the rest of the show. Episodes like “Home” worked beautifully, while K.C. going on a trip into town to make some deals did not work for me at all.

Dick offers his alcoholic services to the woman who lost her voice.

Finally, the story Beckett was involved in. I liked seeing Glenn Plummer in here, and I was saddened that his character ended up dead and blown up, making me wonder whether Fluke had a hand in Omar’s death and all of this wasn’t just an accident. If that’s the case, this shouldn’t be the only episode dealing with the story and the aftermath of it, and Fluke might be able to become a recurring antagonistic figure in the show. It would certainly give more credence to Beckett’s character arc, as he wouldn’t just be dealing with the emotions of his “men,” but also be involved in an active storyline. Besides that, I can assume that trafficking drugs out of Vietnam with the help of fallen soldiers was a big thing back in the day, and who knows what gangs back in the United States made in money with the help of a multi-year war. It’s another storyline the writers were ale to fill airtime with, and this time around it’s a story that could have depicted the dark side of the American involvement in Vietnam.

China Beach (“Waiting for Beckett”)

Season 1, Episode 5
Date of airing: May 18, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 11.9 rating in Households

After “Home,” this is the second episode for which the writers have decided to follow a specific story and have it angle itself around a few characters, including them in the premise of the episode, before they were either forgotten due to the proceduralized nature of the show, or not included because there wasn’t much time for them. Cherry and Beckett might have been the focal points of the episode with their own narratives, but midway through the episode their narratives joined together and suddenly there was a moment during which you could have believed the characters were dealing with the same problem. All this made for an entertaining hour of television, and one can only hope the future of the show will be similar, and even includes some serialized storytelling or even character development. Because at one point, Cherry must come out of her shell, since she would end up with the most experience of all, as she is witnessing the terror and horror that is Vietnam when she is still a teenager. And let’s not forget she is still a teenager. Nan Woods doesn’t look like one, but her character is one. Her status as a teenager gets lost repeatedly during the show, probably because the writers never knew what kind of teenage-ish stories to tell for a character that is part of the Vietnam war.

Beckett is thinking about learning how to surf.

I loved the premise of desertion in this episode, as I was hoping for it to be a premise of the show sooner or later, since I can only imagine how much of an issue it must have been during the war years American soldiers found themselves in. The story itself might not have been much of a burner, let alone exciting enough to give this episode all the awards, but there was something about the character of Cross that made me both think he was for real, as well as he was a piece of crap who decided to use another person to get what he wants, and only what he wants. And here I was, wondering during the beginning why he was talking about Rick, and why Cherry was suddenly “in peace” that her brother was safe, and alive, and living the life somewhere. Kind of like I was wondering how McMurphy and Natch were suddenly dating, even if they just kissed once in the middle of the episode, but it did look like they have been smootching around for a while now. But it turns out that Cross was a clever-enough character to fool his way into a young woman’s heart, just so he can use her to get out of this hell hole. He decided to be a liar and a cheater and a fraud to save his own life and his sanity. It’s a conflicting character arc, especially when an MP lieutenant comes around and decides to talk about deserters like slave owners talked about slaves in the 1700s.

Anyway, Cross was the bad apple Lieutenant Price might have talked about, when he was talking about bartender Kim, who has gotten her own miniaturized story arc thanks to the deserter angle. It’s funny though, as soon as he mentioned “bad apple,” the next scene had Cross in it, following Cherry, reading the letters she got, making me think that Cross is the “bad apple” of this episode, probably because he is a traumatized guy about to do something horrible after being sequestered to horrible things in the jungle, and judging from the real-world terrors, my mind was instantly going towards assault and rape. Because it’s not like Cherry is gonna be able to defend herself. She might have been lucky in the pilot, when she ran away from the creep working in the embassy, but a mindless, traumatized and scared soldier attacking her? That’s a whole ‘nother level of dangerous darkness for a teenager like Cherry who has a bit of a difficulty to open up, despite the fact that she was almost dancing with all the other soldiers in the beginning.

Cherry learns what Vietnam is really about.

But Cross didn’t turn out to be that kind of “bad apple” and instead he just became something of a con man, using Cherry for his attempted gain of freedom. I loved how some of the other main characters were involved in the story, and how Cherry has won enough confidence to even ask all of her new friends to help her out in that regard. On the other side of the aisle, Lt. Price seemed like an asshole, even when he proved himself to be a little lifesaver at the end, showing up at the perfect time, before Cherry would have ended up as a hostage or with a bullet in her body. But really, assuming that no black guy ever deserts was kind of racist. Then again, there was some truth to Kim’s quote when she said that blacks get killed first, therefore they don’t get the chance to desert the war and save their own lives or sanities. I’m wondering what that might have done to Beckett’s psyche — if he had attempted to run away, would he have been killed instantly? Death by military police? Could that have been a real-life parable to unarmed black people getting shot to death by police? Could that be a fictional parable to the real-life problem of police killing black Americans?

By the way, I can only hope Beckett is about to crack, because it would be the only story of his making sense at the moment. He is already very confused and scared, and no one on base is really listening to him, even after some of them are starting to get worried about him. It makes for an interesting character arc, but the fact that the show hasn’t dwelled into character arcs yet makes me wonder whether this will be part of the show. And it would be dumb to get rid of Beckett first, since he is the only black token character of the show right now.

Finally, I have to say that I really loved the closing montage of people in need of some light moments in their life, accompanied by Laurette’s singing, Boonie’s harmonica and the guitar that came out of nowhere. It was a great song and it fit with the imagery of the final moments.

China Beach (“Somewhere Over the Radio”)

Season 1, Episode 4
Date of airing: May 11, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 14.0/24 in Households

You can notice how the writers were trying to get some focus on the storytelling and put a framing device around it, so the episodes look like an experience with a beginning, a middle and an end. The episode began and ended with Laurette talking about Boonie from the off, and the episode was bookended with the two scenes, so maybe this episode was supposed to be more about Boonie than everyone else, so the viewers can finally learn (after five hours) why Boonie is the way he is, and this even though Boonie probably had the least amount of screentime of all the central characters who appeared in this episode (maybe the character with the second-lowest amount of screentime, because the red lantern should belong to K.C.). But alas, the episode didn’t go into it, the writers lost the storytelling device of developing Boonie’s character through Laurette’s point of view, and at the end of the day this episode seemed like waiting a few hours in the night for something to happen. On the base, K.C. and McMurphy were pretty much waiting for news, and at the crash site, the women were waiting for news of their rescue. And in the meantime, the events at both sites were kind of weird. It was all a waiting game. Sometimes something exciting happened — the chopper crash and the live ammunition in Dick’s hands, but there can be something said about the dull excitement the characters were going through.

The women are getting the ride of their lives.

A lot of things can be said about the soldiers in the jungle as well. They were weird, because they have seen some shit and probably can’t get over it, getting lost in this country in the process. They were weird, because their emotions have been messed with, and as soon as they get home, if they ever get home, they won’t be the people they were when they left, which means their families and friends will be shocked to see that the boys they once knew before going into the battlefield have died already, and what would come home is only a shell of their former boys. It’s a simple premise for a story filled with war and death, and I am wondering whether CHINA BEACH will go into it again in the future, as my assumption of what Captain Osborne’s men have become was given to me via Dee Jay’s behavior, as well as the one soldier who gave Cherry the necklace of fingers (that was one hell of a brutal scene, and nothing happened except a necklace of finger changed ownership). Anyway, one can only hope that this story will open Laurette’s eyes a little bit, and she will finally be direct with her questions to Boonie, as it is time for him to face his fears and stuff. He already loaded his pistols, he suited up, got on a chopper and went back into the field, and that might have cost some courage. From here on, Boonie should learn about some character development, and either it enriches his relationship with Laurette or it doesn’t.

Meanwhile, the events at the base could have been elaborated more on. The emergency operation on the dude with the live round in his body was certainly interesting, but shows like ER and GREY’S ANATOMY made spectacles out of it and are therefore more entertaining for my easily impressionistic mind — hell, the latter show even created a two-parter and evacuated the entire hospital for a grenade that at best could have only blown up a tiny wing of a huge hospital (which it did). Dick’s run to the grenade pit was interesting though, despite my rolling the eyes, because he apparently didn’t know whether to just drop on the ground to protect himself from the shockwave of the explosion, or run back into the hospital, which would have cost more time. He is a little lucky that he survived.

Get your arm in there to reach the explosive!

By the way, is Dick only having an R&R, which means a return is inevitable, or did the writers really want to get rid of the character for a few episodes, and maybe forever? I get that an R&R can be life-saving for a soldier here and there, because smelling the air of peace and family way back home, and far away from the war zone as possible, can be a reminder that the good still exist (Captain Osborn’s soldiers obviously didn’t have an R&R ever since they got there), but Dick’s words to McMurphy to make life hell for the new guy seemed like he won’t be coming back so soon, and maybe opens up the possibility of a major character being absent for the rest of the already shortened season. And you know what, knowing that there are only three episodes left in the season, if I would have been the writer, I would not have brought him back in that time, and only got back to using the character with the new season. It would be realistic to show that a base goes through soldiers, and there aren’t always the same ones keeping the guest characters busy. The revolving door is continuously circling around, removing characters and adding new ones.CHINA BEACH shouldn’t be different just because it is a television show.

China Beach (“Hot Spell”)

Season 1, Episode 3
Date of airing: May 4, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 12.6/22 in Households

I kind of didn’t understand what was going on for most of the time, and I am wondering why — was it because I didn’t pay much attention during this episode or did the writers and producers really attempt to be this cryptic and serious and moral-laden throughout the show, while also trying not to bring too much politics into the story, as the politics of the Vietnam war were shitty at times? Besides that, I am not so sure whether politics on the battlefield is actually a thing. I can imagine soldiers and Red Cross workers and doctors and nurses talk about politics at home here and there, but was it ever of importance on the battlefield? Did the soldiers ever care to get into the politics of why they were there or did they not have the time to do so, because the next trip through the jungle was scheduled for two hours from now, and chances were you’d be dead in four hours anyway?

What I didn’t get during this episode was K.C.’s efforts to get the old dynasty vase, and what the story had to do with Cherry’s missing brother Rick. I could assume that K.C. was trying to find out whether Rick was AWOL and joined the smugglers and black market dealers of Vietnam, as I can also imagine some more soldiers were doing that to a) get out of the fight and live a life, and b) because maybe those people have lived messed-up lives, so they decided to voluntarily get into messed-up situations, and dealing on the back market during a war might be one of those things. But it also looked like K.C.was working towards getting the hell out of Vietnam, although I do as myself why she couldn’t have used the money for the antique vase to get a plane ticket out of there and settle somewhere in America to start anew. The writers didn’t really want to connect my assumptions with the actual story, and at the end of the day, Cherry showing up at K.C.’s deal and screwing it all up seemed super random, missing any logic, and sort of dropped into the episode to force an emotional and personal connection between K.C. and Cherry.

Some friends need a cold breeze every once in a while.

I also didn’t get much out of the women in the bunker during the bombing, because the change in topics seemed random as well, besides the characters not at all going deeper into what they were so close to talking about. Still, that scene was great in general, as it established what CHINA BEACH can be about as long as the writers were figuring out how to put focus into the show. The scene with Cherry, K.C., Lyla, Laurette and McMurphy as a whole showcased that CHINA BEACH is about the women in the war, which is something the previous three hours did not do this heavily or noteworthy. The scene also showed what the series can do when it focuses on the characters and brings them closer to the audience. Hearing them talk about their first boyfriends and the first time they had sex definitely brought over some depth, and because Cherry didn’t have a story to tell about that, it reminded me once more that she is supposed to be a teenager still. 18, maybe 19 years old, without any experience in life, probably scared all of the times, because she is in a world she doesn’t understand, only here with one mission, and she gets confused and maybe a little angry, because no one wants to help her. I mean, K.C. seemed to not have interest in asking for Rick, and it’s not like anybody else on the base is interested in trying to help Cherry looking for her brother.

So here I am, scratching my head about this episode, which showcased what CHINA BEACH wants to be about, but also showing that CHINA BEACH also wants to be a mainstream, broadcast network television drama with complex storytelling that doesn’t just bring you inside a particular and easy to digest story. There are two sides to the show right now, and at this very moment those two sides are biting each other, which is why I hope the writers figured out what they wanted to tell with the premise, after CHINA BEACH was renewed for a second season. I would also hope that the emotional ballast created during the bomb shelter scene, as well as the emotional ballast that came out of the previous episode with McMurphy helping the pregnant Viet Cong nurse, isn’t just thrown aside with the next episode, because the writers figured they could tell a proceduralized drama like any other television drama in the 1980s and earlier, like TOUR OF DUTY has been doing it for almost an entire season.

Romance at the beach is hard when people die a football field away.

What I really loved about this episode was that one moment Laurette mentioned Boonie, and K.C. looked at Laurette like she was the next big villain on base when it comes to her own romantic love interest, which K.C. May or may not see in Boonie. Laurette obviously has interest in Boonie, trying to have him open up about his feelings, but there is also K.C., and she must have some kind of history with Boonie, judging by their little talk in the pilot, let alone her reaction when Laurette mentioned she was interested in Boonie. Not that I have the hots for a love triangle, but damn, Boonie is guaranteed to be an emotionally troubled character, and here are two women thinking differently of him, maybe even seeing themselves as his savior. There is definitely potential in that story, and I am intrigued to find out where it will go.

China Beach (“Home”)

Season 1, Episode 2
Date of airing: April 27, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 15.0 rating in Households

It doesn’t happen often that a new television show delivers a stunning second episode. CHINA BEACH just catapulted itself onto a list with very few shows on it, because this episode was indeed astonishing from beginning to the emotional end. The premise of a Viet Cong nurse attacking a couple of American soldiers, just to turn around and not be seen as the villain of the story, was quite fascinating, even if it was just a story to showcase McMurphy’s reformed opinion about the woman, let alone how she might be seeing her job. It’s one thing to hate the enemy, and it seems to be normal to do so as well, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to just do the job and be there for your patient, and at the end of the day McMurphy might have learned something about life: Even when you hate a person this much, because that person may have killed your friend, your opinion can still be formed and reformed later, and life is a lot different only a day later. Nothing is written on paper and everything is being decided by what is happening right now. The base has a party going on at the bar, with Laurette singing “I’ll Be There,” but what people did not know is that a couple dozen feet to the right or left, one of them almost died, but was saved by a Viet Cong nurse.Life has always a few surprises. Is that a universal language for a cover not being the book?

Together they will pray for a comrade’s soul.

Seriously though, McMurphy’s story was great. She went through quite a journey during these 47 minutes, initially hating the woman for having killed one of the guys she knew, but then letting her walk, because she helped one of the guys she knew, and she knows that life as a Viet Cong in an American prison camp will be the end of this new mother’s life. Besides that, the scene of McMurphy giving the Viet Cong nurse her newborn was the center of the episode and it happened to be a powerful moment of humanity. All this time you believed that McMurphy wouldn’t do crap to help the woman and instead let her suffer, but guilt-ridden, she helped deliver the baby, and then she recognized the human in this evil Vietnamese woman who killed Dewey. It’s probably a good thing that the Viet Cong nurse happened to be a human as well, and it helps establishing CHINA BEACH as the Vietnam War series to be taken seriously when it comes to veterans and what they really went through, compared to the action hour that was TOUR OF DUTY. By the way, I do believe there was another story hidden inside the depiction of the Viet Cong nurse, because really, how old was she in this episode? Yes, she was a nurse, so she had training, but I can’t imagine her being older than the mid twenties, which means as a Viet Cong killing Americans, she might have been brainwashed by her superiors, only realizing at China Beach that her actions have been wrong, and that Americans are not as evil as she might have been told they are. If Americans are capable of saving your life and putting your newborn into your arms, they can’t be the devil, right?

The ending of the story had me wishing that CHINA BEACH is something of a serialized character study, as I would want to know what happens to McMurphy when superiors find out she let this prisoner of war go. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t get into any trouble, because McMurphy, if she is a bit conniving, could easily blame the MP on the job, but still, there has to be something of an aftermath, since the Viet Cong nurse was a prisoner of war and the American prison was expecting her and her newborn baby. Does anyone even care that she snuck out, potentially regrouping with the enemy to plan another attack, or did she realize the fault of her ways and tries to be a mother to her newborn? Will the Americans even care? Will they even notice that they lost a prisoner of war?

Even the enemy can be a loving parent.

The rest of the episode was good enough, but I noticed that the writers forgot to include some of the other characters besides Laurette in the episode. Boonie and Beckett didn’t have a lot of screentime here, let alone did they have meaningful moments in their character arcs, and even Cherry was disappointingly pushed into the background, and here I was hoping that her tour through the base with the commanding officer would lead to her learning more about the business. Although I am still fascinated by her relationship with Jeff Kober’s character. The two were looking after Roger together, as if an actual romance was about to blossom, or at least something that would resemble Cherry’s understanding of what soldiers really have to go through in the jungle while fearing they will never reach their twentieth birthday. I’m not expecting that she and Dodge would ever get romantically involved, since it would be weird, but here is this young Red Cross helper, building a connection to one of the soldiers who has definitely seen some shit. And that I want to see more expanded throughout the show.

Laurette’s search for an act puts the fun in the show, and I don’t mind at all. CHINA BEACH can’t be dark and screwed-up in every minute, so getting some light-hearted fun into an episode is not a wrong thing to do, especially when it’s part of a musical storyline. Besides that, Laurette could turn out to be a pop star in this series universe, making her a valuable member of the crew of China Beach. Everyone comes to the bar to see her, and Laurette is the one keeping everything together, keeping the men happy and laughing and dancing, before and after they kill the next Viet Cong, or see their best friend die in an explosion. That makes for an interesting character.

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.