December is Top 10 season for TV critics, as we look back on the past year to figure out the best (and sometimes) worst shows we saw. 2013 was an extraordinarily deep year in television, one where I could have easily cooked up 3 or 4 different lists without having a dud among them. Yet as I whittled my list (which you’ll see next week) down to 10, I had to keep fighting the temptation to find a very high ranking for a 25-year-old TV show: “China Beach,” the Vietnam War drama which finally arrived on DVD earlier this year.
Now, if I start allowing archival stuff I took a look at on an annual list, then every year my top 10 is going to have “The Wire,” “Cheers,” et al right at the top. But as I dove through the five-disc “China Beach” set, rewatching these episodes for the first time in decades, it stacked up incredibly well against many of the current representatives of this extended golden age of TV drama.
“China Beach” was a series out of time in 1988, and in some ways it still is in 2013. Though critics loved it – especially Dana Delany’s performance as laconic Army nurse Colleen McMurphy – it was never much of a hit, and even Emmy voters didn’t know quite what to make of it: Delany won a couple of trophies, but the series tended to lose to “LA Law,” a show that hasn’t aged remotely as well. It had a scope, grandeur and sense of narrative courage we tend to associate with modern cable dramas – “You would absolutely be at cable trying to make a show like this now,” insists producer John Wells on one of the many bonus features – but also the kind of nobility we generally associate with broadcast network shows. There’s moral complexity – it’s a show about Vietnam, after all – but Marg Helgenberger’s cynical prostitute KC is the only one who seems even vaguely in the anti-hero neighborhood that’s so popular today. All the rest – McMurphy, wisecracking surgeon Dr. Richard (Robert Picardo), lifeguard Boonie (Brian Wimmer), Red Cross volunteer Cherry (Nan Woods) and recon Marine Dodger (Jeff Kober), among others – are good people trying to help each other and make the best of a terrible situation. (And even KC has her moments, though the show very deftly steps around any and all “hooker with a heart of gold” clichés.)
Because the series wasn’t that popular, but mainly because its soundtrack featured wall-to-wall ’60s classics that weren’t licensed for home video use, a DVD release never materialized, even in the period when every mediocre-to-bad show was coming out on disc. (For goodness’ sake, “Pink Lady and Jeff” is on DVD.) There was an attempt a decade ago – the current set features a number of commentaries recorded in 2003, as well as ones recorded more recently – but it didn’t work out. The music was just too expensive.
That’s been a stumbling block for a lot of classics with busy soundtracks. In many cases, someone eventually gives up and strips most or all of the original music out, just so people can see the episodes. “The Wonder Years,” which aired on ABC at the same time, and was set stateside in the same period, still features some of its old music, but often substitutes covers or soundalike instrumentation, and the difference is palpable. Music was such an important character on “China Beach,” so crucial to so many big emotional moments, that I can’t imagine the show without it. How could I watch the season 2 scene where McMurphy, on leave in the States, dances with a wheelchair-bound veteran, and not hear Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”? (See a VHS version of that clip right below.) How could I watch the season 4 scene where a middle-aged, alcoholic McMurphy contemplates leaping off the wagon if the bar’s radio wasn’t playing “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane?
The DVDs retain nearly all the original music – not just Diana Ross & the Supremes singing “Reflections” over the opening credits, but tunes by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and more – but it isn’t cheap as a result. The complete set (four seasons plus two discs of additional bonus material), available at ChinaBeachOnDVD.com, retails for $200. StarVista and Time Life, which assembled the gorgeous set, are beginning to release the seasons individually: season 1 retails for $24.95, though you can of course get it for a discount through various online retailers, and the remaining seasons will come out at various points next year, and will likely be more expensive (season 1 only had 6 episodes, where the remaining seasons ranged between 17 and 22).
In an age when nearly so many great historical shows are available at a rock-bottom price, and often don’t require you to get off your couch to deal with pesky physical media at all, a big, expensive DVD set might sound like it’s not worth the bother. And while I don’t want to tell you how to spend your money, I will say that “China Beach” is fantastic.
Pop culture in the mid-late ’80s was fascinated with Vietnam (including a competing series on CBS, “Tour of Duty,” which featured Kim Delaney for added confusion). “China Beach” creators John Sacret Young and William Broyles Jr. (a Vietnam veteran himself) found a novel way into it by focusing not on combat (though the characters frequently wound up in the middle of violence), but on the nurses, doctors and other support staff trying to provide soldiers with healing and a respite from the ongoing carnage. It also had a predominantly female point of view: McMurphy was the unquestioned main character, KC in time rose to 1A status, and the cast each season tended to feature more women than men (at worst, their numbers some years were equal, which was a big anomaly for a war story).
And Delany, then largely unknown, took this complicated, mysterious, fascinating character and wrung every last drop out of her. McMurphy fancies herself one of the guys – she comes from a family of six brothers, and went to Vietnam in part to keep them from having to go – and the series positioned her in a way as a male action hero. She spoke and revealed herself to others as little as possible, even as Delany’s performance (a TV Hall of Fame inner circler) was opening up so much to us about the difficulty McMurphy was having with all the death and suffering around her. (And those moments when she really opens up and shows emotion are devastating.) At some point or other during the series, nearly every male character falls in love with McMurphy; this should feel unbearably Mary Sue-ish (she’s even on the receiving end of multiple standing ovations over the years), but Delany’s force of personality is so strong, and the circumstances she and the men are placed in so dire, that it all works beautifully. The show didn’t make you question your sympathies for McMurphy the way that “Breaking Bad” did with Walter White, or that “Homeland” does with Carrie, but it showed just how complicated and damaged even the most heroic person can be. 2013 has been a very good year for multi-dimensional female characters, and McMurphy would fit in nicely.
Young, Broyles and the rest of the creative team also weren’t afraid to experiment, especially once it became clear that “China Beach” was never going to be a hit. Before shows like “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones” made it routine to kill off popular characters, “China Beach” sacrificed regulars to demonstrate the human cost and danger of the war. One episode was told in reverse, slowly revealing why a character had an abortion. Others mixed the show’s fictional action with interviews featuring real Vietnam veterans. The amazing final season becomes unstuck in time, bouncing back and forth between China Beach and what McMurphy and the others got up to on the homefront in the ’70s and ’80s as they tried to recover from the many physical and emotional wounds they suffered during the war. Not every experiment worked, and there are definitely episodes that very much feel like artifacts of broadcast network drama in the late ’80s/early ’90s, but the failures are much less frequent than they should be, given the constraints of the period.
Because the DVD release has been so long in coming, and because it’s harder to see its DNA in the big cable dramas that came later (Wells and a number of other key backstage people would jump over to “ER” after, and tried to smuggle in some “China Beach” spirit and craziness when they could), “China Beach” has been a bit forgotten in all the discussion of the current era of classic drama. But it shouldn’t be. Despite what Wells says in the bonus features, I’m not entirely sure where “China Beach” might air today; it would be wildly expensive for most cable channels (the helicopters alone) and not overtly commercial enough to justify the expense for a broadcaster. But after a year that gave us the farewell to “Breaking Bad,” that gave us so many memorable moments from “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” and “Justified” and “The Good Wife” and all the rest, I didn’t watch “China Beach” and find it quaint. I found it as vital and powerful as I did all those years ago, and the kind of show that, if it could travel through time the way that fourth season does, would slot comfortably alongside today’s giants.
I’m so glad people can finally see it again, and either remember or discover just how bold and wonderful it was.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org