Judge Brett Cullum sees reflections of Chloe Webb and Dana Delaney.
Reflections of the way life used to be.
China Beach is a female version of M*A*S*H without any of the comedy. The show sought to revitalize a harder-edged drama, balancing it with a talented and beautiful cast who could make it all palatable. In the process, it introduced us to such talents as Dana Delaney (Body of Proof), Chloe Webb (Sid and Nancy), Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager), and Marg Helgenberger (CSI).
Based on the 1983 book Home Before Morning by former U.S. Army Nurse Lynda Van Devanter, the cast and crew interviewed veterans to gather more stories, always striving for an authentic feel. China Beach did an admirable job of showing war in a dramatic and polished way, lending it a sense of dignity and respect. While it never became a ratings juggernaut, critics and fans seem to recall it fondly. Due to its heavy use of popular music and the rights issues contained therein, it wasn't until April 2013 that the show finally made it to DVD in a complete series set. If that price point was a bit too steep, we now get the first of the individual season releases at a more palatable cost.
Facts of the Case
This is Vietnam from a different angle. Rather than going to the battlefield, the series was set on stretch of beach that served as a military hospital and USO retreat. The first season focuses on Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy (Delaney), an emergency nurse working on battle wounded young men and women straight from the front lines. Also stationed at the base was USO singer Laurette Barber (Webb), young "Donut Dolly" Cherry White (Nan Woods, The Betty Ford Story), by the book Major Lila Garreau (Concetta Tomei, Providence), and notorious opportunist K.C. Kowolski (Helgenberger).
China Beach arrived roughly 20 years after the war it was based on began, and rode a wave of similar projects such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. It was an era when America was dealing with the legacy of the struggle and coming to terms with our feelings about it. In 1988, the subject matter seemed shocking, because it presented things matter of fact without any sugar coating. Yet, at the same time, it offered a heightened sense of artfulness, trying to say something through the camera and with the music. This is a cathartic series that celebrates women in warfare, with an incredible sense of grace and purpose.
Fans of China Beach will find Season One to be a bit different. The characters are not quite settled, and many of the cast are still finding their footing, navigating the material in a way that later became far more polished. The focus is on several characters who are only important in this first year, like Chloe Webb's USO singer who disappeared by Season Two. The content feels fresh and unsure, which makes it more exciting and passionate. The series changed the face of television drama in many ways, and expanded the genre quite a bit. Everything feels truly cinematic, with nothing played for laughs or sidestepping the emotions and horror of war. However, it's also quite hopeful, often finding the beauty of a girl or a song in the middle of so much chaos.
TimeLife's China Beach: Season One spreads these seven episodes over two discs, and offers bonus features on a third. The standard def 1.33:1 fill frame transfers are rough, mainly because they're taken from 1980s source material that was not well preserved. As a result, the image is not always pristine, colors are faded, grain is omnipresent, and detail severely lacking. But this is how television often looked and sounded back in the day. The basic 2.0 tracks soften sound mono, but later episodes introduce more stereo effects.
There is nothing to gripe about the bonus features, which include a commentary on the pilot from the producers (recorded in 2003), a featurette detailing the origins of the show, a 2012 reunion of cast and crew, and new interviews with Dana Delaney and Chloe Webb which are quite touching and revealing.
China Beach: Season One feels more experimental, but offers up an awesome cast including Chloe Webb who we never see again. It feels like a movie, and really doesn't last much longer. I'm glad the producers held out to keep the original music, because this is one show where compromising would've hurt. True fans will want to seek out China Beach: The Complete Series, just know the set retails for more than two hundred dollars.
Not Guilty. Hopefully, we'll soon see reasonably priced future seasons.
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