CHINA BEACH (1988-1991)

(a “journey on a beach….and beyond” TV series review by Timothy J. Verret)

Four seasons? Four years? That’s only as long as CHINA BEACH ran on TV! Well, being my spiritual number is “4,” I feel very prepared and very eager to review this TV series, paying particular attention to the 4th and final and most brilliantly “BOTH” (“the pain and the beauty”) season of this Emmy- and Peabody-winning TV show.

CHINA BEACH is the baby of William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young, a TV series that detailed the humanity and horror of the Vietnam War at the 510th Evacuation Hospital in the city of Đà Nẵng on “China Beach” (nicknamed in English by American and Australian soldiers). Side note: I must admit when I started watching this TV series when it first aired, I was like, “What’s going on? I thought this was about Vietnam? What does China have to do with anything?” To bring this TV series in a little bit closer, it centered primarily on the women at “China Beach,” and even more centered on First Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy, a once Catholic girl and then Army nurse from Lawrence, Kansas. This role was played by the supremely talented and incomparable Dana Delany who won two Emmy Awards for Best Actress for CHINA BEACH (watch the entire TV series, and you can easily conclude that she should have won the award for all 4 seasons!). The entire cast was, in fact, brilliant and what the writers did for CHINA BEACH was give each main character a storyline and, most importantly, a journey to take. It started long before Vietnam, it zigzagged hardcore during Vietnam, and it ended long after Vietnam, only truly beginning for the characters in having to come face-to-face with their war scars, physically and emotionally, and healing those scars, physically and emotionally.

As mentioned, I really want to explore that 4th and final season of CHINA BEACH. What the creators of the TV series did for the characters was allow them to “go home.” They got home, only to be brought back to the beach where they saved lives, took lives, lived to tell about those lives, and lived onward to repair their own damaged lives. I have never quite seen a TV series in the history of TV do this kind of journeying. It was gutsy, for sure, but what a payoff! We, as viewers, got to witness horrors and nightmares that just wouldn’t go away for these characters in the form of flashbacks (PTSD) and flashforwards (PTSD), but we also got to witness the very final episode, where the characters journeyed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., for closure. That final episode alone will bring the entire war back to you, whether you were there or not. You won’t want to remember it, but you owe it to these characters to remember it. You also won’t want to forget it, but you owe it to these characters to forget it. Remembering and forgetting, BOTH, is the true definition of anyone’s journey. You remember your past but you journey on. You forget your past but you journey on. “Journeying on” is everyone’s journey. When the characters looked into the Wall in that final episode, the TV cameras were keen on reflecting the names of the killed soldiers back on the faces of the show’s characters. This “mirroring effect” crowned CHINA BEACH as true work-of-art TV! Some of the characters tried to help save those dead ones on the Wall, so it makes sense that the characters would have these dead ones mirrored back on them. It shows how we are all connected in life and death. Some characters stood saluting the wall, while their partners saluted them back. Some characters held so tight to each other that we expected the Wall to actually crumble from the hurt and painful memories. All of the characters wept….ALL OF THEM! They wept for what they did and could not do. As McMurphy says at the end of the episode, “I couldn’t save them all, but I saved some.” Speaking of weeping, as I just finished typing that line, I started weeping.

Once again, if you don’t think you can serve all your tour-of-duty watching the 4 seasons of CHINA BEACH, I want to highly recommend three episodes, which ironically are the final three episodes of the series:

  1. “Through and Through” – this episode is about Colleen McMurphy and her struggles with alcoholism and PTSD. This episode alone is probably why Delany won the Emmy that year. She gives a remarkable, “lifetime” performance in only one hour of TV!
  2. “Rewind” – One of the TV characters had a daughter, who was abandoned by her mother, so the daughter makes a video project about Vietnam to understand what happened and hopefully find healing from her mother’s estrangement. This episode is just heart-wrenching and ends as so many of the CHINA BEACH episodes ended; a delivered line that, for me, was spiritually steeped and spoken as, “Is this ever gonna stop?” or “This isn’t finished, is it?”
  3. “Hello….Goodbye” – This is the final, two-hour episode of CHINA BEACH that starts with a reunion and ends at the Wall. Pay particular attention to “the boy in the pants.” This was the man McMurphy tried to save but couldn’t. He said to her before he died, “You’re gonna remember me.” She replied, laughingly, “No, I won’t.” He said, “You will.” At the wall, McMurphy remembered. He said she would.

I’ll end this review with the song, “You Can Let Go Now,” by singer/songwriter Michael McDonald, that was played on the soundtrack at the Wall in CHINA BEACH‘s final episode. I guess I don’t want to stop a “good cry,” as this song gets me every time. Truthfully, it is the absolutely most perfect song to have played to “close down” CHINA BEACH. All the words in the song are spot-on for the aftermath of the Vietnam Warm, especially the line, “It was so right….it was so wrong.” I suppose our own personal journeys in life can feel very much like this. But, most importantly about the journeys of the characters of CHINA BEACH and all our journeys, “you can let go now.”

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