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WATCH: China Beach Premiered 33 Years Ago Today

  • On April 27, 1988, ABC premiered the two-hour pilot for China Beach, a Vietnam War drama series created by William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young, based on the novel Home Before Morning by former army nurse Lynda Van Devanter. John Wells, who later became the showrunner for ER, took over as writer/producer in Season 2. It would go on to be nominated for 29 Emmy Awards, winning 5, including two Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama awards for  Dana Delany, and one Outstanding Supporting Actress award for Marg Helgenberger. 

    The series centered on the events at the 510th Evac Hospital on the My Khe beach in Da Nang, nicknamed China Beach, and the life, love, and career of First Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy (Delany) as she  served as an army nurse treating the grievously wounded day in and day out. As the show evolved, it also began to flash forward to her post-war PTSD issues. Helgenberger (CSI) played K.C. Koloski, a cynical entrepreneur/prostitute who services military higher-ups. The series also featured Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) as womanizing head surgeon Captain Dick Richard, Michael Boatman (Spin City) as Specialist Samuel Beckett of the Graves Registration Unit (i.e. undertaker), Jeff Kober (Sons of Anarchy) as the shell-shocked Staff Sergeant Dodger Winslow, Chloe Webb (Shameless) as USO singer Laurette Barber, Nancy Giles as Private Frankie Bunsen of the motor pool, and Ricki Lake as Red Cross volunteer Holly Pellegrino. 

    In this clip from the Season 3 episode "The Gift," McMurphy is being interrogated after a pair of dead soldiers had apparently named her as a beneficiary of their life insurance policies, illustrating how much these nurses are viewed as "angels" by the enlisted men they treat, and her reluctant response is to admit that she has no memory of either of the soldiers, despite being able to describe the events of her days spent in triage in vivid detail, because every day is the same parade of abject horrors that she has to push her way through. 

    China Beach ran for four seasons and 61 episodes in addition to the pilot movie, and was critically beloved but unable to truly find the audience it deserved. It was a show ahead of its time, featuring complex female lead characters when they were very much scarce, and such a dedication to nuance and realism that several episodes featured real-life stories as told by actual Vietnam veterans interwoven with the drama. It contrasted the horrors of war with the distracting leisure activities of the R&R and recovery spaces for troops on leave, and thus was able to be funny as well as deadly serious, not entirely unlike a version of M*A*S*H from a female perspective. 

    Andy Hunsaker has a head full of sitcom gags and nerd-genre lore, and can be followed @AndyHunsaker if you're into that sort of thing.

    TOPICS: China Beach, ABC, Chloe Webb, Dana Delany, Jeff Kober, John Sacret Young, John Wells, Marg Helgenberger, Michael Boatman, Ricki Lake, Robert Picardo, William Broyles Jr.