The Vietnam experience had been catalogued in countless movies and even on TV, from the perspective of the soldier in the field. In 1988, China Beach hit the small screen with a desire to tell the story of another aspect of the war: the women.
When most people think of Vietnam, they conjure images of men covered in muck making their way through the jungle waiting for the enemy to pounce on their position. They think of all those men, with an average age of 19, who were drafted into service. Women were, and still are, ineligible to be drafted into war, and yet a surprising number of women served during the conflict. They volunteered. Beginning with a base of the book Home Before Morning by former U.S. Army Nurse Lynda Van Devanter and incorporating details from hundreds of interviews performed by the writing staff, China Beach tells the story of the 510th Evacuation Hospital and R&R facility and the people who run it. Doctors, nurses, soldiers, Red Cross volunteers, USO performers, all of those stationed there and some just passing through.
China Beach ran for four seasons, won a bunch of awards, and many feel (and rightly so) that its popularity and exposure helped greatly in finally getting a Vietnam Women's Memorial created in 1993 to stand alongside the more well known war memorial dedicated to the men who died.
But this review is specifically about Season 2 which came out recently on DVD. Following the six episode first season, the second introduced a couple new characters, Wayloo Marie Holmes, a journalist, and Private Frankie Johnson, assigned to the motor pool. There is a lot of great television here, but the stand out episode of the season is the most unusual one.
In "Vets", presented on disc with an optional commentary track from he creators of the show, China Beach broke from its usually episodic story telling to do a clip show. On many series, a clip show would involve characters to get locked in a room and then talk about stuff that happened and we would get to see clips from previous episode edited in. But here the clips from the show are cut into bits and pieces of real interviews with real Vietnam War Veterans who worked in places like China Beach. Nurses, Red Cross volunteers, USO performers and more tell their stories on camera, and then clips of the show from previous episodes are used to illustrate how the show took these real stories and adapted them into the show. Suddenly, all of the televised drama you've been watching takes on a new level of weight when you understand how many details of it were true.
The season 2 set also includes a featurette, "Voices of War: the Real China Beach", which provides a good look at the real place the road to bringing it to life, and three extended interviews with cast members Michael Boatman, Marg Helgenberger and Robert Picardo.
China Beach isn't just good TV, it is important TV. If you are at all interested in the Vietnam War era, you should add this show to your collection.