Monday, September 16, 2013

China Beach

Tim served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, while I went to school and college. Vietnam was a horrible and divisive war that did not end well. My family hated it. I spent a big part of my senior year in high school worried that my male classmates would be drafted and killed in Vietnam.

Although the Korean-War-based sit-com M*A*S*H was supposedly an allegory of Vietnam, dramatic series about the war didn’t appear on TV until the late 1980s. Our favorite was China Beach. Set in an evacuation hospital in Vietnam, the show was unique in that it observed war through the eyes of the women who served as nurses, entertainers, volunteers and even prostitutes. The series was a revelation, realistically depicting the emotional as well as physical scars resulting from battle. The Paley Center for Media celebrated the show’s 25th anniversary by holding a cast reunion, Friday night, in Beverly Hills.

As is typical for Paley events, an episode of China Beach was screened, followed by an hour-long Q&A with the cast and creator. All the major players were there: writer/producer John Sacret Young; Dana Delaney, nurse Colleen McMurphy, who quickly becomes the show's main character and conscience; Marj Helgenberger, the modern-day (and highly entrepreneurial) “courtesan,” KC; Concetta Tomei, Lila Garreau, the Army “lifer” who is eventually put in charge of the base; Brian Wimmer, China Beach’s life guard Boonie, who has PTSD; Robert Picardo, the notorious womanizer and aptly named Dr. “Dick” Richards, who falls in love with McMurphy; Michael Boatman, the reluctant camp undertaker Sam Beckett; Troy Evans, motor-pool sergeant Bob Pepper, who marries major Garreau; Nancy Giles, private Frankie Bunsen, who starts her Vietnam tour in the motor pool; Ricki Lake, Red Cross volunteer Holly; Jeff Kober, the war-damaged 19-year-old soldier Dodger; and Chloe Webb, the outgoing entertainer. The actors obviously all still have great affection for each other and loved working on the show. No reunion movie is planned, but John Sacret Young did announce that he’s currently writing a novel that follows McMurphy’s life 25 years after Vietnam.

The episode they screened was the heartbreaking “Vets,” a clip-show that incorporates interviews with the real-life women on which the series was based. I vividly remembered every scene, but didn’t start crying until I heard the theme song: a bittersweet melody that perfectly captures the deep underlying sorrow of the show. At the end of the evening, harmonica player Tommy Morgan was called to the stage to play, once again, the plaintive China Beach theme. By the time he finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

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