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Series / China Beach

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China Beach was a War/Medical Drama that ran on ABC from 1988 to 1991. It featured a group of characters serving at the real China Beach Rest and Recreation (R & R) station and the fictional 510th Evacuation Hospital during The Vietnam War.

The show was unique, focusing on the experiences of women serving in and around a combat zone. Real Vietnam veterans, particularly nurses who had served, complained at first that plots focused too much on the romantic lives of the characters and, in that respect, were extremely unrealistic. This led to later seasons being more medical/combat based, with romantic entanglements relegated more to innuendo and subplots.

The show also followed characters who survived the war back to America, showing their struggles to return to "normal" society. It dealt with traumas that haunted returning veterans, from main character Colleen McMurphy's drinking and psychological problems stemming from the things she saw as an Evac hospital triage nurse to Marine-turned-lifeguard Boonie Lanier dealing with the loss of his leg.

The show was popular with critics and had a devoted fanbase but was consistently low-rated. Its cancellation, however, has been said to have less to do with ratings than with the fact that, at the time, America was fighting to liberate Kuwait in The Gulf War, and the show's distinctly anti-war view clashed with the national sentiment of the day.

The series pilot was going to premiere on ABC after Super Bowl XXII, but because it was a 2-hour presentation with commercials, this was reversed, because if the game had run long enough, there were concerns that the pilot would conclude its broadcast after midnight. Instead, ABC premiered The Wonder Years after the game, a series which also takes place during the time the Vietnam War raged, making several references to it during the series, including at the end of the pilot where it is revealed that a main character's relative was killed in action during the war. Coincidentally, China Beach had an episode named "With a Little Help from My Friends" after The Beatles song of the same name, the version by Joe Cocker was the opening theme to The Wonder Years.

China Beach provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • We learn that "civilian clerk/typist" KC Koloski comes from a background where her domineering father, as she once explained it, made her his wife.
    • It's also eventually made clear that Colleen McMurphy and her siblings suffered at the hands of a drunken, abusive father, though she was implicitly beaten or psychologically abused rather than sexually molested.
  • The Alcoholic: Colleen
  • All Just a Dream: The episode "Strange Brew" was almost entirely a patchwork of dream sequences.
  • Anyone Can Die: True, as a few main characters and some major secondary characters were killed off during the course of the show. But then, they were in a warzone.
  • As Herself: Nancy Sinatra appeared in the series as herself on a USO tour.
  • Artistic License – Military: The show plays fast and loose with its depiction of a combat hospital. It deliberately keeps its core cast small. A Lieutenant Colonel really should be in charge of the 510th Evac Hospital and there should be officers and senior NCO's around. The show vaguely hints that Major Garreau is the commander of both the hospital and the R&R base. Something highly unlikely to occur.
  • Asian Babymama: Offscreen for Dodger Winslow, supposedly, though it's never totally confirmed that Archie is his biological son.
  • Asians Eat Pets: An early episode had a startling instance of this stereotype played very straight in Vietnam. A new nurse notices a stall selling puppies. She signs that she wants one, and stopped paying attention as the seller picked up the dog. She is horrified to be handed a paper bag that seemed wet, as the puppy had been killed for cooking purposes.
  • Back for the Finale: The character of Wayloo Marie Holmes, who was written out of the series at the end of season 2 when her tour in Vietnam ended, shows up at the big reunion in the finale.
  • Back to Front: The entire season 3 episode "Holly's Choice" is told in a progression of steps back through the events of a Red Cross worker getting pregnant, choosing to have an abortion, and the aftermath.
  • Bait-and-Switch: "Home" opens with a soldier apparently about to commit suicide with his rifle. Then it turns out he's converted it into a flute to audition for the USO shows.
  • Beginner's Luck: In the first episode of season 3, Colleen and KC are abducted by members of a Viet Cong cadre on the way to a dinner. Colleen, with no experience actually performing surgery on her own (being a nurse), is forced to operate on the cadre leader to repair a sucking chest wound. It works.
  • Black Comedy: Many times. For example, the debacle over Fred's finger in the episode "Strange Brew".
  • Black Dude Dies First:
    • Averted by the character Samuel Beckett, an African American soldier who works in the Graves Registration Unit preparing the bodies of the dead to be shipped back to America. He survives the whole war and is present at the veteran's reunion in the finale.
    • Also averted in the season 1 episode "Home" when recurring character Sweetness Elroy, an African America Marine, is severely injured but not killed after a Viet Cong fighter throws a grenade in a bar. A white soldier who was scheduled to go home the next day dies instead.
  • Bottle Episode: The episode "Tet '68" might be considered a series of bottles, with small groups of the characters stuck in various places as chaos reigns during the infamous Tet Offensive.
  • British Brevity: The first season had, counting both parts of the pilot individually, 8 episodes. Season 2 had 17 and season 4 had 17. Only season 3 had a close to "typical" American television episode order of 24.
  • Broad Strokes: Continuity on small details fell by the wayside several times. For example, a season one episode set in mid-to-late 1967 shows Colleen boarding a helicopter and calling out nervously to Dr. Richard that she's never been on one. Later, a season 4 flashback to early 1967 shows her boarding a helicopter for Saigon.
  • But Not Too Foreign: With Dodger's Amerasian son Archie, portrayed in his first post-infancy appearance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. However, this is fixed somewhat in the finale, when the adult Archie is actually portrayed by an Asian actor.
  • Call-Back:
    • Many, many times. One particular example is when pilot Natch Austen is declared missing in action at the start of season 2. Time goes on, new plots are developed, and then, nearly at the end of the season, Natch and another man are brought back to China Beach, having escaped a P.O.W. camp.
    • In the season 3 episode "The Thanks of a Grateful Nation", Dodger's mother off-handedly tells him to hurry and get ready for church before his father has a stroke. Later on, in season 4, Dodger explains to Colleen that his mother is dead and that his father has had a stroke.
    • Much of season 4 was a sort of call back, with the bulk of the stories taking place post-war while flashbacks showed us events during the war that tied in with a character's "current" experiences.
  • Christmas Episode: "X-Mas Chn. Bch. VN, '67"
  • Cliffhanger: A few. "Lost and Found part 1" ended in one of these that actually managed to stretch out over most of season 2.
  • Clip Show:
    • "Vets" in season 2, which interspersed bits of the show with portions of interviews with Vietnam veterans.
    • The two part series finale "Hello, Goodbye".
  • Control Freak: Acknowledged at times in the character of Major Lila Garreau and the occasional "visiting general" or temporary new C.O.
  • The Couch: Variously the bar at the Jet Set, the checkout desk in the Evac, Colleen's quarters, or, most often, the beach.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Boonie, to a degree. After he basically murdered his platoon leader, he could no longer face going out into the field, and was given the job as lifeguard at China Beach.
  • Day in the Life: Several episodes were done in this style, particularly "X-Mas Chn. Bch. VN, '67" and any episode where Wayloo and her cameraman set out to get a scoop on something.
  • Death of a Child: Liane, the young Vietnamese orphan that Dr. Richard is trying to get out of the country so that her heart murmur can be properly treated dies in the evac as he rushes to save her.
  • Delayed Explosion: In the season 1 episode "Somewhere Over the Radio", the Evac is...well, evacuated when Dr. Richard realizes a soldier he's operating on has a live mortar round inside of him. With Colleen's help, the doctor removes it, then does an epic slow motion run out of the hospital and throws said live round directly into the grenade sump. Cue big boom and Dr. Richard flying through the air, crashing into the front of the building.
  • Documentary Episode: Aspects of this in several season 2 episodes after the character Wayloo Marie Holmes, a journalist, was introduced, and used somewhat in the two part finale when Karen Lanier is interviewing the veterans.
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Implied with KC in the episode "Cherry" when all women at the base are newly required to qualify with and carry sidearms and she refuses. Lila finally has her physically brought down to target range on the beach, where KC proceeds to empty every round in the proffered gun straight into the target's "head".
  • Doorstop Baby: Sort of, with Dodger's "son" Archie (we're never entirely certain the kid is his). The baby was left with Dodger in a bar one night by some random Vietnamese orphan who claimed that this was the Marine's child.
  • Downer Ending: Several times: see "Lost and Found part 1" or "Tet '68" or a myriad of other episodes.
  • Dream Sequence: The entire episode "Strange Brew" is pretty much an extended one of these.
  • Dr. Jerk: Dr. Richard, at times, and also recurring season 3 French doctor Gerard Bernard on occasion.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Colleen all the time.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Colleen really shovels this on KC when she finds out that the other woman is a junkie. Never mind that Colleen's already a borderline alcoholic at that point who proceeds to spend much of the rest of the series spiraling deeper and deeper into her own addiction.
  • The '80s: But only occasionally in the post-war sections of some season 4 episodes, particularly the finale.
  • Episode Code Number:
    • #1863XX = Season 1
    • #1865XX = Season 2
    • #1868XX = Season 3
    • #1870XX = Season 4
  • Episode Title Card: Every episode except for the pilot had one, and appropriately, in the Wonton Font.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Implicit with Cherry's brother Rick who was apparently a great guy, so much admired by his little sister that she even lied about her age to join up with The Red Cross and go to Vietnam to find him when he was declared missing in action. When Cherry catches up with him, he turns out to be living AWOL in Saigon as a pimp.
  • Four-Girl Ensemble: Colleen, Cherry, Laurette, and KC in season 1, Colleen, Cherry, KC, and Wayloo in early season 2 switching to Colleen, Frankie, KC, and Wayloo after Cherry's death, and Colleen, Holly, Frankie, and KC in season 3.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: The episode "Holly's Choice" fits nicely into this trope with Red Cross worker Holly getting pregnant by a soldier and considering abortion. Colleen tries to make her reconsider, but with KC's help Holly gets the abortion anyway and then nearly dies from an infection.
  • Grand Finale: All the veterans from China Beach travel together to Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam War Memorial.
  • G-Rated Drug: Averted when the character of KC was revealed as a long-term heroin user in the episode "Tet '68" and the addiction was actually mentioned and somewhat dealt with again in several of the next few episodes.
  • Halloween Episode: In the first part of the finale, the flashbacks to Colleen's last day in Vietnam take place on Halloween and her farewell party is a costume party.
  • Happily Adopted: Karen Lanier by Boonie and his wife Linda.
  • Heel–Face Turn: In the first episode of season 3, the Viet Cong cadre member who is assigned to shoot KC and Colleen can't bring himself to do it, as he's come to respect Colleen. He instead discharges his gun into the ceiling and leaves them to escape.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Boonie in the flashback to his (arguably justified) murder of his platoon leader in "Twilight".
    • Several characters went through these types of moments.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Dr. Richard's wife Beth Ann is mentioned frequently, along with sons Jake and Rodger, in the first couple of seasons, but none of them are ever shown.
  • Hey, Let's Put on a Show: Several times in season 1 when USO singer Laurette Barber tried to gather talent for performances at The Jet Set, and a few times later on when someone would decide that a little song-and-dance/staging of a major musical was just the thing needed...
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Though she tried to be distant and could seem mercernary at times, KC was really one of these.
  • Hospital Hottie: Colleen, of course, as well as some of the other nurses who worked at the Evac.
  • I Choose to Stay:
    • Colleen, who spent most of the two part pilot preparing for the end of her tour, chooses to re-up, even after her quarters and many of her belongings have been destroyed in a bombing raid.
    • Also, Beckett in the episode "Promised Land" had come to the end of his tour and got as far as the airport...before heading back to China Beach because he couldn't bear to leave his Vietnamese lover Mai and her young son behind.
    • Dodger for a while before the beginning of the episode "Souvenirs", when he tells Colleen that his tour has been over for months. He finally decides to return to America with his Amerasian son, however.
  • Killed Off for Real: Cherry White, Jeff Hyers
  • Lady in Red: KC, often, particularly in one certain Asian-styled minidress.
  • Last-Name Basis: Colleen McMurphy was most often referred to by her surname, at least while serving in Vietnam.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Only Colleen is ever shown getting a promotion, from 1st Lieutenant to Captain. Lila even has an episode where she deals with jealousy over the fact that a long-time friend of hers, also female, has been promoted to Colonel while Lila seems stuck as a Major.

  • Living Prop: Various non-speaking soldiers, airmen and marines mill around in the background of the hospital.
  • Local Hangout: The Jet Set.
  • Loud of War: Accidentally between Lila and Laurette in a season 1 episode, when Laurette's rock'n'roll music is drowning out Lila's WWII ballads.
  • Mauve Shirt: A few times a new minor character would be introduced, usually as a patient at the evac, and survive to appear and be spoken to in other episodes at The Jet Set or with members of his platoon.
  • Medal of Dishonor: Boonie fits this pretty much exactly at the end of "Twilight".
  • The Men First: Beckett refers to the dead men he prepares for shipment back to America as "my men" and makes treating them with dignity and respect a top priority.
  • Mildly Military:
    • Well, somewhat justified for similar reasons to the earlier show M*A*S*H in that Dr. Richard was one of those automatically drafted doctors.
    • Also, War Is Hell, so things like calling Lila "Lila" rather than "Major" most of the time might kind of slip under the radar when you're 500 yards from the Vietnam War...
  • Missing Mom: KC is one of these for much of the show to her daughter Karen. First she packs the girl off as an infant to be mostly raised by a nanny in Saigon, then she reconnects, only to be forced to send her daughter off on one of the last choppers out as Saigon falls. They are reunited by the end of the finale, though it's implied that the estrangement will continue as KC admits to being "no good at writing letters".
  • Musical Episode: The closest they came was an episode where the gang at China Beach put on a production of My Fair Lady. However, sometimes there was so much singing and dancing at The Jet Set that an episode might seem like a musical.
  • Napoleon Delusion: Played with in an episode where a soldier played by Stephen Baldwin thinks that he's rock'n'roll pioneer Chuck Berry.
  • No Name Given:
    • Most of the series passes before it's revealed that Dodger's real first name is Evan.
    • It's assumed that recurring character Sweetness Elroy is only nicknamed Sweetness until he states that it is indeed his name.
      "My momma named her baby boy Sweetness..."
  • Old Soldier: Lila and Sargeant Bob Pepper, both of whom participated in World War II (though Lila was only a Red Cross Doughnut Dolly then) and, presumably, Korea.
  • Out with a Bang: Colonel Darling, visiting officer played by R. Lee Ermey, dies in KC's bed during a season 3 episode. KC, Boonie, and Jeff then spend most of the episode trying to find a way to make it look like he died in any other way, preferably combat.
  • Past Experience Nightmare: Colleen suffered more than her share of war flashback dreams, and the episode "Strange Brew" centered around her falling asleep on the base helipad and wandering a dreamscape that had her confronting her own inability to save everyone and her troubled family past. Arguably, the dream in "Strange Brew" was shared, since KC dreamed of the same location and people, and they "saw" each other in the dream. Or the whole episode could have been some sort of dream-in-a-dream, as they seem to wake up on the helipad at the end...only for the scene to then cut to Colleen waking up again in her bunk...
  • Post-Kiss Catatonia: Almost happens to Colleen near the beginning of "X-Mas Chn. Bch. VN, '67" when Dr. Richard kisses her. When he points out that he was holding up mistletoe, thus giving himself an excuse, her face slowly slides from shock to "huh?" to "I think I need to go spit now".
  • Put on a Bus: Wayloo Marie Holmes, although she returned in the finale.
  • The Quiet One: Dodger. A few flashbacks in later seasons take place before the events of the pilot and show him as slightly more talkative and fun-loving, but his general silence and occasional social ineptitude was apparently designed to display that War Is Hell, especially for the young people fighting it, as evidenced by this exchange from the pilot.
    Dodger: I used to talk.
    Cherry: When was that?
    Dodger: A long time ago, when I was a kid.
    Cherry: Well how old are you now?
    Dodger: Nineteen.
  • Really Gets Around:
    • KC.
    • Colleen also counts.
  • Recurring Character: Sweetness Elroy, several Red Cross volunteers and nurses, and a number of random soldiers and Marines.
  • Red Shirt: Frequent. A new character, usually a soldier or Marine, would be introduced in an episode purely for the later drama of a horrifying injury, a brave attempt by the doctors and nurses of the 510th Evac to save him, and a tragic, heart-tugging death or at least a severe life-long disability if he managed to live.
  • Retirony: Big time with the character of Dewey in the season 1 episode "Home". He's a newly introduced character, about to be sent home after recovering from injuries, when he's killed in a bar by a Viet Cong grenade on his last night in country.
  • Sad Clown: Boonie, at times.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying: Frequently, since China Beach was an R & R station, although parties/concerts/dances/etc. were often broken up when the enemy attacked.
  • Semper Fi:
    • A good many of the fighting men portrayed on the show are Marines. Most of them, particularly in the main cast Dodger, fit the stereotype of the tough, gruff, potentially dangerous Marine.
    • In the finale, when Boonie and Dodger are being interviewed by Boonie's adopted daughter, they playfully punch each other in the shoulders while exchanging Marine slogans and references, including "Semper Fi".
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Aspects of this between buddies Boonie and Dodger. Boonie is definitely more emotional and open on some things, while Dodger is the strong, silent type.
  • Social Semi-Circle: Averted when characters sat anywhere but at the bar in The Jet Set.
  • Son of a Whore: Karen Lanier is the daughter of a prostitute, namely KC.
  • Tell Me About My Father: Karen Lanier spends a good portion of seasons 3 and 4 trying to find out anything that she can about her mother from the people who knew KC at China Beach.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: A hospital should really have around 47 officers, 52 nurses and 300 enlisted men. But that's too many characters for one show. But there should definitely be more than one enlisted man in the morgue.
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted with the Army psychiatrist who evaluates everyone in "Psywars" and Colleen's therapist in the final season.
  • To Absent Friends:
    • The gathering Boonie and Beckett arrange in "Lost and Found part 2", complete with a touching display of all the dead men's boots.
    • The wake for Cherry at The Jet Set in "Cherry".
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Colleen and KC are a sort of mixture of these archetypes. While Colleen is definitely more rough-and-tumble in some ways (having grown up with five brothers) she has moments of complete, overwhelming femininity. KC, meanwhile, is generally the more girly dresser of the two and more often overtly uses her feminine wiles, but she also has a certain steely side (and occasional lack of scruples) that seems to plant her firmly in tomboy territory.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Cherry White. She comes in from the first episode as a sweet, naive, pretty much totally innocent farm girl from Iowa who just wants to find her MIA brother Rick. Though she gets somewhat jaded due to the pressures of the war and is almost totally crushed when she finds out that Rick is working as a pimp in Saigon, she is still sweet, kind, generous and rather naive about aspects of life by the time she steps out of a bunker the morning after the beginning of the Tet Offensive and is unceremoniously killed in a blast.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: It seems like KC has one of these at times. However, there is one red Asian-styled dress that makes a lot of appearances.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: McMurphy and Richard have a close relationship that they come close to acting upon.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The series takes its inspiration from the autobiography Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. Colleen takes on a lot of the author's cynicism whilst playing up Dana Delany's attractiveness. The other characters are amalgamations of various people who the author encountered during her tour (Which was certainly a less fun spot than the picturesque China Beach). But, certain aspects such as Colleen's description of burn victims as "Crispy-Critters" are taken verbatim from the book.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: Boony.
  • War Is Hell
  • Wham Episode: "Tet '68"
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Much of season 4 was akin to this.
  • You Owe Me: A common theme between Colleen and KC. They end up reciprocating so many favors back-and-forth to each other that it's implied by one point in season 3 they've lost track of who owes whom.