Episode Review: CHINA BEACH (“Pilot”)
Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: Apr 26, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: audience numbers unavailable (as of now), 18.0 rating, 29 share
Well well well. I haven’t heard much about CHINA BEACH in recent years. In fact, only thanks to BODY OF PROOF, I actually got the information that this show existed. Critic’s darling, darling with the Emmy awards, and a potential hit with the audience. Yet not really a long living show with only three and a half seasons. I wonder if the show got cancelled thanks to its budget. Because what I saw here looked expensive for a TV show in the 80s. Shooting on Hawaii, and this mostly on location, a big cast, some extras, and all of it spiced up with a great art direction. The thing is just: This episode could have had more spice in its story.
Because it was mostly just an introduction. Almost nothing happened. When I take COMBAT HOSPITAL for comparison, then the newer version of the setting “hospital in a war zone” does not only have more action, but also a lot more character stories (thanks to the 21st Century though). What I got here was basically an introduction to the introduction. Maybe because the pilot is actually a two-parter, but I’m not watching it as such; maybe because I was expecting a bit more from the premiere, figuring that it’s a critics’ darling. Maybe because I actually expected some medical action in the premiere, similar to ER. There wasn’t even a single medical emergency in the first hour, even though it’s also set with the Red Cross of the base. Yes, I know it’s China Beach, and it’s mostly an army base here, but you have your two main female characters set with the Red Cross and the hospital of the base, then better make a Red Cross show out of it in the premiere. I really was missing the medical drama and emotions. Instead I got all kinds of character drama and emotions. Which is interesting, but wasn’t great for the premiere. If you can bore the audience within the first hour, they will never stay with the program for the second hour. I think that’s a typical mistake 2-hour-pilots usually did in the 80s and maybe even earlier.
At least the characters were mostly likable. McMurphy (Dana Delany) seems to be a character with lots of depth, who shines better when in contrast with Cherry (Nan Woods). I loved how both reacted to another in that shower scene, since McMurphy is about to leave Vietnam, while Cherry is trying to get situated. I loved how the two had their own issues with this place, even though they couldn’t be more different. They made a connection here, and I wouldn’t mind when they stay friends along the road, since they made that special connection. (In addition, it wouldn’t be wrong when McMurphy has a girlfriend on her side, and not just the guys she’s buddy-like with). I was just a bit annoyed about the fact that McMurphy was a bit too deep for me in the first hour. The scene where she tried to get the scrubs off was off for me (it could have been a great emotional scene, when I would have known the character beforehand), and when she was drinking with Dick (Robert Picardo) at the end, I wondered if the two share a history. Typical background information, but with a pilot, I expect for the writers to deliver all the important information points the first chance they get. Otherwise the characters are overdrawn, and left are those who think to much of themselves. CHINA BEACH doesn’t need to be so complicated and sophisticated, it just needs to show what is actually going on in Vietnam.
The rest of the cast probably got some nice storylines. I can’t really tell yet, because I wasn’t watching the second part of the pilot yet, but for now I can nod my head and accept what I have been offered. It’s not the perfect show, but I was surprised I was not bored out of my mind with an 80s drama. Who knows, maybe CHINA BEACH really is such a great show. Since it’s set in the 60s, I believe it has survived the millennium, and can work as well today as it was working when it aired on television. Hopefully without all those clichés. Like Beckett (Michael Boatman, back then he did not look like he looks today) and him being black (I so knew it would be mentioned, when I saw him for the first time). Or like the women being typical whores, making their man happy – just look at K.C. (Marg Helgenberger) (not really a shocking scene, when she indirectly “mentioned” the job description). The guys, with the exception of Boonie (Brian Wimmer), came a bit short. Here I hope it’s going to change really soon. I know it’s a show about how the war was seen by women, but they have a men’s cast too. And they shouldn’t be left behind.
Other than that, I love the setting. I can’t really buy it’s set in the 60s (I know when the Vietnam war happened), but for me to completely believe it’s set in the 60s, it should better show something from Vietnam, from that specific time era. Otherwise this show could also be set in the 80s (present), because of the nothingness happening in the base and obviously outside too. The soundtrack is also good, even though there weren’t much songs of the era to listen too. Maybe it’s also one of those things to get better with time.
The second half of the pilot was as quiet and slow as the first one. But it had more focus this time. Even though McMurphy was completely missing from the first half of this hour, giving the real attention to the other women in the camp, McMurphy got her story back in the second half, eventually giving her a reason to stay in Vietnam. Of course she would stay, that was definitely not a question, but I loved how it was executed. A lot of time was given for the characters to make their decisions understandable, a lot of time was given Dana Delany to show what a great actress she was back in the 1980s. I don’t know about today, because I don’t watch DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and BODY OF PROOF (in fact, I only knew her from FLY AWAY HOME before, and that role wasn’t much of a biggie). When she stood on stage, looking at her boys rooting for her… I also wanted to give away a tear, because it was a touching, dramatic and emotional moment. When a TV show from the 80s manages to make me invest my time in the characters in the pilot already, then the rest of the show also has to be good, right?
I have to say, the second hour was much better, when it came to the focus on the characters. Again, not much of a story, except the question if McMurphy stays or not, as well as some background for Cherry and her looking for her brother, but instead tons of character moments. I loved that. There should be more TV shows build like that, because characters are everything. When I don’t like them or can’t get them and their decisions, then the show can look as pretty and awesome as it wants to be, it won’t help it though. Dana rocked that episode, as well as Laurette (Chloe Webb), who surprisingly got a lot of screentime this time around. Even though she looks like a man at some points of this episode, and even though she’s more of a fool to always say “lots of men, lots of men”, letting her look like she’s just searching for a soldier to fuck in the hours of the night. Basically like K.C., but she never really acknowledges the fact that she’s a hooker in the best brothel of this world. (In addition, she hasn’t gotten much to do, which will hopefully change in the future, because I liked that aspect of women in the war zone).
Some interesting story points in the second half. First, Beckett wanting to be a white guy at the beginning – I don’t know why, but it feels like he’s a crazy man, about to break apart under his experience in Vietnam. Second, Austen (Tim Ryan) with that funny wig on his head. Seemed like he and McMurphy kind of shared a past, which also makes me wonder how many men McMurphy slept with since she has arrived in Vietnam (more or less than K.C.?). Next, the question of what has happened with Boonie. That conversation he had with K.C. was interesting, and gave something of a background for Boonie, despite the fact that no proper information wad given. (Maybe I interpret too much into it, and he was just a miserable guy eight months ago, thin and bleach, and not much of a guy at all).
I’m still missing the “action” of the show though. The ending proved that there will be military and medical terror in the show, but that whole sequence was just for Laurette, and how she copes with the experience of seeing soldiers die. I was actually expecting to see some blood, the doctors and nurses saving people, operations and stuff. And maybe even more chaos than depicted near the end. But I’ll take it. After all, it’s a show from the 80s, and I shouldn’t even start expecting an ER like show in the future (though I still wish it). Other than that, the second part of the pilot saved the rather slow first part. I don’t know if it did, because I watched it five days later, or because the second part is in fact better. All in all, the pilot gets 7.5/10. A bit outdated for sure, when it comes to the visuals, but still an interesting look into a world I don’t know anything about.