Binge-Watching China Beach
What I learned watching the highly-acclaimed TV series about Army nurses in Vietnam
“China Beach” was a network television drama that ran on ABC for four seasons, l988–1991, decades after the Vietnam War during which the show is set. The series told the story of fictional characters at the real China Beach, an Army base near Da Nang, Vietnam, for soldiers on R&R (rest and recuperation). It had a beautiful beach (actually called My Khe — China Beach was an American nickname), a lifeguard, visiting entertainment and an Army recuperation hospital where the injured were stabilized and if possible returned to action.
Not Just a Soap Opera
The only TV series to focus on military nurses in Vietnam, “China Beach” wasn’t just a medical drama like “Grey’s Anatomy.” The setting allowed for a diverse array of other characters, including USO entertainers, a morgue attendant and a cynical businesswoman/sex worker (played by Marg Helgenberger) as well as nurses and surgeons and the Air Force pilot (played by Tim Ryan) who becomes the heroine’s principal love interest.
Dana Delany starred as Colleen McMurphy, a young nurse from the Midwest. Trained at a Catholic nursing school, she had lived in a commune before joining the Army in search of some destiny other than becoming a housewife or a nun. We quickly learn that McMurphy is a complicated character in a position of life-or-death situations that no civilian training could have prepared her for. Surrounded by young men who may never have been away from home before, she keeps her emotions inside while numbing them more and more with alcohol. At times, this appears to be her attempt to just be “one of the guys,” but she often drinks alone, and her alcohol use becomes more of a problem as the series progresses.
Soundtrack of the War
McMurphy and her colleagues endure the heat, the lack of supplies and the poor infection control conditions with little emotional support. Grueling 12-hour shifts day after day are punctuated by enemy assaults. In one memorable scene, McMurphy sobs in the shower when she can’t get her sweat- and blood-soaked scrub top off because it’s stuck to her body. One reviewer called “China Beach” the war with a soundtrack, since the show incorporates more than 300 popular songs, including “Reflections” by The Supremes, which plays as a theme song over the opening and closing credits.