Sitting at the televisual intersection of the soap opera, medical show, and war drama, China Beach took the pursuit of serial ensemble dramatism to a self-conscious, provocative extreme. The program's premise was the exploration of personal and professional entanglements among American soldiers and civilians staffing a hospital and entertainment company during the Vietnam War. But the show's hybridization of filmic and televisual genres, its rhetorically complex invocation of popular music, and its pointed modernist-cum-postmodern reflexivity, eventually shifted the emphasis from the story to the telling. Ultimately the series approached a convergence of televisual narrative association with collectively shared cultural remembrance. China Beach's ensemble, the show ultimately implied, necessarily included the viewer inhabiting post-Vietnam America.
The program depicted issues familiar from dark war comedies like M*A*S*Hand revisionist allegories like "Apocalypse Now." Story lines explored the corruption or ineptitude of military authority; soldiers' inability to function in "normal" interaction; the medical staff's necessary posture of mordant irony; or the war's sudden curtailment of friendship or romance.
But the narration profoundly shifted the usual priorities of such plots by focusing on the women at the base, an emphasis fundamentally intended to undermine vainglorious heroism and to portray war instead, through "women's eyes," as a vast and elaborate conceit. Contemporary critics divided between those applauding the program's feminine deflation of war, and those who regarded the characters and their orientations toward war as wholly stereotypical invocations of femininity. John Leonard, writing for "Ms.," anticipated both camps in an early review: on one hand he identified the show's "war-movie foxhole principle of diversity-as-paradigm, which is to say that if you're stuck with all these women, one must be a Madonna, another a whore, a third, Mother Courage, and a fourth, Major Barbara." On the other hand, he reveled in the power of such stereotypes to multiply dramatic possibilities.
Certainly China Beach's two crucial protagonists amounted to carefully elaborated formulas. The camp's head nurse was the willful Colleen McMurphy, a woman proud of her composure and careful in her moral convictions, compassionate but capable of a scathingly condemning glance. K.C. was the calculating madam, alluring but hard, for whom the war brought nothing but higher profits, better contacts, and escalating entrepreneurial opportunities. These two roles constituted an important dialectic not primarily in character conflict, but in the orientation viewers were asked to take at any given time. They were played by exceptional performers whose portrayals complicated the stereotypes by importing still other formulas. Rather than a distanced Madonna, Dana Delany's McMurphy proved to be a passionate woman who--as a feminized, Irish Catholic version of M*A*S*H's Hawkeye Pierce--found not mere escape, but potential redemption in relationships. Rather than a whore with a heart of gold, Marg Helgenberger's K.C. emerged as chillingly objective, independent, self-isolated and unaccountable--as formidable and unapologetic as any soap opera bitch. If McMurphy sought to discover a sheltering and resilient humanity in the ensemble's reciprocities, K.C.'s continual interest was the manipulation of the ensemble's pitifully predictable foibles from without. McMurphy, K.C., and their supporting characters merged the sentimental education of women's melodrama, the life-and-death ethical discourse of medical dramas, and the lurid bathos of the apocalyptic war story in an ambitious format. Here the simultaneous development of serial plot lines created (as on St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues) an ongoing, organically changing, symbolically charged fictional world.
Both melodramatic sentiment and the psychic dislocation of war were conveyed not only through juxtaposed storylines and generic recombination, but through the show's evocative use of Vietnam-era soul, blues, and rock. China Beach frequently used such nostalgic music to frame the show's events as remembrances, laden with a sense of moral revisitation. Even more ambitiously, the program consistently invoked the audiences' feelings of nostalgic distance from the period in which the songs originated. That separation served as an analog for the feelings of distance which the protagonists, immersed in a war, were likely to feel from the society producing those songs. The viewer, like the dislocated combatant, was asked to yearn for the consolations of everyday 1960s American civilization (an invitation which drew on already prevalent revivals of 1960s counterculture among baby boomers and late 1980s youth).
In its final season, the show's convergence between the viewing audience and the protagonists took a considerable leap. The program now followed the characters into their post-war lives, reconstructing key events at China Beach--and the end of the war itself--through flashbacks. In an especially melodramatic plot, the show's narrative is controlled by the investigative efforts of K.C.'s dispossessed baby, now a film student whose hand-held video camera (an instrument of 1980s culture) becomes the show's eye as she interviews her mother's acquaintances in an attempt to find where K.C. has gone. In this season, the original ensemble has dispersed geographically, historically, and socially. Their separation exacerbates the multiplicity of vantages which gestated at China Beach during the war, and places the characters, sometimes disconcertingly and tragically, in situations which seem approachably contemporary with the viewing audience. Screen time became equally divided between fictive "past" and "present," making the entire narration an uprooted historical rumination. The viewer became implicated, not just in a Rashomon-like reconstruction of the war, but in an equally segmented and self-conscious sense of present American society, and its shared reflections.
Formal complication was not confined to music or narrative. China Beach used self-conscious, often expressionist lighting, sets, sound, and camera movement, which could vary dramatically from subplot to subplot. The military company's role as an entertainment unit was sometimes exploited to set characters in ironic plays-within-the-show, or to frame the allegorical dimension of musical performances.
For some critics, China Beach comprised, at its moment in the history of television production and viewership, a remarkable case of intrinsically televisual fiction. Others, however, regarded the program's overwrought televisual rhetoric differently. It was seen not as an exploration of the ethical and aesthetic possibilities of one of American culture's key sites for the fictional production of touchstone sentiments; rather, it was a conceited diminishment of history. Richard Zoglin of "Time" (a considerable forge of collective memory in its own right), accurately perceived the show's postmodern efforts to collapse wartime tragedy into contemporary viewers' casual nostalgia. But he seemed to think he was indicting the show by suggesting it reflected "the way dissent [against Vietnam] has become domesticated in America; what were radical antiwar views in the '60s are now mainstream TV attitudes." His assessment was accurate but not necessarily lamentable. China Beach demonstrated the historical war's continuing ability to open special sentiments among contemporary audiences.
Zoglin and others' questionable worries over television's historical license were based in the assumption that China Beach's version of the war would remain exclusive, definitive, and unrecognized as fiction. But television, with its multiple representations in fiction, documentary and news programs dealing with Vietnam, clearly continues to deny that assumption.
Nurse Colleen McMurphy......................... Dana Delany
Cherry White (1988-89)............................. Nan Woods