Debut date: April 27, 1988
Series legacy: A well-respected, but sort of forgotten series
It’s time for a new theme in the site’s most popular ongoing feature, Test Pilot. The primary reason I started this feature almost a year ago was so that I could have a solid excuse to explore television’s history and fill in some of the blanks in my viewing and critical experiences. From the beginning, I have wanted to talk about the differences between television programs from the past (whenever the heck “the past” is) and the present. The theme we are kicking off today tackles that primary issue head-on. With the 63rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards coming this September, I thought it would be fun, interesting and insightful to look back at the 43rd ceremony held 20 years ago. In particular, my guests and I will watching and writing about the five nominees in the Outstanding Drama Series category from that ceremony in 1991.
Not only is 20 years a nice round number to start from in the theme’s examination of where television drama has been, the quintet of nominees from 1991′s Drama Series category is full of generally well-respected but different series. At that time, Emmy voters considered L.A. Law, China Beach, Quantum Leap, Northern Exposure and thirtysomething the best that television drama had to offer. Hopefully taking a look at the kind of programs that the Emmy voters considered “quality” two decades later will shine a light on how the industry and the Emmys have changed — and how they haven’t. Do these series share any interesting qualities? Major differences? Do we have different expectations for greatness today? Is television as a whole that different as it was in 1991? These are the sort of questions and concerns I hope that we can investigate and discuss over the next 10 weeks and five entries.
Like our work on thirtysomething a handful of weeks ago, today’s topic series China Beach had already been a multi-time nominee in the Outstanding Drama category by the time the 1991 Emmy Awards came around. The highly-praised, barely-watched ABC drama series was nominated three straight times for its second (1989), third (1990) and fourth (1991) seasons. Unfortunately, China Beach didn’t win any of those years and it’s somewhat goofy that we’re talking about the first episode in the only season that wasn’t nominated, but I think you’ll find today’s discussion just fine anyway, especially when you get to my guest’s perspective on things.
To help with the China Beach-related proceedings is a former viewer of the series (although with some slightly unique circumstances that she’ll describe momentarily) Chris Becker. Chris teaches film and television history and analysis at the University of Notre Dame and is currently working on a research project comparing contemporary American and British TV. She also runs the blog News for TV Majors and can be found at nearly any given moment on Twitter as @crsbecker. Take it away, Chris:
I didn’t watch China Beach when it first came on the air. In fact, I purposely avoided it, solely because my mother said she liked it. This was the late 1980s, my early serious film buff stage, and I only made time for a handful of critically-acclaimed TV seriess, like St. Elsewhere (and 21 Jump Street, because, I mean, c’mon). My mom’s tastes ran more toward soap operas, and at that point in life I fancied that I had higher tastes (how young and stupid I was). I can no longer recall exactly when I did start watching China Beach or what the catalyst was. Maybe after its Best Drama Emmy nomination in 1989 signaled that it was ok to watch? I don’t know. But at some point I started watching and fell deeply for it.
The series finale in particular moved me more than any other I had seen. I watched it timeshifted on videotape at 4am after working a ten-hour night shift at a factory (a summer job that taught me how important it was to stay in school, kids). I was so excited about it that I couldn’t imagine going to sleep without watching it first. So there I sat with all the lights out, my eyes only inches from the TV set so as to keep the volume low, in rapt attention. The ending scenes, when the characters visit the Memorial Wall, just broke me. Never had a television series felt so profound. (And in the ending montage, never had a Michael McDonald song — “I Can Let Go Now” — felt so perfect. Or even not sucked.)
The finale, which closed out a stellar fourth season that saw the series jump between 1985 and the war years, contained clips from the pilot, which I still hadn’t seen yet. I loved the tease of seeing my favorite characters’ first on-screen moments together, knowing now what they had been through. But upon watching the pilot again for this post, it’s perhaps a good thing I didn’t watch the pilot back in my snooty days, because while I would have found much to like, I also would have found much to mock. I trust the former would have overruled the latter and I would have kept watching, but many of the best aspects of the series aren’t fully evident here.
There from the start was Dana Delany’s outstanding performance, capturing all nuances of Nurse Colleen McMurphy’s compelling mixture of dedication and exasperation, stoicism and vulnerability, earnestness and cynicism. Also in evidence is the camaraderie among the characters that would define the series’ take on the war, such as hints of the complex McMurphy-Richard relationship, and the extent to which the characters would lean heavily on each other to get through their experiences, which gave the series an ideal character/plot balance. The pilot also displays moments of rich cinematography that would have thrilled my film major side, showcasing in equal measure the horror and the beauty of the setting.
The opening scene is especially striking in that regard, as McMurphy walks from the scenic beach to the cluttered medical tent, and as she opens a door, she’s blasted by the wind from a medical helicopter, a symbolic image I loved to see every week in the credits sequence (and one that is nicely echoed later in the pilot with another female character). And finally, I appreciated the dark moments of the series, ones that could be stunningly bleak for network television. What advertiser would want their commercial to be the first one that airs after Beckett, the morgue attendant, talks to dead soldiers and zips up their body bags? Beckett represents China Beach at its most lyrical (the character is a wordsmith and writer), and he has some of my favorite moments in the pilot, with the scenes in the morgue combining artful lighting effects and profound dialogue. Of course, Beckett can also represent China Beach at its most strained (hey, he’s a writer who works in a morgue, so let’s name him Samuel Beckett!). And he does so in the pilot with a single gorgeous yet absurd shot: as bombs explode around the camp and only yards away, Beckett sits completely still at a table, bathed in red light.
And pushing certain moments and themes too hard is one of the flaws of the pilot. Most of the problems revolve around a pair of pilotitis-laden characters, new arrivals Cherry and Laurette, who get China Beach’s Vietnam experience explained to them. We know from the start that Laurette, a singer who repeatedly announces that she’s there looking for hot men and stardom, will end up getting a major dose of reality. And she does when a blinded, horrifically dying soldier who somehow, ridiculously, has Laurette’s picture in his pocket from one of her earlier shows, asks her to sing him into the afterlife. Too much.
But the worst scene involves Cherry running through the jungle, as cheesy action music plays, trying to escape a would-be rapist consulate representative and being saved by a group of soldiers we met earlier (who are on leave, so why they’re hanging out in the jungle and happen to be right there right then isn’t clear). One of those soldiers, Dodger, would become one of the series’ most fascinating characters, but here he’s nothing more than a thousand-yard stare (introduced as 19, the character looks 30; the actor, Jeff Kober, seen most recently battling the Sons of Anarchy, was 35). Also, there’s some strained dialogue (one character says “Even though this nuts is going on” twice in one monologue), and McMurphy has an “out, damned spot” moment that only Delany’s acting skill saves.
But first and foremost, I was disappointed that the pilot didn’t have a single scene between McMurphy and KC (a prostitute played by the stellar Marg Helgenberger), as the KC-McMurphy frenemyship provided some of the most absorbing interactions across the series. These multi-faceted women clashed morally but often meshed emotionally, and each delighted in pointing out the other’s hypocrisy.
Thinking of this in terms of the series’ potential status as quality television makes me lament how masculinity-driven quality TV is today. Yes, KC and McMurphy inevitably fought over men, but they also regularly debated why they were in Vietnam and, in the final season, reflected on how the experience affected them. And while they aren’t brought together in the pilot, both characters do receive rich treatment there in terms of gender, KC from the standpoint of her openly defiant exploitation of her sexuality for financial gain, McMurphy from her compassionate drive to mother everyone while commanding respect as a professional, intriguingly reflected when her cohorts honor her at a going away party with beauty pageant items made from medical supplies as Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman” plays. On today’s dramas, I’d consider putting Alicia Florrick and Peggy Olson up against this for women I love to watch being women on TV, but not too many others.
Though McMurphy gets the going away party, she of course does not go away. In the final scene, she just instantly declares she’s not leaving Vietnam because she feels like she has a home and family here. Um, ok. As this sudden, contrived reversal indicates, the China Beach pilot falls short of contemporary standards of quality TV in terms of not being artfully subtle, the way Mad Men is at its best, or consistently compelling, the way Breaking Bad now owns. But at least it contained seeds of what would become a complex series whose finale (and whole final season) deserves to be thought of as among the very best. One last point: PLEASE GOD someone just pay for the music rights already so we can get this series on DVD!
And as what’s becoming something of the norm around here, I’m taking the role of the newbie viewer. What can I say, China Beach debuted about six weeks before I was born. ANYWAY:
Of the five series in this theme, China Beach was the one I knew the least about. I had a pretty good handle or had even seen episodes of the other four, but this series was nearly a complete mystery to me. I was vaguely aware of its existence and its Vietnam setting. That’s about it, however. Interestingly, the only reason I knew much of anything about China Beach is through a few random columns written over the years about what television series deserved/needed to be on DVD. China Beach isn’t an outlier, music rights issues have held back a number of great older series. When combined with its low ratings, the lack of DVD release makes it seem like there’s no one out there who cared about the series. Nevertheless, the series’ lack of home video release almost makes it cease to exist, at least in the minds of new television writers/scholars.* If I can’t watch it, what’s the point?
*Of course I eventually found it through untraditional means. But let me tell you, I have never had more trouble finding a stream of a television episode in my entire life. And if you can’t find something on the internet, it REALLY doesn’t exist, right?
Because of this, I started to think about the perception of “quality” television and how viewers in the 21st century are supposed to watch. Clearly, we want to be on the cutting edge and watch all the great series when they air live so we can participate in the discourse surrounding them, but DVD – and Netflix streaming, obviously – makes it so much easier for folks to catch up and in fact, many people vouch for the DVD/streaming option all together so they can experience the series in a faster fashion. Friends direct other friends to Mad Men streaming on Netflix and they pass around their DVD sets with the note “You have to watch this.”
But when there are no DVD sets and the series isn’t streaming on Netflix or Hulu, it is hard to make sense for any sense of perceived quality. It’s not that I don’t believe people when they tell me something like China Beach was awesome; it’s just that I, like many of you, prefer to find this out for myself. Dipping into the history of the Emmy Awards also tells me what was supposedly good at a certain time, but I am a person with a brain so I don’t really take much stock in what the Emmys have ever signed off on over the years. I don’t know about you guys, but having the Emmy archives as a primary bastion for what was “great” about television in the decades past scares me. A lot. I could talk about the problems with DVD releases and their impact on history all day, but I think you understand where I’m coming from: We’re losing, hell, we’ve already lost so many things to history that eventually we will only consider the things we can access when discussing greatness, quality, etc.
I’m moderately riled up about this because I was genuinely surprised at how compelling China Beach was as I watched the pilot episode. I don’t want to necessarily say “great” and I’ll get into why later, but because I had no real awareness or ability to find much on the series, I didn’t really know what to expect. Being pleasantly surprised is always nice.
Though it was kind of odd watching a period piece that was also shot 25 years ago, China Beach does a great job of dropping you into the Vietnam world very quickly and never shies away from depicting some of the gruesome realities that existed at that time. Rod Holcomb’s direction nails the uncomfortable clash between the beauty of the location and the horrible, bleak events taking place in that location. As Chris mentioned, the opening sequence is beautiful and it contrasts well with the final moments of the opening hour. We start on a glorious, sunny beach and end in a dark, nearly pitch-black room full of body bags.
Moreover, William Broyles Jr.’s script succeeds where I assumed it would fail by striking a rock-solid balance between the grimness and the humorous, lighter side to things. A series like this shouldn’t be over-the-top melodramatic because the setting and backdrop already provide enough intensity and drama to last a lifetime (especially when based on real events). Thus I was happy to find that not only were many of the characters complex and interesting, they were relatively even-keel. Obviously Chloe Webb’s Laurette is a bit much and the sexual assault/jungle run that Chris talked about feels like it is part of another series entirely, but the majority of the characters feel like real people trapped in a horribly real situation and they’re just trying to make the most of it. Sometimes that means drinking and having some fun, but usually it means getting absorbed in gravity of it all. No one is overly glib and no one is a shrieking mess all the time. The tonal balance is handled very well and again, that surprised me at least a little bit.
And while there are some overwrought performances (I’ve never liked Chloe Webb, so I’m glad that Chris pointed her out as well) and problematic scenes like the sexual assault and jungle run, this pilot avoids spending too much time on the characters that are new to the world. Laurette and Cherry aren’t particularly engaging or likable characters and yet I understand why the episode uses them as an entry point. Pretty girls coming to a forbidding, awful world makes for a nice, albeit obvious contrast. These ladies don’t dominate the screen-time too much and for the most part, it still feels like the story is being told from the perspective of those who’ve already been stuck in Vietnam and in this war for an extended period of time. Using new characters is an easy trick and though it doesn’t totally work, it’s not so dominant that it ultimately doesn’t quite matter. If we were to picture this series being made today on HBO or something, they would probably throw the audience right into the story with no clear “newbie” or whatnot. This seems like one of those slight changes in how television, especially cable television, operates two decades later.
There’s no exact science to this, but I’d posit that the most obvious markers of “quality” that we look for today are narrative and character complexity, an innovative visual style, great performances and a certain degree of depth. You might agree with that list or suggest adding to it and that’s fine. China Beach embodies most of those elements in this pilot episode and although the pilot’s narrative isn’t particularly difficult to follow, I’ve been told that the series becomes more complex and uses different narrative techniques as time passes. Of the three series we’ve tackled in this theme, China Beach is the shiniest candidate for the “quality” moniker. There’s nothing wrong with thirtysomething and many assure me that Northern Exposure improves, but China Beach is more tailor-made for that kind of quality labels and discussions we like to have today. This is the only series that feels like it could fit in on someone’s schedule today without much change. Clearly being a period piece helps in that regard, but Beach still seems…different, especially compared to the other series we’ve discussed thus far.
This is probably why no one watched it then, right? Complicated, complex series have trouble garnering an audience today, even with viewers who have lived in the best era of television ever. The content isn’t similar at all, but no one watched Terriers, Rubicon, Lights Out or Lone Star, which tells us that even today, viewers aren’t always willing to take on something like this. If today’s viewers can’t handle or don’t want to handle Terriers, it is far from surprising that audiences in the late 1980s didn’t know what to make of China Beach.* I’m shocked that the series lasted four seasons in the first place.
*I would be really interested to know if people reacted negatively to the series because the wounds of Vietnam were too fresh. I mean it had been a while, but I’m not sure. If you know, please let me know.
Conclusions on legacy: Unfortunately forgotten!