Picks and Pans Review: China Beach
A fine and shifting line separates surrealistic from sophomoric, brilliant from bombastic. China Beach is a rare show that has the courage to charge that line. It is another military drama, another Vietnam series, but it bears no resemblance to Supercarrier or Tour of Duty. This is a smart show; its dramatic ancestor is M*A*S*H, not Combat. China Beach is about women in the war—nurses, USO singers, hookers and Vietnamese guerrillas. Dana Delany (Tom Selleck's wife on Magnum) plays a nurse and wonder-woman—smart, tough, tender, moral, vulnerable, beautiful and "just one of the guys." She is the perfect woman, suitable for pedestals, but thanks to Delany's acting, she is also full of life. Chloe (Sid and Nancy) Webb plays a dippy pre-hippie singer who thinks Vietnam is a "men-o-rama" and explains the madness of the war better than anyone: "I mean, what else is there to say about all this after you've said 'shanananana?' " She's odd, but thanks to Webb's acting she grows on you faster than fungus in a jungle. And there are plenty more promising players: Marg Helgenberger as a redheaded American hooker, Brian Wimmer as a lifeguard on the beach, Nan Woods as a sweet innocent from Iowa and Robert Picardo as a doctor who uses a stopwatch to set speed records in surgery. China Beach is filled with rich characters and performances. That makes this series special, but that's not all. The show also has a unique vision. In one scene, in a humid room lit by moving shadows, the soldier in charge of the morgue talks to a young victim of Vietnam. As we hear him say, "We'll miss you," we see him zip up a black plastic body bag. Just then the show is on the safe side of that fine line; there's something surrealistic about this scene. But later, the show goes one step too far when the man in the morgue and Delany both try and try to rub blood, red ink and formaldehyde from their hands in your standard out-out-damned-spot scene. The show has crossed over the line into sophomoricland. But that's okay. The price of success is sometimes a little failure. And China Beach can afford that price, for it is an inventive, inspired and brave gamble of a show. It is the best Vietnam show yet.