Time Life just released “China Beach: The Complete Collection” in a handsome boxed set that features all four seasons in individual keep cases, for those who’d rather ditch the box and put them on the shelf with all the other DVDs. Fans who’ve been waiting forever to get “China Beach” on DVD ought to be pleased with this well designed release, while the rest of our readers may be wondering, What in the heck is “China Beach”?

“China Beach” aired on ABC-TV from 1988-91. Call it a dramatic version of “M*A*S*H,” with an ensemble cast that’s heavy on actresses because the show tells the story of an evac hospital near My Khe Beach (nicknamed China Beach) in the city of Da Nang, Vietnam from a largely female perspective. The show was praised for its realism and received high marks from Vietnam veterans. In fact, Episode 20 (“Vets”) intercuts veterans’ accounts of life “in country” with clips from the series’ first 19 episodes to make for the most interesting clip show I’ve ever seen.

“China Beach” also received critical acclaim, with star Dana Delany (“Desperate Housewives,” “Body of Proof”) earning a pair of Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress. But the series never drew the same kind of audience that their comic counterparts did. Why, is a mystery—although timing is usually everything. It may well have been that the Gulf War (1990-91) hurt the series, because with war in the news, audiences might have been reluctant to watch a serious war drama during their leisure time.

Too bad, because this series does a lot of things right. For a major network show, there are some surprising lines. In the very first episode, for example, “fresh meat” on a commercial airliner heading for Vietnam tries to get fresh with a flight attendant. “Uh, stewardess, I’m having trouble with my seatbelt,” the young draftee says. “Could you help me?” After telling him she’s heard that line a thousand times before she leans in and says, “If I reach down and there’s anything hanging out, I’m going to cut it off and take it with me.” Ouch.

The main characters have a little zip and zing in them too, and to the writers’ credit they’re not all black and white. Delany’s character is Colleen McMurphy, who is at the end of her enlistment period when we first meet her—though a doctor appeals to her practical side (“You’ll never be more needed than you are here”) and gets her to re-enlist. She’s obviously fatigued, and has learned to harden herself in order to survive. She’s vulnerable, but she’s the one who decides when to get serious with a jet fighter pilot (Tim Ryan) who provides the love interest for the first two seasons.

There’s a cross-section of women shown here. McMurphy is “one of the guys,” as battle-hardened as any of the men who come through China Beach. But for two seasons we also get an unbelievably naive Red Cross volunteer named Cherry White (Nan Woods), who is in Vietnam mostly to try to find her M.I.A. brother. Her rosy-cheeked values clash with those of K.C. Koloski (Marg Helgenberger), a volunteer who turned prostitute to make a small fortune, but partly, one suspects, because that’s the one way she thought she could really help the troops. Then there’s Laurette Barber (Chloe Webb), a USO singer who’s determined to crack the big time. And Major Lila Garreau (Concetta Tomei), a WWII vet who’s in charge of China Beach. When some are written out of the series, others take their place, so there’s always a full complement of women whose values represent some segment of the population. Among them are an Armed Services Network reporter looking to the war as a way to enhance her career (Megan Gallagher as Wayloo Marie Holmes), a motor pool private (Nancy Giles as Frankie Bunsen), and a quick-witted Red Cross volunteer (Ricki Lake as Holly Pelegrino).

Though the characters are types, they’re not full stereotypes, because their personalities are complex enough to ward off simplicity. Take the lead male, for example. Capt. Dick Richard (Robert Picardo) is the head surgeon, but a habitual womanizer who pinches the butts of nurses who work with him. Disturbingly, he worked as an OB/GYN in civilian life, but he also has his sympathetic side. He’s the one who convinces the star to stay where she’s needed, and when he goes home to visit his wife and finds everything changed, it’s hard not to sympathize with him—especially when his reaction is to become more involved with the Vietnamese locals doing charity work.

Another male who made it through the series’ entire run is Corporal Boonie Lanier (Brian Wimmer), the lifeguard at China Beach. He too blurs the line between “man” and “one of the women,” as does Beckett (Michael Boatman), who runs the morgue and talks to himself and the dead a lot. Guest stars included Don Cheadle, Dorian Harewood, Tom Sizemore, Doug Savant, Adam Arkin, and Nancy Sinatra—who, in accordance with the show’s emphasis on realism, recreated concerts that she performed for U.S. troops back in 1966-67.

The pacing might seem a little slow for today’s audiences, but the acting and writing are sharp and the characters interesting enough to make you come back for more. It’s war. People disappear. People get killed. People get scared. People get scarred. People cope. Unlike “M*A*S*H,” the focus isn’t on the operating room. The women see field combat up close and personal at times, and they get caught up in underworld and black market adventures. Storylines include MIAs, interesting soldiers with battle fatigue, fights among surgeons over treatments, relationships among the characters, some of the more unique Christmas episodes you’ll ever see (including a rogue Santa), and the cost of war on each character returning home. One such episode, “Fever,” was directed by Diane Keaton.

Like some of the best Vietnam-era films, “China Beach” tried to capture the essence of the period through music, and what’s astounding is that somehow this collection arrives intact, with some 300 period songs backing up the drama—including the series theme, “Reflections” (The Supremes), “Nowhere to Run” (Martha and the Vandellas), “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’” (The Four Tops), “My Girl” (The Temptations), “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (James Brown), “Piece of My Heart” (Janis Joplin), “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (Manfred Mann), “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (Tommy James & the Shondells), “Stand by Me” (John Lennon), “Respect” (Aretha Franklin), and “I Got You Babe” (Sonny & Cher).

Sixty-two episodes are included on 21 discs, which come in four standard-size keep cases that slide into a very sturdy and stylish high-gloss slipcase with a magnetic flap and a pair of dog tags glued to the outside. A fifth keep case houses two DVDs of bonus features.

In addition to solid casting and writing, “China Beach” had some edge to it, and some complexity—the kind of things that make it relevant for contemporary audiences.

Total runtime is close to 60 hours. ”China Beach” is not rated.

The screen warns that the picture may have flaws, but that Time Life has sought to restore as much as they could when original elements were available. The presentation, in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is a little rough in spots, with grain throughout. But the picture is never so bad that it draws attention to itself. Colors survive pretty well.

The audio appears to be a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and, like the video, it’s passable, but certainly not a selling point.

A 28-page full-color, perfect-bound booklet, “Tales from the Five & Dime” (as in the 510th Evac) features character bios, a map, interview transcripts, and letters from vets, plus 10 hours of disc bonus features. The highlight for curious fans will be a reunion with the “China Beach” cast, including Delany, Helgenberger, Picardo, and Boatman. There’s also a featurette of “China Beach Memories” culled from the 25th anniversary reunion.

Episode commentaries are included for the pilot (with the executive producer and director) and the finale (with the executive producer and Delany), along with deleted scenes and a gag reel.

The other bonus features are dominated by roundtables. There’s one on “China Beach Origins” featuring John Sacret Young, Rod Holcomb, Bill Broyles, and John Levey, one on “China Beach Reality” featuring Young, Carol Flint, and Toni Graphia, and “China Beach Legacy” with Young, John Wells, Lydia Woodward, and Mimi Leder.

In addition to interviews with Delany, Nancy Giles, Wimmer, and Jeff Kober, and a roundtable discussion of “China Beach Origins” with John Sacret Young, Rod Holcomb, Bill Broyles, and John Levey,

Bonus features on the four season episode discs are clearly marked, and duplicate pages from the booklet turn up as inserts in the four individually shrink-wrapped keep cases, which suggests they’ll next be available as single seasons, without the box and bonus disc.

Bottom line:
“China Beach” was a solid Vietnam War series, and Time Life really assembled a solid box set for fans. Diehards may feel that since it took so long for this show to be available on DVD there could have been more features, but I can’t imagine anyone being too upset. What’s here is very good. If you order direct from Time Life (click on photo below) it’s $199.95, with installment pricing available.