China Beach Tackles the Topic
Loyal listeners, this installment is at the heart of why this podcast even exists. It’s an incredibly deep dive into a TV series that is just old enough to be considered obscure. China Beach, to its devoted fans, was anything but worthy of obscurity. In fact, the writing and plot lines are so incredibly rich that it’s really quite timeless.
The critically acclaimed drama about the Viet Nam War, drama viewed through the eyes of the women who were stationed at China Beach – a U.S. medic station and R & R site – used the backdrop of war to explore conflict as we learned it in high school.
Remember that? Human vs. human, human vs. nature, human vs. herself, and the other two I can’t remember. Animals? Machines?
Anyway, well-written and very carefully directed, China Beach was set during the time of 1967 until the helicopters were leaving the Saigon Embassy rooftop in 1975 – it’s 8 years boiled into about four. The series, created and produced by John Sacret Young and William Broyles, ran four season from 1988 to 1991. Among the lead writers was Lydia Woodward, who went on to helm ER and Carol Flint, who has an illustrious IMDB profile that includes ER and The West Wing.
There’s enough out there on the internet for anyone unfamiliar with China Beach to learn more about it. The creators, writers and actors went out of their way to do right by the women and men who served in Viet Nam. They listened to the stories, asked questions and made sure that tone and details were authentic. That says a lot for a show that aired only 13 years after the conclusion of the war that divided the nation and ignored those veterans when they returned to the states. They were perceived as losers.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory combed through the China Beach inventory for one of the many episodes that epitomized the storytelling not just of the war, but of a moral dilemma that takes on a whole new meaning as it unfolds in the context of an active war zone.
You know that Dana Delaney was Colleen McMurphy, a recent nursing graduate who volunteered for service. Delaney won the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series in both 1989 and 1992. You know that Marg Helgenberger played KC Kowalski – who arrived in Viet Nam as an aid worker and ended up becoming China Beach’s resident entrepreneur. Helgenberger won the 1990 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. The two actresses, as well as the show were regular nominees by the Golden Globes, the Emmys and The Viewers for Quality Television.
In Season 3, as the show found its footing the team took on the subject of abortion. Really, few primetime shows have ever walked this path and it’s interesting but not surprising to note that the episode aired in its January 1990 primetime slot but never aired again. China Beach reruns occasionally land on cable, but you’ll never see Season 3, episode 14 entitled “Holly’s Choice.”
You’ll have to buy the DVD.
As the episode title suggests, it was Holly who had to make the decision to keep a baby and Holly was a Season Three recurring donut dolly character played by a young Ricki Lake. This was Ricki Lake fresh from Hair Spray, before her weight loss.
While very few primetime shows have ever ventured to include abortion in a plot, I feel almost certain that because it’s such a big decision, extra care is used in crafting each plot. Think about the Maude episode. Its premise and indeed the dilemma in Holly’s Choice is one woman gaining an understanding of all her options, all the implications. The word respectful comes to mind to describe both.
Unlike Maude, who was looking at a pregnancy in her mid-40s, at a time when that was considered medically risky, China Beach’s Holly is in her early 20s – maybe 20 or 21 and the year is supposed to be around 1970. Roe V. Wade was decided in 1973. The aforementioned episode of Maude aired in 1974.
Holly’s Choice aired 16 years later and like that episode of Maude, only once.
A key element to the telling of Holly’s Choice was the decision to unfold the drama in reverse. This is a technique you may recall from ER – when the episode starts out in a triage room and defibrillator paddles are flying, orders are being shouted, blood spurting – it looks like war zone. And then they begin telling the story, backwards.
Same thing here and the special, almost philosophical ending – or really the beginning - makes the episode one not so much about abortion, but about the human element of war and how decisions by men and women get made within that context.
Okay, here we go.
Throughout the episode, we see Holly, an Ohio native, giving great care to a garden she created right in the middle of the compound. By the end of her dilemma – her garden is surrounded by a white picket fence, a scare crow and a small but highly anticipated crop of carrots. The symbolism is clear – the idea of trying to grow something out of a dusty, barren plot of brown land. Life in the midst of death. Caring for something over which she has some control.
McMurphy approaches her and the cool exchange seems odd.
China Beach viewers know McMurphy to be the friend we’d all like to have. She’s hard working, has a heart of gold and has been through some harrowing exploits. We love McMurphy.
The screen flashes the word earlier (the first of many times through the episode) and we begin to get the full picture. KC has taken on the role of Mama Grizzly and attempts to put Dr. Dick Richard, who had been an Ob/GYN in private practice before the war, in Holly’s shoes.
Wow, there’s a lot of information in there. But in a nutshell in 1970, that was the list of options and each one was filled with downsides and challenges that often proved insurmountable. The writers did a nice job of including advances in maternal health medicine that enabled doctors to detect birth. Dr. Richard showed his human side, right next to his by-the-book lecture.
The clinicians – Dr. Richard and Colleen McMurphy – present their options with compassion but in full adherence of both the law of the land and in Colleen’s case, religious beliefs.
How did Holly end up in crisis? She’s hemorrhaging following unexpected complications from a self-administered abortion. She’s clearly feverish, in pain and about to go into shock when she knocks on KC’s door. It’s not KC’s preference to take her to see Dr. Richard but no one is more pragmatic and street smart than KC.
In the series four years, there are few instances where you see KC, played in this and every episode masterfully by Helgenberger, show such compassion. She can be aloof, cold and judged by all for her methods of making a living among the military personnel. But here, KC even though she is being paid a small fee by Holly, provides full service.
Initially, the self-induced abortion seemed to have worked, Holly told KC. She felt great. The scene preceded it reveals the gritty, experimental guessing and wishing that so many women attempted – create a poison that is strong enough to prompt a miscarriage.
We’ve seen that Holly and KC could not rely on their medical friends for assistance. They had taken matters into their own hands. In fact, that is the option they are left after visiting a Vietnamese back alley abortionist who rolls out dirty tools in a dirty towel…
KC tells Holly they’ve got to split.
And before knocking on that door, they had inquired of services from a Vietnamese physician. This brief scene reveals, in powerful terms, the differences men and women had of the concept of abortion and decisions about reproduction.
So while the episode is entitled Holly’s Choice, we are reminded that before Roe V. Wade made terminating a pregnancy a decision between a woman and her physician, the choices were few… and each, including carrying to term, held life-changing risk.
Holly weighed her options, upon learning of her pregnancy. The father, a young enlisted man from the South, had no interest in marrying her or even providing for the child’s care. No one who knew of Holly’s situation even asked about the viability of the father engaging in either the decision or the child’s future.
Arriving at the decision to terminate, Holly sought counsel from KC. KC understood the situation, it seems like familiar KC territory to a regular viewer of China Beach. KC confidently tells Holly to round up $200, which will cover services they’ll find away from China Beach and KC’s fee. It’s just business to KC.
Holly sought out KC because her relationship with Colleen had reached judgment.
The references to Alleluia are poignant. Into its third season, the show’s storytelling revealed a strength in McMurphy that was often superhuman – physical strength, emotional, moral. She could hold her own with the men in this version of Hell. She could make decisions rapidly and more often than not correctly because of her medical training and an unfailing moral compass.
However, while enduring a shelling, McMurphy, Holly and others were gathered in a tent playing Truth or Dare. McMurphy reveals she had just gotten her period (hence the singing of The Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah) and that this time it had been too close a call. McMurphy the saint had dodged the predicament of the sinner.
That point wasn’t lost on Holly. It was a selfish side that, at least for that episode, made us question McMurphy’s capacity to balance compassion with judgment. She knew a bit about Holly’s situation – or at least enough to assume it was a mistaken result of a one night stand – a sin. Yet McMurphy’s skills served sinners on a daily basis. American soldiers were killing innocent Vietnamese and getting wounded in the process. Was this a double standard that the viewer could see but McMurphy simply couldn’t?
Just as you’re thinking that and wondering how it all unfolded that Holly had even ended up with the sort of dorky soldier named Zimmer who we learn in the first scene – yes at the beginning of the episode – has been killed – okay what’s the story? Well, you get it.
Donut Dolly Holly is making rounds of encampments and encounters Zimmer choosing to stay behind while his fellow soldiers attend a USO show. Holly asks him some questions and offers to keep him company. We soon learn he had just found out that rounds he had fired earlier in the day – he had been given inaccurate information and had fired upon American troops. He had created friendly fire and was the cause of casualties. This simple kid Zimmer was distraught. And Donut Dolly Holly, by no means a trained therapist or social worker, knew enough that in the throes of war, it was more important for him to compartmentalize his grief and set it aside than to let it overcome him. She provided him relief and compassion, closer to KC’s human way than McMurphy’s superhuman way.
And so, Holly’s choice and near death experience, as revealed in reverse, was a consequence of war, wrapped up in the casualties of Zimmer’s friendly fire and his own subsequent death. With judgment and the law of 1970 so strict that there is no room for exception, the writers gave us many dark shades of gray to make the point that without legal options, the services offered by non-medical providers are sketchy, dangerous and send shivers up the modern spine.
Every episode of China Beach is carried by the opposites brought to life by Delaney and Helgenberger. Good and bad, wise and untested, optimistic and jaded and the list goes on. That relationship evolves to one of mutual appreciation and dependence. It was a rich pairing of two excellent dramatic actresses. This show is a classic so for Pete’s sake, let’s finally put Hogan’s Heroes to rest and bring back China Beach for good.
Lastly, this episode like many, Marg Helgenberger’s hair was just impeccable. I am nearly speechless it’s so excellent.
Regular listeners may remember from the segment on fashion where Ann Rosenquist Fee remarked that Cher has a swagger, she can wear any kind of clothing she wants because her confidence takes her look to a higher level. The people in charge of the wardrobe for China Beach never missed a chance to elevate KC’s swagger. Whether it was a geisha dress, olive drab t-shirt, sweat-stained tank top or kimono robe, Helgenberger strutted. She owned all the space that KC could possibly absorb and she did it well.
As I stated at the beginning of this installment, the only way to view Holly’s Choice is to buy the DVD of Season three – or buy the entire series which is available in a boxed set. But if you just need the pick me up of music and imagery of strong women, then I suggest you go to YouTube and pull up the China Beach intro.
Reflections , as performed by Diana Ross and technically the Supremes but they weren’t THE Supremes, they were stand ins, as Ms. Ross explained in her autobiography memoir thing…. Reflections with its space age, tambourine-led sound is haunting. It’s driven. It’s got conviction and in my opinion is one of the best fits of pop music to a theme song of any TV show. Ever.
Second, the clips that comprise the opening are from each season, some are carried over season to season. As the cast changed – Donut Dollies generally were only cast for a one year tour which was equivalent to a season. As such you had Nan Woods in Season One, Ricki Lake later. You get the point. The intros are uplifting and each season generated a unique masterpiece. The images featuring Delaney and Helgenberger get stronger as the seasons evolve and as KC became such a popular supporting character. Oh, just so excellent, packed with all ranges of emotion, of drama, of living in the moment of which you have little control. We all have our challenges, our trials, our hard days and I find that watching a season helps me find perspective.
It's my hope and intention to explore other topics or episodes that sprang from the minds of China Beach writers in future installments of Advanced TV Herstory.
Rolling the credits for this installment is like reading the town newspaper. Thank you to Cherise, a media studies professor at a certain liberal arts college in Connecticut. Cherise sent me some scholarly articles written about China Beach. Good stuff.
Audio producer David Brown just keeps getting better and better. Find his bio and contact information at the podcast’s webpage – www.tvherstory.com. Send your feedback on this installment or ideas for future ones to email@example.com.
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It’s a labor of love for all you wonderful listeners. Thank you for your ongoing support. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.