Dana Delany, Nan Woods, Michael Boatman, Tim Ryan, Chloe Webb. Directed by Rod Holcomb. 1988. (Warner tape, 95 min., Hi-Fi stereo, $79.95)
Since I'm often out seeing movies at night, I don't get to see "China Beach," the current ABC-TV series set in Vietnam in the late '60s. But watching this pilot in its new video edition, I'm sorry I missed even one scene.
The story centers more or less on Delany, a sensitive, expressive actress. She plays Nurse McMurphy, who is approaching the end of a year's service in 'Nam and is counting the days until she returns home. But this is a series, so you know she won't soon go home and leave her buddies behind.
"China Beach" is made up of vignettes much like "Hill Street Blues" or "L.A. Law," with the actors delivering the same sort of laid-back, world-weary performances you see on "thirtysomething." Even though this style of acting is a bit predictable, it manages to convey the sense of cynicism that helped get these soldiers and medical personnel through a nightmarish existence.
Most of the pilot is set in an outpost where a group of second-rate performers who specialize in Supremes' hits has arrived to entertain female-starved GIs. Military and civilian officials are all there to greet them.
Webb, an actress I've previously found to be somewhat uncharismatic, is sensational as one of the backup singers who assumes she's in a bachelorette's heaven, but wises up quickly to the realities of war. Her portrayal is poignant, shy, hesitant, a bit fearful and thoroughly convincing. Robert Picardo is also notable as a cynical doctor, as is Jeff Kober as a battle-weary young infantryman.
"China Beach" won an Emmy Award for Delany and received laudatory reviews, which is no guarantee, of course, of success in television. And, in fact, the show has yet to win big ratings. When it returned this fall, its storyline was moved forward into the'80s. It will include extended flashbacks to the war years and show what happened to the characters later in their lives. That sounds all well and good, and I hope a new time slot will help its ratings. But this pilot episode, which examines the hearts and minds of soldiers, nurses, doctors and officials, is closest to the original intent of "China Beach." And it's superb.