It took decades for the dramatic series China Beach to get to DVD. But it is still only gradually making its way to retail stores.
The series, which originally aired on ABC from 1988 to 1991, focused on people working in and around a military hospital and rest center in Vietnam. That may not have seemed unusual — the series even used sets from M*A*S*H, the military comedy-drama set in Korea but often metaphorically about Vietnam — but China Beach had its own take on the war, seeing it largely through the eyes of women. The main character, Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany), was a nurse; others included Red Cross worker Cherry White (Nan Woods), conniving businesswoman K.C. Koloski (Marg Helgenberger) and, in the first season, entertainer Laurette Barber (Chloe Webb).
It could be poetic, starkly realistic, earnest, humorous and engaged in big issues, including race, but always through the filter of personal stories. It was often nominated for Emmys, and both Delany and Helgenberger won. But it was another element — the liberal use of pop songs from the ’60s on the soundtrack — that delayed the release on DVD. StarVista Entertainment and Time Life, the companies distributing it on DVD, ended up getting rights to more than 250 songs and even then had another 17 songs that could not be licensed; the DVDs in those cases either substitute songs, use sound-alikes for the originals or simply delete the music (and, in one second-season episode, delete a piece of dialogue that includes quoting a song lyric).
In any case, for months the series has been available online in two complete- series boxes, one including all 62 episodes plus extras ($199.95) and an even more elaborate set adding scripts, photographs and more extras ($274.95). If you want the whole thing, you still have to get it online, preferably via http://chinabeachondvd.com. You can find the set being resold through sites such as Amazon.com, but the Amazon sets are being offered at a far higher price than the China Beach DVD site asks.
As for those of you who buy your DVDs and Blu-rays in stores, Tuesday brings the release of China Beach: The Complete Season One ($22.95). It includes the two-hour series premiere and six ensuing episodes that aired in spring 1988 along with extras like a making-of piece, short interviews with Delany and Webb, clips from a cast reunion in 2012 and an audio commentary on the premiere by series co-creator and executive producer John Sacret Young and director Rod Holcomb. To give you an idea of how long people have been trying to get this set released, the commentary was recorded in 2003.
It’s a curious season, one in which the makers and the actors are still finding their way. Some are absolutely clear — Helgenberger and Webb have an immediate grasp of their characters — but Delany seems to be working out things, and Woods is saddled with a character who was too narrowly defined. But there are interesting dynamics at work, as the four women represent perspectives on the American experience in Vietnam, and the other characters bring other views and dramatic conflicts to bear. Sure, it’s slow in spots, and Webb so dominates her scenes that the balance among the characters tips very much her way. But even all these years later it is a show that can grab you in the gut or keep you thinking long after an episode is done.
The extras also have their uses. Webb has a hilarious story about how she came to be cast on the show, and at the reunion Delany wryly notes how she has aged in comparison with the way McMurphy’s aging was shown. And, in building the drama around strong and complex women, the series was noteworthy. So let’s hope that the subsequent seasons will find their way onto store shelves soon.
Elsewhere on video Tuesday: Warner Home Video brings silent classic The Big Parade to Blu-ray in a book-jacket- style package with notes, art and other extras ($27.98) and on a more simply packaged DVD ($14.97). It follows the journey of a young man (John Gilbert) fighting in France in World War I — which makes it a potential companion to the wartime drama of China Beach — and was an enormous success in its time; Warner says it was the highest-grossing silent film of all time before The Artist. And think about the inflationary difference between a 1925 movie and one from 2011.
Also coming to Blu-ray is Disney’s musical delight The Little Mermaid, digitally restored and available in the 3-D reworking ($49.99 for a package also including a standard Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy), a standard Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo ($44.99) and other configurations.
Down video road: 2 Guns, with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, will be on Digital HD on Nov. 5 and on Blu-ray and DVD on Nov. 19. Comedy-adventure Turbo hits Digital HD on Oct. 22 and 3-D, standard Blu-ray and DVD on Nov. 12.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.