'China Beach': Robert Picardo Revisits The Classic Series As It Finally Makes DVD
May 2nd, 2013 9:00am EDT
For TV fans and DVD lovers alike, April of 2013 is going to be a month to remember. That's when Time-Life finally delivered ABC's classic Vietnam-era drama China Beach on DVD. China Beach: The Complete Collection is the answer to years of fans' hopes to see the memorable 1988-1991 series and a gift to TV on DVD enthusiasts alike. Read on for my review of the epic 21-DVD set - as well as my interview with show star Robert Picardo, who helped me commemorate this fantastic occasion by sharing his own memories of China Beach.
First things first: this massive compilation is targeted at the devoted fans of China Beach, and in that respect it does not disappoint. The set is everything a fan could ask for out of a TV on DVD collection. For a show that's celebrating its 25th anniversary, the transfer of episodes is great; the picture is solid (you can see screenshots on the Time-Life website) and the audio likewise does the job. And speaking of audio, Time-Life spent more than a year getting clearance for over three hundred songs, so that the show can be almost entirely enjoyed as originally broadcast. (No word on which tracks are missing, but our friends at TVShowsonDVD.com have the entire list of cleared music, direct from Time-Life.) This is China Beach as fans remember it.
There's a whole plethora of special features here, too, totaling approximately ten hours and covering almost everything that you could want. That means the recent reunion of cast and crew, including Delany, Picardo and Helgenberger. There are separate new interviews with cast, crew and creators John Sacret Young and William Broyles, Jr. Various featurettes dig into a number of topics, from reminiscing about the making of the show to its legacy two and a half decades later. The usual gag reel and deleted scenes appear. Even that somewhat forgotten gem of DVDs, the audio commentary, is included. There are five of them here, with an interesting mix of participants including Delany, Picardo, Young and other crew members - and they cover the episodes you'd expect, including the pilot and series finale.
The most valuable inclusion, though, might be the one thing that's usually a throwaway: the booklet. For China Beach, the documentation is 36 pages, and it's truly fascinating reading. You'll see the blurbs from the writers' bible that first described the characters before they were cast. There are comments from the actors reflecting on not just their characters, but others as well. And poignantly, there are reproductions of actual letters received by the production from actual veterans and fans, talking about what the show means to them. It drives home the point that television can be so much more than just mindless entertainment. Even if you watched every episode of China Beach as it aired, you'll come away with something new from these bonuses.
Most importantly, this is a set that came to be because of the devotion of the fans, and that same passion for China Beach comes across in every aspect of the finished product. It's clear listening to the cast and crew across the various extras that they still care about the show and respect its place in their careers. And from the sheer amount of content here, you can tell that Time-Life also was passionate about putting together a proper release. This is a real labor of love - exactly what we want our DVD sets to be.
If you haven't seen the show before, though, this set should still deserve consideration on your shelf for a multitude of reasons. Body of Proof fans can see Dana Delany in the role that won her two Emmy Awards. Ditto for those of you who know Marg Helgenberger from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Robert Picardo from Star Trek: Voyager. China Beach is a significant part of how these actors became the people you love to watch today.
It's also a joy for those nerds among us who just love what makes television tick. Here's a show that has all sorts of things worth appreciating, from how it recreated the Vietnam era, to the fact that it wasn't afraid to do an episode in 1975 one week and 1983 the next, to its extensive use of music both traditionally and in on-screen character performances.
Then there's the pedigree: uber-producer John Wells was a big figure on this series before he moved on to the likes of ER, Third Watch and The West Wing. Mimi Leder directed many episodes of China Beach early in her well-respected career. CSI: NY star Gary Sinise also helmed one of the later installments.
And if you like more in-depth material, that's here, too. The featurettes have some thought-provoking stuff in them. One compares the fictional reality of China Beach to the real Vietnam War. Another talks about the creation of the series. A third covers its legacy. Watched completely, this is a collection that really allows you to trace the entire life of a TV series. If you know television, there's something for you in China Beach.
One of the stars of China Beach was the beloved TV veteran Robert Picardo, who played Dr. Dick Richard on the series at the same time as he was appearing on The Wonder Years, and well before he found sci-fi fame on Star Trek: Voyager and Stargate: Atlantis. Robert (pictured above with Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger at the China Beach reunion) kindly took time recently to reminisce with BFTV about this special series.
"I don't know if you think it's going to be talked about in 25 years, but we did have a sense working on it," he explained. "There was a drive, especially because [co-creator] Bill [Broyles] had been there, to get it right and to make it real. That sense of responsibility, that we were telling important stories and we really wanted to get it right, was something that the producers communicated to us.
"We had these seminars before season one and season two," he continued. "They would fly in different Vietnam vets. I remember like ten, twelve people would come and they would tell our stories to us, and a lot of their stories were adapted directly into stories we told on the show. I remember listening to guys, and it was so intense to just hear them relating what they had seen and what they had been through."
What installment of China Beach was Robert's point of pride? "My favorite from my character's point of view," he said, "There's an episode called 'Crossing the Great Water' and that was the one where he sort of falls apart. Everything that he had been before he was drafted has finally crumbled. His wife has had an affair and divorced him. All of his identity has fallen apart and he has to kind of rebuild himself out of that. That was the most fun because when we first met my character, he was so arrogant and full of himself. To see that kind of surface arrogance and self-confidence become peeled away made it fun to play as an actor. That was one of the more emotional episodes [for] my character. Having said that, I also love that he had the gallows humor and joked under the worse circumstances."
The hope is that with the release of the Complete Collection, a new audience might find China Beach for the first time, and we asked Robert if there's anything first-time viewers should know before they dive into this cult classic. "The thing they need to know is it doesn't seem like an old television show," he told us. "It doesn't seem dated at all. It was out of time when we made it the first time around, and that makes it more enjoyable. They'll be seeing it with the great, great music from the 1960's, all the great Motown songs."
He believes the show still holds up after all these years. "I haven't seen the pilot probably in 15 or 20 years. Last night I popped the pilot episode in just to see the quality of the DVD transfer and I couldn't stop watching it," he admitted. "I had to get up at 5 AM and I'm up late watching a 25-year-old television show just because it's so good!"
China Beach wasn't Robert's only role on a successful television show. He also had the recurring part of Coach Cutlip on The Wonder Years ("which I did at the same time as China Beach, and the only reason I was allowed to do that was they were both on the same network," he confided), and more recently we know him as the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH) from Star Trek: Voyager and Richard Woolsey across threee Stargate series.
Which one of these beloved properties is he most known for? "Star Trek is still my signature role because once you do a Star Trek series, it's never really out of the marketplace," he said. "Voyager has been re-run a few times and now it's on Netflix for instant viewing. I'm recognized more internationally for that.
"But I am always surprised and gratified how many Star Trek fans come up to me and talk about China Beach," he added. "The people that loved it really loved it a lot. They had a real emotional connection to it."
"I think I've been pretty fortunate," he said, reflecting on his extensive career to date. "The Wonder Years, which is one of the best comedy series of all time, also languishes in DVD non-release because of music rights, and I'm sure because it ran so many years more than China Beach that's a much bigger project. After Star Trek, I was the commander on Stargate Atlantis the final season, and once my character had become a good commander, I was sorry that the show didn't last beyond that.
"Sometimes I have little movies that I've made that I wish would be seen by a larger audience. I have a horror movie called Sensored which I'm very creepy and disgusting in, and then I have a family drama called The Legends of Nethiah which has a science-fiction B-story. I play two characters in the movie; I'm the grandfather and then I'm one of the heroes in the sci-fi story." He also appeared in one episode of Body of Proof opposite his China Beach colleague Dana Delany.
Outside of his tremendous acting resume, Robert is on the Advisory Council of The Planetary Society, for which his close friend Bill Nye serves as the current CEO. The Society's mission is "to basically stimulate public interest in the space program, and to advocate for our government's continued investment in the space program and in science," explained Robert. "It was founded over 30 years ago by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman. It's got a great pedigree." To find out more about The Planetary Society, including how you can get involved, be sure to visit the organization's website.
What TV gets his attention? "I'm really looking forward to the reboot of Cosmos," he said, referring to the new version of Sagan's 1980 science-television series, which will be hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and air on FOX and National Geographic Channel simultaneously in January 2014. "I couldn't be more excited about that."
China Beach: The Complete Collection is available exclusively through Time-Life's website. You can also keep up with Robert on Twitter (@RobertPicardo). A clip revisiting his China Beach character Dr. Richard is below. Happy viewing!
(c)2013 Brittany Frederick. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted. Visit my official website and follow me on Twitter at @tvbrittanyf.
Photo Credits: Time-Life