Chris Hicks: ‘China Beach,’ ‘Mama’s Family’ are at long last on DVD

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10 2013 5:00 p.m. MDT

Dana Delany, Marg Helgenberger and Robert Picardo star in "China Beach," a TV series about medical personnel in Vietnam, which is on DVD for the first time.


This time of year, as we run up to the holidays, a lot of complete television series that have never before been available on DVD show up as big-ticket box sets.

Two such sought-after fan favorites have been released this week as exclusive online offerings: “China Beach” and “Mama’s Family,” the first a drama set in Vietnam and the second a sitcom spinoff of “The Carol Burnett Show.”

Disparate, yes, but right now each has a large fan base out there doing happy dances.

“China Beach: The Complete Series” (StarVista, 1988-91, 21 discs, $199.95, 62 episodes, TV-movie pilot, deleted scenes, audio commentaries, featurettes; 32-page booklet, four 12-page episode guides). The setting for this series is the Vietnam War, but the unique viewpoint is largely from women, both military and volunteers, working in an evacuation center.

This setting was perhaps less familiar to most of the veterans who watched the show when it initially aired than the jungle warfare depicted in other movies and TV shows that tackled the subject, but watching it today, I was surprised at how much it resonated with me.

I’m a Vietnam War veteran, but I never watched this show before receiving this DVD set for review. Perhaps I avoided it because, as a movie critic from the late ’70s through the ’90s, when “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon” and so many other films proliferated with literal and metaphorical stories of the war, I felt I’d seen enough re-creations of a time in my life I wanted to forget.

But to my surprise, watching “China Beach” now, I discovered that it reflects many of my own experiences in a way that is much more personal than most of those big-screen epics.

It began to strike me right off the bat, as the pilot opens with a scene on a tranquil beach, then pulls back to reveal the sand and surf are adjacent to a war zone. I was stationed at a northern area of South Vietnam called Phu Bai, and there was a beach not too far off, which we called “Phu Bai By the Sea.”

Another early sequence depicts soldiers traveling to their war zone destinations on a passenger airliner with stewardesses bringing them drinks as they fly over the conflict. It was night when I flew into Southeast Asia on just such an airliner and I remember, late in the flight, glancing out the window and seeing streams of red lights, which an officer told me were tracer bullets; a firefight was in progress directly below us.

I also recognized the many diverse personalities that populate this fictional show’s Army base and the many popular rock songs of the era that permeate the soundtrack. (All of the show’s original songs are here.)

The two main differences in this show from my personal experience are that I saw few women during my year in Vietnam, and I was not in a medical unit. But otherwise, I was immensely impressed with the writing and research that obviously went into creating this hourlong drama.

The show was also a launching pad for several TV stars to be. The lead role is played by Dana Delany (who most recently starred in “Body of Proof”), and also here are Marg Helgenberger ( “CSI”), Robert Picardo (“Star Trek: Voyager”), Michael Boatman (“Spin City”) and talk-show host Ricki Lake.

Fans don’t need my recommendation for this one, but if you, like me, missed “China Beach” the first time around, hey, it’s great television.

“Mama’s Family: The Complete Series” (StarVista, 1983-90, 24 discs, $199.95, 130 episodes, 1982 TV movie “Eunice,” three “Family” sketches from “The Carol Burnett Show,” featurettes; 24-page booklet, six eight-page episode guides). On a much more frivolous note, here’s a farcical sitcom that also has identifiable elements, at least to anyone who has or comes from a family. (Does that exclude anyone?)

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