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?)
The first time the Southern-fried, blue-collar “Family” appeared on “The Carol Burnett Show” was in 1974, with Burnett as Eunice, Harvey Korman as her husband Ed, and, at age 25, Vicki Lawrence as Mama, a blue-haired, buxom, loudmouth elderly woman who stole the show.
The skit became a popular occasional feature during the show’s final five years, with Betty White and Tim Conway chief among those who played recurring guest characters. And in 1982 it was revived as a 90-minute TV movie, a melancholy comedy-drama titled “Eunice,” which reunited Burnett, Lawrence and Korman for a look at the family over the course of 23 years. (That film is included in this set.)
Then in 1983, “Mama’s Family” debuted, a half-hour sitcom starring Lawrence, with Ken Berry, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and the rest of its solid comic cast, along with occasional visits from Burnett and Korman. The show only ran two seasons on NBC, but after it was picked up for syndication for a third season (with a few cast changes), it became a ratings hit and remained the No. 1 first-run syndicated show right through its sixth and final season.
Watching “Mama’s Family” today, it’s very broadly played and can occasionally become a bit shrill (if you’re old enough, think “The Bickersons”), but it generally remains funny, and sometimes rises to hilarious. By the time this sitcom began, Lawrence had honed the character into a fine-tuned comic force and her performance alone makes it worth watching. Fortunately, the rest of the cast rises to the occasion.
Oh, yes, and unlike today’s sitcoms, it’s clean. Modern comedy-show writers could learn a thing or two from these older shows that got laughs without falling back on easy sexual gags.
True, they are pricey. But don’t go to Amazon, where copies are being sold for as much as $300-plus.
And if you’d rather go on the installment plan by purchasing season sets, head to Costco, where you can find the first two seasons of “China Beach” packaged for $34.99 and the first two seasons of “Mama’s Family” in a $24.99 set.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com
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