Question: Your answer about the network at first not wanting Highway to Heaven reminded me of China Beach for some reason. Didn't that have trouble with the network, too? I was a big fan and had an even bigger crush on Dana Delany. William L., Oregon City, Ore.
Televisionary: You and just about every other male China Beach fan with a beating heart, William. What wasn't to like? Delany in that role was a rare thing on TV: an actress with heart-stopping looks who still managed to come off as someone a regular guy could talk to with the hope she might even talk back.
As for the show's success or lack thereof, ABC put its fans through the same ratings-driven wringer that squeezed those who loved shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and Homicide. They may have let it run from April 1988 to July 1991, but it always seemed to be on the chopping block.
Despite TV Guide reviewer Merrill Panitt's February, 1989, observation that China Beach was "a remarkable series, one that has already gained a respectable audience and deserves an even larger one," the show ended its second full season ranked 49th out of 96 shows, ratings-wise. When Delany was told it might not be renewed, she went out on the publicity circuit to talk about the show's merits, but found herself answering only questions about ratings. "It got to be awfully irritating," she told TV Guide in 1990. "First, the ratings weren't that low; we usually won our [Wednesday-night] time period. And it isn't the kind of show you expect everyone to watch. It isn't some dizzy, mindless comedy."
At the time, Delany and show creator John Sacret Young waited while the network's deadline for confirming whether a show would make it or not got closer and closer. "We kept being told by friends that if you don't get a call by such and such a time, you're dead. The time would come and no call," she said. They were kept in suspense until the weekend before the Monday on which ABC was due to announce its new schedule. "John and I were waiting together. The afternoon wore on. Then the call came. We made it. John was ecstatic. We went to a movie, Cinema Paradiso, and I cried all the way through it. That broke the tension."
Doesn't sound like much fun, huh? I'd imagine it's not. And I'd also imagine the cast of Friends never had to endure such weekends.
But China Beach suffered from being a pioneer. The writers and producers tried to portray the war as realistically as network TV would allow, and it wasn't easy. "There was always pressure to lighten up," Delany said, and we always resisted."
They did indeed. "We're always wrestling with broadcast standards over drugs," Young said. "Drugs are a difficult territory, but they were very much a part of the picture during the Vietnam War. Secondly, we're dealing with war, and the emotions of war. The broadcast standards attitude is that you can't show certain stuff on TV. Whereas we say: 'We're not trying to make a blood bath here, but this is about war, this is triage, this is real.' For example, in one episode a nurse was working on a soldier whose foot had been shot up and came off with his boot. In the end, we showed the boot with some blood, but no bones sticking out. Sometimes the firefights [with standards and practices] reach an all-out war and then we both have to retreat. But we feel if we're not pushing the barriers a bit, we're not doing our job."
On a set where stories dealing with so much trauma were shot and where conditions were somewhat less than comfortable cast member Marg Helgenberger (CSI) called the show's location's "hell holes," noting "we always stay most of the night, sometimes till dawn, and it's always cold" a little levity was called for. Luckily, Delany, a big practical joker, was up to the task.
Costar Robert Picardo called her "innocent and bawdy," adding she "has a real streak of the devil." Take the time they were shooting an operating-room scene. "A young soldier has suffered a terrible wound just below the waist," he recalled. "As the doctor, I'm bent over explaining how sad his situation is as far as his future sex life is concerned and he's supposed to look at me in misery. But Dana, out of camera range, has sneaked up and is massaging his thigh. Try as he might, that poor fellow couldn't manage to look sad."