It's just about time to say good-bye to China Beach. ABC is putting the series on hiatus in mid-December and, given its recent abysmal ratings, it will probably not return once all its new episodes are shown. This much-praised Vietnam War drama, now in its fourth season, was almost certainly a victim of its time slot: Who wants to relive Vietnam on Saturday nights at 9, especially when you have to save your strength for Twin Peaks at 10?
But I'm also pretty sure that China Beach alienated many of its staunchest fans with its twists and turns this season. A number of episodes have left late-'60s Vietnam to include scenes that reveal the fates of the show's central characters in the '70s and '80s, after they went home. The most audacious development in this regard is that the smart, smiling, sexy hero of Beach, noble nurse Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany), turned out to be miserable in civilian life, drinking too much and succumbing to a cynicism she'd always resisted in Vietnam.
This sort of thing is undeniably adventurous for a show that I've always thought of as M*A*S*H without the jokes, with Delany filling the Alan Alda role (and doing it well enough to win an Emmy in 1989). Indeed, the great flaw of the series is that Beach never found a way to deal with the war that didn't echo its depiction in movies such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Robert Altman's original, 1970 M*A*S*H. China Beach's idea of switching back and forth in time might finally have given the series some true originality and style, but the device hasn't been smoothly executed; even devotees of the series have complained that these days, the shows tend to be confusing, choppy, and annoying.
Then, too, Beach has always been a bit too self-conscious and clever, and that's truer than ever this season. ''What are you reading?'' asked Dr. Richard (Robert Picardo), trying to strike up a conversation with an attractive woman in a recent episode. Trout Fishing in America, she replied. ''Oh,'' said the hapless Richard. ''Well, golf's always been my game.'' Your first thought is ''Gee, a joke built around a Richard Brautigan novel in prime time!'' Then you think, ''How many people will get it?'' and then, ''Gee, it wasn't a very funny joke anyway.''
It's easy to imagine why China Beach's cocreator, executive producer John Sacret Young, started moving his characters around from one decade to another this season. He probably figured that the Saturday time slot was a death sentence anyway, so why not do something wild? And Delany and the others must have felt that playing old characters in new settings would be a primo acting ''stretch.'' They're all to be congratulated on their willingness to try something new, but ultimately China Beach ended up looking less adventurous than desperate. Instead of asking its audience, ''Why were we in Vietnam?'' it ended up asking, ''Why won't you watch us?''C+