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‘China Beach’ Winds Up Production : Television: The only prime-time dramatic series about war may be bowing out, unless the Gulf War creates new interest in it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As U.S. soldiers concluded the initial month of fighting in the nation’s first war since 1975 this week, filming ended on what figures to be the final episode of television’s only prime-time dramatic series about war.

“China Beach,” ABC’s much-honored drama about the women and men who served at a hospital and recreation center during the Vietnam War, wound up production Wednesday at Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

ABC hasn’t decided whether to renew the series for another season, so “we are doing this as if it could be the last show,” executive producer John Sacret Young said.

Now in its third full season, “China Beach” is not on the air at the moment, having been pulled following its Dec. 8 broadcast because of low ratings. ABC has promised to show the seven remaining episodes but has yet to set a date for the series to return. Ted Harbert, executive vice president for prime time at ABC, declined to be interviewed to explain “China Beach’s” status.

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Dana Delany, who stars as nurse Colleen McMurphy, believes the series will be canceled.

“I’d be very surprised if we came back (next fall), which is fine with me,” said Delany, who won an Emmy Award in 1989 for her work on the series. “I’m looking forward to getting on to something else. (My character) has been on a quest (this season). I feel like she’s now at the end of the search and it’s a good time to end it.”

Young said that there still is a chance ABC could renew the series.

“We won’t know until May what the exact situation is,” he said. “ABC’s own situation is in such flux. No dramatic shows are doing well right now, especially since the war’s broken out. When we go back on the air, probably in March or April, it is possible this show will do as well or better than other shows are doing, and that could make the network rethink.”

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Warner Bros. Television, which produces “China Beach,” does not share Young’s view. The studio placed a full-page ad in last Friday’s edition of the entertainment trade paper Daily Variety, saluting “China Beach” and its numerous accomplishments as it prepared to wrap production.

This season, “China Beach” has not only been set in Vietnam in 1968, but has jumped ahead to the 1970s and 1980s, examining the characters as they returned home. In episodes yet to be seen, McMurphy will battle post-traumatic stress disorder, leave nursing, marry and have a child.

The finale, titled “Hello, Goodby,” will juxtapose McMurphy’s last day at China Beach in 1969 with a 1988 reunion.

Despite the innovations, “China Beach” has proved to be a ratings disaster this season. When it aired Saturdays at 9 p.m., opposite longtime NBC sitcom hits “The Golden Girls” and “Empty Nest,” it averaged about 6.2 million households per episode, about 12% of the available audience. It ranks 98th among the 123 prime-time series to have aired on the four networks this season.

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Last season, when “China Beach” was usually scheduled Wednesdays at 10 p.m., it finished 62nd among 111 shows, with an average 21% share of the audience. Robert Picardo, who portrays surgeon Dick Richard, believes better ratings would have meant more than just a longer run for “China Beach.”

“If ‘China Beach’ got the ratings that ‘L.A. Law’ got, we would not be in the Persian Gulf right now,” Picardo said. “There’s a very strong and solid anti-war message in ‘China Beach’ toward the policy that had us engage in that conflict. That would be a lesson we all deserve to examine in light of our present conflict.”

To Young, the Persian Gulf War is “a good reason to bring the show back.”

“Our whole reason for doing the show has changed,” Young said. “We did an episode (yet to be broadcast) called ‘Rewind’ where Karen (Christine Elise), the daughter of K.C. (Marg Helgenberger), was doing home movies and talking to our characters about the Vietnam War. When you watch what they say and suddenly think about the Middle East, there’s a whole different level going on. There’s a whole added sadness, a whole added complexity. It may make our show tougher to watch.”

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Delany believes “China Beach” can fill in a missing gap in the media coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

“Our show could be so instructive right now to the real horrors of what happens in war,” Delany said. “We’re not getting the full story out of the Mideast right now. We don’t see the day-to-day boredom and the day-to-day fear that the men and women live in.”

“China Beach” has already been touched by the Persian Gulf War. When U.S. planes first bombed Baghdad Jan. 16, Delany was at a Veterans Administration hospital, preparing to film a scene with four World War I veterans, discussing their respective wars.

“I remember looking up and seeing our A.D. (assistant director) weeping,” Delany recalled. “Tears were running down her face. We all were shocked and couldn’t believe it.

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“Then to have to do the scene was very difficult because it was so close to home (that) you almost couldn’t use it. You had to distance yourself from it. It was a feeling of being in a continuum.”

“China Beach” was television’s second dramatic series on the Vietnam war. “Tour of Duty” premiered seven months earlier on CBS, in September, 1987, and ran for three seasons. Young believes that it won’t be the last.

“There were two million Americans in Vietnam,” Young said. “There’s not going to be one story about Vietnam or any war, but two million stories, and each one is important. The show is about these women, but also about the kids that they were treating. They’ll never be enough stories about them.”


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