For a minute or so, this looks like a modern M*A*S*H: In a makeshift Army hospital a doctor with a wise-guy face performs some bloody surgery, then asks how his timing was. ”Next,” he calls out, after realizing he has beaten his record.

But even those unfamiliar with China Beach, the ABC series for which this was the 1988 pilot, will immediately see that this 95-minute movie is more serious and more political than M*A*S*H ever was. While China Beach, too, centers on a hospital in a war zone (here Da Nang, Vietnam), the emphasis is on the relationships among the women working at the China Beach recreational facility: a dedicated but jaded nurse, played by Dana Delany; a USO singer (Chloe Webb); a naive ”donut dolly,” or Red Cross volunteer (Nan Woods); and the local hooker (Emmy-winning Marg Helgenberger). There is a war going on all around them — and that, of course, figures into the plot — but the different experiences, attitudes, and personalities of these nonfighting women are the focus.

Apparently creator William Broyles Jr. and producer John Sacret Young (who also wrote the pilot) decided that Delany and Helgenberger were the most compelling female characters; they are the only ones who remained as regulars on the series. And while their performances are excellent, re-viewing the pilot may make some fans nostalgic for Webb, whose desperate-to-be-loved singer provides a balance for the others’ world-weariness.

Luckily, however, most of the male stars here (notably Robert Picardo, Tim Ryan, and Brian Wimmer) show up weekly, too. Why bother to watch this pilot when one can see the show every week? Because, except for a rather contrived ending, this is still one of the best-written, best-acted, and most affecting of the Vietnam vehicles that have been flooding TV of late. A-

China Beach
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