The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Robert Picardo (“China Beach”)

Some know Robert Picardo for the time he spent playing the Emergency Medical Hologram on “Star Trek: Voyager,” while others remember him more fondly for his work as Coach Cutlip on “The Wonder Years,” but at the moment, the TV show on his resume that more people are talking about than any other is “China Beach,” which is – after way, way too long a wait – finally on DVD. Picardo took a few minutes to chat with Bullz-Eye about the release of “China Beach: The Complete Series,” his reminiscences of working on the series, and if viewers are wrong to see a touch of his Dr. Dick Richard turning up in the aforementioned EMH.

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Bullz-Eye: From what I understand, it sounds like we’re both on the same page as far as being unable to refresh our memories on “China Beach”: they tell me my copy of the complete-series set is due to arrive tomorrow.

Robert Picardo: Oh, good for you! But I did already get mine. [Laughs.] They got it to me yesterday, and I devoted some time to it. I watched a couple of the bonus features. There are 10 hours of bonus features, and I guess I watched about two hours of them, or thereabouts. And then, even though I had to get up very early this morning to do these interviews, I thought, “Well, I’ll pop in the pilot and just watch the first five minutes to see the quality of the transfer.” And, of course, I watched the entire pilot. I couldn’t turn it off! So that was a good thing. The fact that I was so captivated was a good sign.

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I’m really happy to see that the show, which was a period piece to begin with…I mean, we made it in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it was set from ’68 to ’71, principally, and then the last season we kind of skipped into the future as late as 1987. But basically it was a period piece to begin with, so in that respect it hasn’t aged. It’s still a great time capsule and doesn’t feel dated, and I’m so proud of the work in it. Dana is extraordinary, Marg Helgenberger is extraordinary, but the whole ensemble is just great. You know, it was a very special time in my career, and I know and I’ve heard Dana and Marg and pretty much all of the actors say the same, so to have it reach a new audience is really very gratifying and exciting.

BE: What do you remember about your first read of the pilot script?

RP: I remember reading it and thinking it was great. And important. It felt like an honor to be part of something like that, which was really about something, I mean, obviously, you’d…I guess you’d say the success of the movie “Platoon” led to the possibility of major television networks doing Vietnam dramas. And, of course, “Tour of Duty,” our sister show… [Laughs.] Well, that was really more about “Platoon” and about the soldiers fighting. What was unique and special about “China Beach” was that the point-of-view character was a woman, an Army nurse who served there. So it gave the show a special perspective. It wasn’t about combat, it was about saving lives. It was about supporting and helping soldiers. The war was like an offstage character.

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We were the support group there—the nurses, the doctors, the USO people—to sort of support and patch the guys up and either send them back or, if they were too injured, send them home. And more often than not, if they were dead, you’d offer the last gesture of respect to them. That’s what Michael Boatman’s character did, the guy who ran the grave registration. What a terrific role, and an extraordinary performance for a 24-year-old guy. I mean, to have so much…what’s the word? He created such a character who had seen everything, and he was totally believable as a guy who…that was his life, just all of that death and loss. And what that had turned him into was sort of a 24-year-old old man. Anyway, it’s just great writing. William Broyles, who served in Vietnam and who co-created the series, said that he feels it’s the best war drama that’s ever been on television. And, well, yeah, you could say that he’s a little partial, since he co-created it. [Laughs.] But you know what? I agree with him.

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HS TV 101: 12 Great Shows Set In or Around High School

High school: it’s a rite of passage we all must endure. Some of us weep when it’s over, others can’t wait to say goodbye forever, but for better or worse, it’s an experience that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. The same goes for some of the many TV series that have been set in high school. Here at Bullz-Eye, we’ve polled our writers for their favorite shows within the genre, and the end result is, not unlike high school itself, a mixture of both comedy and drama.

12. Life As We Know It (ABC, 2004 – 2005): Lasting only 11 episodes before ABC unceremoniously yanked it from the air, “Life As We Know It” premiered during perhaps the most cancel-happy era in television. Developed by two of the producers of “Freaks and Geeks” (maybe the writing was already on the wall), the series may have ultimately been undone by poor ratings, but the Parents Television Council’s campaign against the show’s sexual themes certainly didn’t help. Then again, when you green light a series based on a controversial young-adult novel called “Doing It” that follows the exploits of a trio of best friends (Sean Faris, Jon Foster and Chris Lowell) navigating the highs and lows of adolescence, you can hardly pretend to be surprised when its characters discuss sex on a fairly regular basis.

Featuring a great cast of young up-and-comers that also included Missy Peregrym and Kelly Osbourne (yes, that Kelly Osbourne, who’s never been cuter than she was here), “Life As We Know It” certainly wasn’t perfect by any means, but it easily outshined similar shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and “The O.C.,” particularly in its handling of its adult characters. The series wasn’t without the usual high school clichés, but the writers never shied away from edgier material, either – like a student having a secret affair with his teacher or a star jock dealing with performance issues – resulting in a smart, sweet and incredibly honest look at how sex changes everything. – Jason Zingale

11. Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC, 1975 – 1979): Despite suffering through remedial classes and acting far more rebellious than was deemed socially acceptable, Gabe Kotter (played by the suspiciously similarly-named Gabe Kaplan) still somehow managed to graduate from James Buchanan High School, but who would have thought that the dreams that were his ticket out would lead him back there? (John Sebastian did, of course, but that’s not really relevant to this discussion.) With his teacher certification tucked into his back pocket, Kotter returns to his alma mater and takes on the challenge of trying to educate the new generation of remedial students. Oh, sure, their names have all changed since he hung around – now they’re called Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) – but they’re still “sweathogs” all the way.

Most would likely agree that “Welcome Back, Kotter” was at its best when it was still the original four Sweathogs, i.e. before Travolta slipped away from television, put on a white suit, and found big-screen success on the dance floor, but even at its funniest, few would probably describe it as the most realistic look into high school life.

“I don’t think anyone was trying to replicate the high school experience so much as they were trying to service those particular characters and write stories about them,” said Mark Evanier, who served as a story editor for the show. “If you could get a good joke out of it, great…though there were times I think we settled for a decent catch-phrase.”

While the words “up your nose with a rubber hose” lend credence to Evanier’s theory, the Marx-Brothers-inspired chemistry between the Sweathogs helps their slapstick shenanigans hold up nonetheless. And, besides, who needs realism when you’ve got Gabe Kaplan doing Groucho? – Will Harris

10. Glee (Fox, 2009 – present): Is it telling that one of the most popular current shows on TV came it at only the #10 spot? If nothing else, maybe it proves we here at Bullz-Eye aren’t prone to fads. Except that maybe we are, as “Glee” has made it onto our TV Power Rankings lists time and again since its debut. But this list isn’t about what entertains us in the broader sense; it’s about great high school shows. As entertaining as “Glee” can be, it has almost nothing real to say about the high school experience, and in fact most of the high school kids I know find it to be pretty nonsensical.

The one area that it seems to excel in as far as capturing the high school experience is in its ability to play romantic musical chairs with its cast of teenage characters. These kids are fickle, and the only guarantee that seems to come with a relationship on “Glee” is that sooner or later it’s going to end. Some props should probably also be given for their attempt to zero in on the bullying issue that so seems to afflict kids today, but “Glee” chose to unfortunately treat the topic with kid gloves rather than say something truly meaningful. None of this is to say that “Glee” isn’t one hell of an entertaining series, because it is, but anyone looking for something a little deeper would do best to dust off their old DVD of “The Breakfast Club.” – Ross Ruediger

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