Thursday, August 20, 2015

I Love You, M*A*S*H

Whether it's because of a memory of the family getting together at the same time each week, or you want to have something to discuss with your friends, or you just have a guilty pleasure, television shows occupy a special place in all of our hearts.

Sometimes our favorite show is not the best show on TV; at other times it is. More often than not, I find that a person's all-time favorite show isn't necessarily recognized as the best-ever. In my opinion, that best-ever spot is occupied by Breaking Bad, followed very closely by The Wire...yours may be different. This piece is about my all-time favorite show: M*A*S*H.

While I was growing up, my parents, for better or worse, were mostly easy-going with what I was allowed to watch or what they watched around me (check out my piece on The Exorcist for proof of that). Comedy specials on cable, movies of all types, and TV shows of every genre were rarely hidden from me--the only exceptions, really, were any films with nudity and the made-for-television movie The Day After. Strange criteria, but whatever.

From the time it was airing each week, and up through syndication, M*A*S*H was a show that was always on in our house. It was something that I watched with my father mostly in syndication, and my children will actually watch it with me from time to time on DVD. And the beauty of watching my kids watch it is that they'll inevitably laugh at something.

Based on the 1970 film directed by Robert Altman, the series follows Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, Margaret Houlihan (O'Houlihan in the film), Frank Burns, Henry Blake, and many others that are doctors and nurses of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.

The brilliance of the show was taking the irreverence of the film and translating it to the small screen for an eleven year stretch. When a television show can run for about four times as long as the event it covers, you've got something good going on. And the show came at the right time. TV in the '70s was making that turn from something wholesome to something more mature, real, and topical. Sure, M*A*S*H was set in the '50s, but it was airing at the tail end of the Vietnam War, so much of the program (as with the film) was anti war as a whole.

That being said, Robert Altman was not a fan of how the show went about making its message, saying it was "...the antithesis of what we were trying to do." He has spoken about feeling that showing the enemy as "brown people" was wrong and that it was racist. I'll resepctfully disagree with the man and just say that I believe the show and the film to be equally iconic and important in the message and content that was delivered, even if done in different ways.


Alan Alda may have been the lead of the show, but it was an ensemble cast that worked well as such, and each character was given his/her own storyline(s) at some point--whether it was Margaret's marriage (and eventual divorce), Radar dealing with the death of his uncle, or Klinger realizing that he never really pulled a fast one on his mother by trying to make her believe he wasn't in Korea. All of the characters were featured prominently throughout episodes, if not for an entire episode.

Although the cast was great, the first few seasons were rife with changes: where did Ugly John and Spearchucker Jones go? Lieutenants Dish and Scorch? With McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers deciding to leave after season three, and Larry Linville after season five, the way became open for B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell), Col. Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), and Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers). The show's beat may have changed, but it never missed.

The departures of some characters and the joining of others showed an evolutionary direction. The creators could have cast copies of Blake, Burns, and Trapper, but that would have been the easy way out. Instead, the creators chose to do what we all do over time: evolve. I'd argue that none of the "replacement" cast members were any weaker or stronger than those who came before; they were simply different. Different attitudes, abilities, experiences, and outlooks.

Col. Potter would become just as loved as Henry (perhaps more so), but Henry was more of a slapstick doofus, whereas Potter was the fatherly kind with wisdom and experience to fall back on. His down-home, back-porch witticisms, and impish behavior were just as funny as Henry's slapstick.

Frank Burns gave way to Charles Emerson Winchester, but that third dynamic in the Swamp was no less annoying and frustrating to Hawkeye. Winchester felt he was better than the others by virtue of birth and training. Frank's annoyances came from an inferiority complex.

When B.J. Hunnicut arrived to be Hawkeye's next partner in crime, he did it with much the same subdued quality as Col. Potter. Trapper was a goofball par excellence, while B.J. was laid back, but no less disruptive as the quiet prankster.

The one main character who evolved a great deal was Margaret. Starting out as shrill and by-the-book, she started to soften around the end of season six. By season seven she was "one of the guys" and became a more enjoyable part of the show.


A lot has been made of the "preachy" nature that the show started to take on when Alan Alda really started to exert his influence and when some cast/crew members left as others joined. Now, I've been watching this show for most of my life, and I don't believe that sentiment is entirely accurate. Did the show take a more serious turn? Yes. Was the show still hilarious? You bet. It's not as though M*A*S*H became a drama entirely; it simply had some more mature issues interwoven with the comedy. It moved from slapstick humor to something more nuanced. Y'know, balance. For all the criticism the show receives for going serious, it hadn't been as popular prior to that; don't forget, the show was almost canceled in just its first season. Scheduling changes helped, to be sure, but if a little gravity mixed with the levity were such a problem, the show would have ended much earlier.

Again, the show, the stars, and the characters evolved. Perhaps there weren't as many zany antics in later seasons, but M*A*S*H never became less enjoyable, at least for me. Besides, there were plenty of "preachy", or at the very least socially conscious, messages in the earlier seasons: friendly fire in the S2 episode "For the Good of the Outfit", in which Trapper and Hawkeye fight against the army after they recover American fragments from the victims at a local (allied) village. Or how about another S2 episode called, "George"? In this episode, a wounded soldier who also displays injuries consistent with a fist-fight, admits that he's gay and that he was beaten because of it. Although he could have been tossed from service, Hawkeye comes to his defense in a way that is accepting, human, and progressive.

And, to be honest, it was some of the more serious episodes that are the most memorable of the show's run. There are a few episodes that really stand out in this regard: Henry's death at the end of season three; B.J. expressing jealousy and a little hatred of Radar, who gets to go home and is referred to as "daddy" by B.J.'s daughter Erin; the S8 episode entitled "Dreams"; Colonel Potter finding out he's the last survivor of his WWI buddies, and of course the final episode of the series. I can't watch any of those episodes without crying just a little bit.

Perhaps Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad) has the best description of M*A*S*H. In the Tom Hanks-produced CNN series The Seventies, Gilligan says that M*A*S*H was great because it had "heart". Yes!


Now for a few minor complaints--for as great as M*A*S*H was/is, it did have a considerable number of flaws/mistakes. Hawkeye started out as being from Vermont and then Crabapple Cove, Maine. Was he an only child, or did he have a sister? The exchange, "Do you hear that?" / "No." / "Exactly.", or some iteration, was used multiple times and if there was an episode in which loud noises was a key component, you could be sure to hear this line. In another episode, movie night was featuring The Blob and The Thing, which was probably Christian Nyby's The Thing from Another World (check out my review here). Wow, now that's a double feature! Although the soldiers during the Korean War (1950-1953) would have possibly seen The Thing from Another World, which was released in 1951, it would have been impossible for The Blob to be in a double-feature, as it was released in 1958.

As a former comic book nerd (former in that I haven't collected in over 20 years; I still love the characters), I must also point out that there is an episode in which Radar is reading an Avengers comic. Uh, that comic made its first appearance in 1963...ten years after the end of the Korean War. But whatever.

Now, the flaws and mistakes are only little annoyances rather than weights that should sink the show. Besides, I don't believe anyone ever said that M*A*S*H was meant to be the historical record of the Korean War or any of the pop culture of that time.


So as you can see, I love M*A*S*H. Every couple of years, the series finds its way into my DVD player (it also now streams on Netflix) and I'll watch from beginning to end. In fact, I'm three-quarters of the way through with S7 as of writing this.

Another great thing about the show is that it is very easy to classify yourself, friends, family, co-workers, into which character s/he would be. Like most of us, we identify with one specific character but find ourselves in others, too...kinda like the Zodiac. Who are you?

We obviously have our favorites, too. It may be surprising to those who know me well (all three people) to know that my favorite main character is William Christohpher's Father Mulcahy (my favorite supporting character is Dr. Sidney Freedman, played by Allan Arbus, who is perhaps the most believable character in television history). Yes, this atheist's favorite character is the man of the cloth. Go figure. What's great about Father Mulcahy is that he hits you with wit at the exact moment that will leave you floored. The writers did a masterful job of taking Mulcahy's love of boxing and applying that dexterity to his words, too.

I can identify with Hawkeye in that I haven't been to my home town or seen my father in probably far too long, and I often think back on a simpler place and time. As a husband and father, B.J. has stood out to me. As a leader (to a greater or lesser degree) in the workplace, I strive to be like Col. Potter, but I'm probably more like Henry. Like Charles, I can be a tad snobbish when it comes to things like: film, music, beer, books...well, everything I like that you don't.

M*A*S*H reminds me of home. The series, the characters, and the actors who played them, comfort me--and I will always love them for it.


  1. Hi. I was trying to contact you back in June regarding a Barrymore blogathon that I was hosting last week, but was having problems commenting from my Wordpress account. However I think I've worked it out.

    I'm hosting a new blogathon next month, and I thought that I would invite you to participate. The link is below with more details

    1. Sorry! I enjoy the Barrymore's, but not enough to write about them. I did check out some of the content during your blogathon, though.

      As for the one next month, I'll have to politely decline that one as well, as I will be busy working on some other things at the same time. However, I see that there are a number of pieces devoted to To Have and Have Not, which is perhaps my favorite Bacall/Bogart film, so I will definitely be checking in on those.

      I'll be around, so please keep me in mind for anything else you may have in your future plans.