Second viewing: M*A*S*H (the TV show)

The Thinker by Rodin

When you are retired you often find you have time on your hands. Netflix streaming provides lots of content, but much of it is comfort content, i.e. stuff you have seen before. So I’ve slogged my way through all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H, mostly in microbursts, over the last few months.

For a show that began in 1972, it is still surprisingly good. “Good” is relative, however. In a time when most markets had four or 5 TV stations, you took what you could get. For its time, M*A*S*H was excellent TV. Today, it just rates as very good. Why is this? It’s because forty years later TV has gotten much better. This is due to the proliferation of cable and pay TV. While lots of dreck can still be found on TV, there is now so much excellent content on TV that it is excruciatingly hard to decide which ones merit your time. I’ve finished three seasons of House of Cards. While waiting for new episodes I have been watching Mad Men. Each episode of Mad Men sends jolts of adrenaline to my enjoyment system: it’s just so well done!

So M*A*S*H is comfort TV, although the harshness of that war would not normally make it something you would want to watch. There had never been a TV show that showed the reality of war before M*A*S*H. It showed life at a mobile Army hospital during the Korean War, and the crazy antics and horrifying things that happened there. Going through it again, I realize that I have seen every episode, not just once, but several times at least. I’m not sure when I found the time to see them so many times. I’m guessing it was when they were endlessly repeated on late night TV. Thirty plus years of distance has at least made me a more critical viewer. Some modern day reflections and observations:

  • The show is actually a reflection of the emerging values of its time (the late 60s and early 70s) than the time of the Korean War. Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rodgers) might as well be flower children with shorter hair. Their liberal and antiwar positions would have put them in the extreme minority in the early 1950s, and dangerously so. Both would have been children of the Great Depression but they are all flower power. The 1969 movie by Robert Altman provided the template for the show, and in 1969 the Hippie movement was everywhere, the Vietnam War was obviously a disaster and cynicism was rampant. It’s entertaining as hell, but it’s simply not an accurate reflection of the years it purports to represent.
  • You can sort of break down the show into three rather distinct segments: the slapstick/buffoon comedy years (Seasons 1-3), the serious comedy-light years (Seasons 4-7) and the extended mediocre denouement years (Seasons 8-11).
  • The first year is particularly hard to watch today. Its blatant sexism and the casual way women are treated as objects rather than people is actually hard to endure today, and this is good. We have evolved.
  • The second segment is actually the best part of the show. The horrors of war and the imperfect way its characters react to it is the heart of the show.
  • There are some good episodes in the third segment, but it’s perfectly okay to stop at the end of Season 7. Those last seasons will disappoint if you’ve seen the other seasons. The show feels played out, particularly since the show lasted eleven seasons and the Korean War lasted less than four years.
  • Alan Alda won a number of Emmys for his performance as the surgeon Capt. Hawkeye Pierce. I found myself having a love/hate relationship with both the actor and the character. I don’t think there was that much difference between the actor and his character, aside from the fact Alda is not a doctor. Alda must have been insufferably difficult to work with on the set. He dominates the show in frequently unhealthy ways, making it hard for other characters to shine. On the other hand, he’s really good, very intense and totally convincing. It’s not too surprising that Wayne Rodgers left after three seasons, sick of playing Harpo to Alda’s Groucho (in some episodes literally). McLean Stephenson must have felt the same way portraying Lt. Col. Henry Blake.
  • In spite of Alda’s overwhelming presence, most of the other characters do make their marks. Most notably is the maturation of Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit), the head nurse. For three seasons she played comic relief but in the second segment she becomes human, matures and deepens as a character. It’s lovely to watch and an excellent reason to stick around.
  • Who’s the better sidekick: Trapper John or B.J. Hunnicut? Seeing it again, I found Trapper more real and interesting. M*A*S*H would have been a much better show if directors had restrained Alda a bit more so Trapper’s character could shine. Mike Farrell is not really funny, but Wayne Rodgers certainly is. Rodgers was intense where Farrell was understated. It was a real loss when Rodgers left the show.
  • Who’s the more entertaining commander: Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) or Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan)? Henry Blake for sure, even though he was there for only its first three years. Stevenson was consistently hilarious but somehow grounded in the insanity going on around him. Harry Morgan is not a comedian at heart, and it showed. The show lost a lot of its luster when Stevenson exited stage right.
  • The series most memorable and adorable character is unquestionably Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), who was the only character that also appeared in the movie. He is an innocent thrown into a complex adult game that remains a good person with childlike tendencies. He’s cuddlier than his frequently present teddy bear.
  • Corporal Clinger (Jamie Farr) makes good comic relief but simply does not convince in any other role other than a Section 8 seeking transvestite. He should have been kept in a dress and probably let go after a couple of seasons.
  • Larry Linville as the one-dimensional Major Frank Burns was actually an excellent comedian. His character is so insufferable that it is hard to see this. I don’t think he ever won an award for portraying Major Burns, but he should have.
  • David Ogden Stiers as Major Charles Emerson Winchester did much to make the second half of the series worth watching. It declined steadily anyhow, but Winchester was certainly an interesting and quirky character.
  • Some of the sporadic characters are delicious, particularly Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) and Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter). Any episodes with either of them in it are worth watching, and in one episode they both appear together. Flagg is actually the funniest character in the whole show; he just appears so irregularly.

You have to be a die-hard fan to watch all eleven seasons, particularly the last few years of the show. If you are tempted to watch the show, cringe your way through very funny but hard to endure first season and stick with it through seven seasons if you can. By the end of the first season all the characters are well established. Certain shows are gems and worth watching if you don’t have the time or patience for the many episodes that endlessly repeat the same theme (war really stinks). These include:

  • Yankee Doodle Doctor (Season 1, Episode 6)
  • Tuttle (Season 1, Episode 15)
  • A Smattering of Intelligence (Season 2, Episode 24)
  • O.R. (Season 3, Episode 5)
  • Abyssinia, Henry (Season 3, Episode 24)
  • Welcome to Korea (Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Change of Command (Season 4, Episode 3)
  • Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler? (Season 4, Episode 10)
  • Dear Sigmund (Season 5, Episode 8)
  • Fade Out/Fade In (Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Major Topper (Season 6, Episode 25)
  • Point of View (Season 7, Episode 11)
  • The Party (Season 7, Episode 26)
  • Good-bye Radar (Season 8, Episodes 4 and 5)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Who? (Season 8, Episode 9)
  • The Life You Save (Season 9, Episode 20)
  • Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (Season 11, Episode 16 – the extended end to the series)