One evening when I was in college I was hanging out with friends in their suite. Someone suggested we watch a re-run of M*A*S*H on television, but one friend, Mark, objected. He thought the show was crass, too many references to drinking and sex.
Fortunately the “yea” votes won out, and even more fortunately it chanced to be the episode titled “The Interview.” If you don’t remember the show, “The Interview” is filmed in black and white, a mock documentary in which a correspondent interviews the members of M*A*S*H 4077. (M*A*S*H, by the way, stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.) Interestingly, it was not fully scripted: the actors answered the reporter’s questions in character.
“The Interview” is my favorite of all M*A*S*H episodes, and I might as well make full disclosure right now that I will argue here that M*A*S*H is the best television series of all time. Near the end of the documentary, the reporter asks each of the interviewees if he or she has anything to say to the folks back home. They do, and when B. J. Hunnicutt tells his wife and baby daughter that he misses them, my tears start to flow–every time.
And so they did, sitting in that dormitory suite. I glanced around the room hoping nobody would notice, but instead I saw Mark, the guy who’d objected to watching, brushing a hand at his eye. So did some others.
For a long time M*A*S*H has been off the air, but Sundance TV recently began showing re-runs on Mondays. If you’ve never seen it, you should; and if you remember it from the 1970s, you’ve probably put aside this blog to find out if it is available where you are.
Here’s where I argue that M*A*S*H is the best television series ever, and that it is still relevant in 2017.
Best comedy series ever? I say it’s M*A*S*H. Best dramatic series ever? I say it’s M*A*S*H. And yet my cable provider’s on-screen guide calls it “history.”
The original movie was a comedy, and every bit as raunchy as Mark said, although almost 50 years later it seems rather tame. The early years of the television series carried on in that vein, although toned down a little for the standards of network television in the ‘70s. But because the series became popular and carried on longer than the story of the movie or the book on which it was based–or even the Korean War itself–new plots were written. The writing was excellent!
Over time, the plots became more serious. When the television series started the Vietnam War was still going on, and the writers used M*A*S*H (set in the Korean War) as a means to comment on Vietnam, war in general, and American society in general.
Cast members came and went. The first to leave was McLean Stevenson as Col. Henry Blake, the commanding officer of M*A*S*H 4077. The writers made a controversial–and heartbreaking–decision to send Henry home, then have his plane shot down over the Sea of Japan. And so Harry Morgan arrived as the new CO, Col. Sherman Potter. (If you were paying attention, you may remember that Morgan played a stark raving mad General in an earlier episode.) If anything, Col. Potter was a better CO than Col. Blake had been: a career army man, former cavalry, full of stories, crotchety but with a kind heart and lots of horse sense.
Captain John “Trapper” McIntyre left, replaced by the aforementioned B. J. Hunnicutt. Major Frank “Ferret Face” Burns left, replaced by the aristocratic Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. Corporal Radar O’Reilly left, and Corporal Max Klinger assumed his role as company clerk. Klinger had been a cast member from the start, but a minor character, a running joke about a draftee who will do almost anything (but mostly dress in women’s clothes) to get out of the army.
Characters evolved. Captain Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the star of the ensemble cast, began as a carousing doctor with a still in his tent and a different nurse every night–the character from the book and movie. Over time he grew a conscience, fought military red tape, and ran amok yearly. Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, in early years an uptight head nurse, blossomed into an emancipated woman who demanded respect for her ability as a nurse and an officer, while trying to remain a lady. Before he left the cast, Radar grew into a man and left his teddy bear behind.
Comedy and drama: there are episodes that can still make me laugh and tear up. I cannot think of any television series that can do both so often, and few do either one as well as M*A*S*H.
What really impresses me, watching the series again after so many years, is how well it stands up.
The old MacGyver series, which ran on another cable channel for a while before the new series aired, was dated. The pacing was slow, the dialog cliched–even the colors look faded. Yes, the improvised gadgets are still fun to watch, but the series as a whole shows its age.
All in the Family was also showing on Sundance TV, but Archie Bunker is now a dinosaur; the show has been replaced by Barney Miller on Sundance. M*A*S*H endures. Over the years, they tackled issues including racism, mixed race children, PTSD, alcohol and drugs, and the role of women in the workplace.
The dialog? Sharp, funny, quick. The characters? They evolved from a book about the 1950s to fully-realized people you might expect to meet today. The photography? For a moment it seemed a bit faded and “dusty” to me, until I considered that wartime Korea would have been dusty, and modern cinematographers would add that effect on purpose.
There is only one thing that strikes me as old-fashioned, and it is extremely trivial: the opening credits actually run at the opening. No teaser, no wise-cracking detective–just the opening credits, without introduction, and straight to the show.
But what makes M*A*S*H so appropriate for 2017 is the frequent battle against bureaucracy. The army, the government, the world at large often makes no sense. Common sense is anything but common in their world. Now many of us share that feeling in a year of “alternative facts.” Like Hawkeye and B.J., we tilt at windmills, knowing they will lose as many battles as they win, but fighting on nonetheless.
So if you’re still reading this, please, STOP! Go check you TV or online video service and look for a little M*A*S*H. Your time will be well rewarded.