The final episode of M*A*S*H, which set a world record with 50,150,000 households watching, aired on February 28, 1983.
The series had little in common with the original novel, save the names of a few characters. Indeed, the TV series was regarded as one of the finest examples of sensitive, socially relevant television, whereas the novel, written by Dr. H. Richard Hornberger under the pseudonym Richard Hooker and published in October 1968, was a black comedy teeming with racist, sexist humor and cruel pranks. Hornberger was a surgeon who worked in a M*A*S*H unit in Korea, and he wrote a realistic novel with characters that were very different from the ones we know today. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake is a humorless Regular Army commander. Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce is a crude opportunist who persuades other surgeons to take advantage of their indispensability. Their “mischief” becomes more cruel and extravagant whenever they expect casualties.
Ring Lardner Jr. liked the antiestablishment tone of the novel and adapted it into a screenplay. Twentieth Century Fox gave it to a relatively inexperienced director, Robert Altman, who applied a gritty, quasi-documentary style. The screenplay was a loose adaptation of the novel, but the characters were generally the same. The movie, which was released in 1970, shocked viewers with its graphic operating scenes and morbid humor. But it appealed to the antiwar and antiestablishment sentiments that had been growing throughout the 1960s. Hooker cashed in on the popularity of the film with a series of slapdash sequels to his novel, beginning with M*A*S*H Goes to Maine in 1973.
FROM FILM TO TELEVISION
The film was popular enough—and television was becoming sophisticated enough—that Twentieth Century Fox turned M*A*S*H into a TV series with producer/director Gene Reynolds, who had previously explored the comedy/drama genre with Room 222. Larry Gelbart wrote the pilot episode, and associate producer/casting director Burt Metcalfe procured the actors. The producers planned to show the film to the actors to inculcate them into the roles, but the actors refused to watch it, believing it would be a mistake to try to imitate the original actors. Gelbart approved of their decision to strive for originality and expanded upon it, deciding to embellish each character by observing the actors themselves and encouraging them to invest
some of their own personalities into their parts. Throughout the series the cast would examine the script critically to ensure that their lines were true to character. This method contributed to the longevity of the show by allowing the characters to grow and evolve.
The Hawkeye of the novel and film is recalcitrant, sneaky, and manipulative—a prankster, comedian, and ladies' man. In the TV series he retains many of these qualities but also becomes a humanitarian with the soul of a poet. Besides getting all the best punch lines, he also gets the best speeches, criticizing the hypocrisy of pompous officers, consoling wounded soldiers at their bedside, or waxing eloquent on any topic that comes along. One remarkable episode, appropriately titled “Hawkeye” (fourth season) is entirely a monologue. After suffering a concussion, Hawkeye is taken in by a Korean family who speaks no English. In order to keep himself awake, he talks aloud to himself and to the uncomprehending family, discoursing on the evils of war, the wonders of the anatomy, and other topics.
Obviously a character with so many admirable virtues could lead to superficiality, monotony, and sanctimony. Alan Alda sought to keep the character interesting by exploring his faults. In “Fallen Idol” (sixth season), Corporal Walter “Radar” O'Reilly is wounded during a trip to Seoul that Hawkeye encourages him to take. Hungover and guilt ridden, Hawkeye is unable to operate on Radar. When the recovering Radar expresses his disappointment, Hawkeye blows up at Radar, sick of the mantle of heroism he is expected to maintain. This episode furthers the growth of Radar's character as well.
The award-winning “Inga,” written by Alda, shows Hawkeye reluctant to learn from a female surgeon who upstages him in the O.R. (This episode has an autobiographical element, for as a child Alda was cured of polio by a technique discovered by a woman doctor, who had also met with opposition when proposing her theories.) Later episodes go out of their way to dig up the dark side of Hawkeye. In “C*A*V*E” (seventh season) we discover that Hawkeye is claustrophobic, and in “Bless You, Hawkeye” (ninth season) an allergic reaction to wet clothing awakens Hawkeye's latent but bitter hatred for his best friend and cousin, who had nearly drowned him in a childhood prank. Finally, in the last episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (eleventh season), Hawkeye has a mental breakdown after suppressing a gruesome memory.
Margaret Houlihan develops in the opposite direction. Whereas Hawkeye begins as an almost ideal person and writers have to labor to furnish him with faults to create character conflict, Houlihan starts out with few likable qualities. She is an uptight, authoritarian, Regular Army warhorse; an amorous ally of Major Frank Burns; and a fink, always threatening to go over Henry's poor, befuddled head. Of course, there is a passionate side to Houlihan as well. She isn't called “Hotlips” for nothing and seems to have had affairs with various high-ranking officers. However, she soon evolves into one of the most interesting characters in television. The introduction of a fiancé, Colonel Donald Penobscot, contributes to Houlihan's growth as she experiences love, marriage, and divorce.
Houlihan's role as head nurse also provides some touching moments. A breakthrough comes in “The Nurses” (fifth season) when she first reveals her loneliness to her fellow nurses, and in “Temporary Duty” (sixth season) when an old friend from nursing school visits and reminds Houlihan of what a warm, funloving person she used to be. These episodes unpeel her camouflage toughness, exposing her more human side. A convergence of Hawkeye's and Houlihan's development occurs in the two-part “Comrade in Arms” (sixth season) when the romantic undercurrent between the two rises to the surface while they are stranded in a hut amid shelling. “Father's Day” (ninth season) introduces Houlihan's father, General “Howitzer” Houlihan, yielding insight into her childhood and motivations. Loretta Swit's performance of Houlihan as she breaks down, opens up, and flowers as a human being throughout the eleven seasons of M*A*S*H is one of the greatest achievements of the series.
The humanization of Houlihan reflected the show's tendency to move toward character-oriented stories, and this in turn eroded the irreverent tone of the early years. The show continued to expose the atrocities of war, the inanities of bureaucracy, and the corruption of authority, but it became difficult to sustain convincing characters to represent such evils, and Houlihan was the first to buckle. Frank's character was fundamentally limited and could not evolve in a way that would be both realistic and dramatically effective. The introduction of Houlihan's engagement in the fifth season was intended to develop her character and also put Frank in new, interesting situations (as when he went berserk and arrested an ox). However, this precipitated Frank's decline, and at the end of the fifth season, Linville quit, feeling that his character's dramatic possibilities had been exhausted.
NEW RIVALS, NEW FRIENDS, NEW DRAMATIC POSSIBILITIES
Frank was replaced by Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, a Boston blueblood and Harvard graduate. Intelligent, shrewd, and a formidable surgeon, Charles was a much-needed rival for Hawkeye and Captain B. J. Hunnicut. It had been too easy for them to pick on Frank, who was an incompetent doctor and a petty bigot with no redeeming qualities. Charles brought new dramatic possibilities just when the show might have gone stale. He helped keep the show interesting and funny for another two or three seasons. Writers now had the opportunity to concoct rhetorical, allusive speeches for someone besides Hawkeye. Charles's snobbery and egotism were overplayed in the first few seasons, but this gave him somewhere from which to fall. The humiliations Charles suffered were usually comical, but they could also be quite touching when the character was handled with subtlety and not treated as a mere stereotype of the snob.
Although the villains became less villainous, there was a compromise on the other side as well. When Hawkeye's barely distinguishable sidekick, the irreverent, philandering Trapper John McIntyre, left the show, he was replaced by Hunnicut, a straitlaced, devoted family man. The bumbling, beloved Henry was replaced by no-nonsense Colonel Sherman Potter, a veteran of World Wars I and II. Potter provided a medium between the irreverent doctors and their authoritarian opponents, Frank and Houlihan. Potter partially sympathized with Houlihan, and his presence contributed to her growth.
In each case, the new character—B. J., Potter, and Charles—was intended to contrast with the old character to keep the show interesting. In the long run, however, the cast became one big, happy family once the conflicts between these more moderate characters were exhausted. James H. Wittebols,
in Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America, argues that these changes reflected the changing mores of the 1970s and 1980s as America moved from 1960s irreverence and hedonism to Reagan-era family values.
The departure of Radar, one of the most popular characters, was a grievous but necessary loss to the show. The teddy bear–toting company clerk, with his rural simplicity and naïveté, was so appealing that the writers did not bother to develop his character significantly until later in the series. The “Fallen Idol” episode discussed above was a major breakthrough, but Radar remained essentially a child. His departure in the two-part “Goodbye Radar” (eighth season) features fine performances and a sensitive script, with just the right balance of drama and subtlety. The story gains poignancy through allusions to Henry's departure five seasons before and is the most dramatic episode since Henry's death. Many viewers must have held their breath, fearing Radar would be killed on the way home, but the dreaded denouement reveals only Radar's teddy bear, left behind in Korea. Radar the person had grown up, and Radar the character had grown stale.
Radar's departure leads to Corporal Maxwell Klinger's promotion as company clerk. Klinger begins as a strictly comic character, providing laughs with his increasingly outrageous women's clothing. After seven seasons of wearing dresses, piling fruit upon his hat, and dressing up as the Statue of Liberty or as a big, blue bird with fuzzy pink feet, Klinger finally becomes a “serious” character and puts away his dresses. The advancement of Klinger and Father Francis Mulcahy as central characters with their own episodes was a sign that the show was running out of steam.
Sometimes the writers devised new storytelling techniques to alleviate the tedium. Gelbart had decided that each season should feature a few innovations. One of the first involves telling the story through a character's letter to his family, with amusing reminiscences to demonstrate the letter writer's point. This technique is illustrated in Hawkeye's “Dear Dad” episode (first season), followed by Radar's “Dear Ma,” Potter's “Dear Mildred,” and so forth. Eventually even guest characters such as Sidney Freedman (“Dear Sigmund”) are given their turn, and Hawkeye racks up three additional “Dear Dads.”
A more original experiment is seen in “The Interview” (fourth season), which features Clete Roberts interviewing the characters on their reactions to the war. Roberts, who was a correspondent in the Korean War, plays himself in this black-and-white episode. This technique is also repeated in the hour-long “Our Finest Hour” (seventh season). “Point of View” (seventh season) is filmed entirely from the point of view of a wounded soldier, from the battlefield to post-op to mess tent, sponge bath, and so on. “Life Time” (eighth season) is filmed in “real time,” as a clock in the corner of the TV screen counts down the twenty minutes that the soldier has left until the crucial surgery is performed. Perhaps the most dramatic experiment is the surrealist “Dreams” (eighth season), written by Alda, which peers into the crew's troubled nightmares to expose their deepest fears.
THE LATER YEARS
Although the innovations kept coming, the stories and dialogue grew worse in later years. Episodes were built around trivial plots that would have been barely acceptable as subplots in earlier seasons. Certain tropes—the arrival of wounded just when the gang was having fun and forgetting their troubles, the silent fadeout in the O.R., the dramatic showdown with an unfeeling general—had become cliché. Pathos often sank to bathos or just plain schmaltz. A particularly embarrassing formula in later years was to fade out an episode with a sing-along, as when Potter begins singing “Oh My Darling Clementine” in the O.R. and is gradually joined by everyone else. Other songs recruited for this cheap emotional effect were “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and “Dona Nobis Pacem.”
The creators wanted to go out with dignity while they were still on top, but they waited too long. Although the final episode had some fine moments, the show had become unpardonably self-absorbed and was painful to watch. Even the title, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” was suggestive of emotional overindulgence.
But the decline in quality was not entirely due to increasing “seriousness,” as is sometimes claimed. The infamous “Abyssinia, Henry” (third season), which reports the death of Henry, is one of the most shockingly dramatic episodes of any comedy and remains a milestone of television history. Grief-stricken viewers sent letters to the show expressing their outrage and indignation; people felt cheated that they had been made to care about a character who was so gratuitously “killed off” at the last minute. McClean Stevenson, who quit the show due to poor working conditions, believed at the time that the character was killed to prevent him from coming back to the show. However, the creators were actually making a radical statement about war that raised viewers' consciousness.
It is doubtful whether the writers of the later seasons could have made such a bold move when they were so immersed in the beauty, the fullness, the roundness of their beloved characters. The original plan to mingle actor and character was at first a fruitful technique that allowed the characters to grow, but it peaked about midway and then degenerated into the common Hollywood malady of narcissism. An episode from the final season, “Hey, Look Me Over,” concerning a nurse named Kellye who felt she was being overlooked by Hawkeye, may have reflected an actress (also named Kellye!) who felt she was being overlooked by the producers. The episode was an unintentional parody of what the show had become: a feel-good group for the actors. The success of M*A*S*H—its believable, lifelike characters—had become its failure, and the show lingered on too long, like a dying relative on life support.
M*A*S*H was followed by a truly wretched sequel, After M*A*S*H, which insulted viewers with the grotesquely improbable reunion of Potter, Mulcahy, and Klinger in a stateside hospital. Another sequel of sorts was Trapper John, M.D. (1979–1986), which features a balding Trapper righting wrongs in the 1980s in an hour-long drama in the style of Lou Grant (another Gelbart show). This Trapper, played by Pernell Roberts, had little in common with the old one, other than his ratingswinning name. Meanwhile, Wayne Rogers, who had played Trapper on M*A*S*H, again played a funny doctor on the sitcom House Calls (1979–1982), a blatant M*A*S*H rip-off. But he was actually closer to the old Trapper than the Trapper John, M.D. character, and the show was funnier than later M*A*S*H episodes.
At its best, M*A*S*H managed to be both relevant in its day and enduring in its syndicated afterlife. The army setting, away from civilian fashions, prevented the show from becoming an eyesore to future viewers. Its 1950s setting prevented the writers from using topical jokes that would become dated—though there were many references to 1940s and 1950s film and radio that went over younger viewers' heads.
The show was not without its ideological anachronisms, however: in “George” (second season), Hawkeye, Trapper, and Henry (all the good guys) show sympathy toward a homosexual soldier whom Frank, predictably, wants to persecute. It seems unlikely that there would have been such liberal understanding toward homosexuality among three out of four doctors back in the Freudian 1950s. This episode might have been less glibly didactic and more dramatically challenging if Henry, Trapper, or Hawkeye had been homophobic rather than the ever-nasty Frank. After all, Hawkeye used the pejorative “fairy” in the first season when the film version still exerted its influence. But things had already changed by the third season.
Although M*A*S*H in retrospect seems more modern than its great 1970s rival, All in the Family, and has aged better, both shows drunk deep from the well of didacticism, offering liberal platitudes with heavy-handed poetic justice. Plot lines always steered primly toward the moral in twenty-two minutes flat. And this became the long-lasting legacy of these two pioneering shows—drama and didacticism. Every comedy since then would tackle racism, and you always knew who the racist would be; every comedy would have its gay tolerance episode, with an utterly uninteresting gay cousin or neighbor hastily invented for the occasion; every show would kill off, or at least endanger, some character to keep things interesting (as illustrated on Happy Days with Richie Cunningham's accident). Even 1990s kingpin Roseanne adhered to this hackneyed 1970s format, despite its claims of originality and artistry. Americans found no reprieve from the comedy/drama until the postmodern playfulness of Seinfeld and early episodes of The Simpsons. These shows' very refusal to be didactic was one of the major innovations in situation comedy since M*A*S*H.
Diffrient, David Scott. M*A*S*H. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2008.
DiMare, Philip C. Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Reiss, David S. M*A*S*H: The Exclusive, Inside Story of TV's Most Popular Show. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980.
Wittebols, James H. Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America: A Social History of the 1972–1983 Television Series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.