Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #3 - MASH


For more than a decade, MASH was the best Sitcom on television.

For many, it is hard to categorize this show as a Sitcom, but if you go back to its roots, there is no question that it was made for laughs, with the occasional heart string pulled.  But over the years, MASH morphed into something else.  There was still humor, but when people tuned in from week to week, the not only expected to be moved to laughter but often to tears.  No other show has been so successful at riding the emotional wave as MASH.

MASH is the story of the soldiers who ran the 4077th MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) during the Korean War.  The main character was Hawkeye (Alan Alda), manic-depressive Groucho Marx who also happened to be a genius surgeon.  The rest of the cast was also populated by outlandish characters like the childlike "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) or the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr).

There is no doubt that MASH was a response to the Vietnam war.  This could easily lead to the trap of having the material feel dated.  Wisely, MASH did 3 things to avoid this:

1.  Korean War.
By not directly putting the events of the show in Vietnam, the show (as well as the movie and other media it was based on), avoided the "too soon" friction that other shows of this nature might.  By giving a little contextual space to the events, it allowed for easier breathing room.

2.  Not Anti-Soldier.
There is no question that the show was anti-war.  But it was decidedly not anti-soldier.  Some shows and movies show the inhumanity of war by making monsters of those who fight in them.  And MASH did a good job of showing all sides of our soldiers who fought.  Some were brave, some were cowards.  Some were virtuous, some were vicious.  But the show felt more like a sampling of all sides of human nature rather than an attack or a hagiography of the military.

3.  It Started With the Funny.
The early episodes were much, much sillier than the latter.  By starting with a goofier tone, the humor became disarming.  Viewers were more at ease with the tougher issues presented because they felt comfortable with the merry pranksters of the 4077.

As I wrote earlier, the show slowly began to transition to heavier and heavier subjects.  The tone became darker and the humor turned from silly to ironic.  (It made the exact opposite transition that Night Court did)

I know a number of people who watched the show from the beginning who preferred the older crew.  But I disagree.  I believe that the later episodes are superior to the earlier ones.  I prefer hard-edged Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) to the doltish Col. Blake (McLean Stevenson).  I enjoyed the layers to the arrogant Maj. Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) over the one-dimensional Maj. Burns (Larry Linville).  And just because a show adds more gravitas, it doesn't mean that it becomes less funny.

The connection to the characters made the humor all the more touching.  Take Winchester, for example.  He could be every bit the butt of jokes as the over-inflated, pompous windbag that he was.  But he had depth that made me care about his humor.  I have never forgotten the episode where he brings in sheet music for a piano playing soldier who has lost the use of a hand.  He said to him, "I could play the notes, but I could never make the music."  And then I was lost in the playing.  (you can hear a sample of the music below)

And the acting was superb.  Alda has never been better.  As the series went on, all of the cast got to show their range as actors.

As a Catholic, I love the way that the main priest Fr. Mulcahy (William Christopher) is portrayed.  He is not perfect.  In fact, he is called out in one episode as being too sheltered, too soft.  But he was always portrayed as a decent man and a good priest who tried his best.  My favorite memory of him from the show was from the finale.  The 4077th was getting bombed and while everyone ducked for cover, some enemy combatants were exposed.  Of those with him, only Fr. Mulcahy ran out to save them, to great personal cost.

Of course, as a Catholic I wasn't a fan of the infidelity, womanizing, and drunkenness that occurred on that base.  But the show did a good job of showing consequences.  Who could forget the episode where Hawkeye entered the OR drunk and what happened later between him and Radar?

The show was at its worst when it got preachy.  The producers and writers were very passionate about their positions, especially on war.  But all art is tarnished when it becomes a lecture.  And at times, MASH couldn't help itself.  But fortunately for them, their talent overcame this deficit.

And in those years, there are some classic unforgettable moments like:

-Radar entering the OR to talk about Col. Blake.
-The real-time episode to save a soldier's legs.
-Hawkeye going blind
-Col. Potter sharing a rare bottle with his new best friends.
-Burns charging Hawkeye for mutiny
-The newsreel interview episode
-The nightmare horror episode
-The 4077 leaving Hawkeye, Radar, and Hot Lips behind to tend a wounded patient.

"To Market, To Market" (1x02)

The pilot to the series gives you an idea of what you are in for.  But the second episode is what solidifies the show's nature.  In this episode you feel the dynamic of Hawkeye and his Trapper (Wayne Rogers) (and later replaced by Hunnicut (Mike Ferrel)), bending and breaking the rules however and whenever they can to help their patients.  You understand after this episode that the lead heroes are a little insane.  But they live in a world where their Colonel can get an oak desk but their patients can't get necessary medicine.  The crazy response to this situation is both humorous and poignant.

11 Seasons and MASH was still strong.  In fact, to make this point, let us look at…

"Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" (Series Finale)

The finest series finale on television ever.

After almost a dozen years on television, MASH did not lose a single step.  And the finale brings this home.  There were moments that were drop dead funny, like the goodbye between Hawkeye and Hot Lips.  And there were moments that were heartbreaking, like what happened on the bus.

But what makes this the best series finale is that absolute sense of closure and catharsis.  You have an individual moment with each of the main characters where they literally say goodbye to each other and to you.  I could go on and on about the finale, but it is something to be experienced.


MASH is a show that has been often imitated and never duplicated.  It is the greatest dramadey that has ever been on television.  It is a show that sticks with you and still holds up after 30 years being off the air.  It is one of the greatest television experiences you can have, where you feel the transition over the course of slow years.

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