Musings on M*A*S*H

It may come as a surprise to people who know how much of a Trekkie I am, but my all time favorite TV show is not one of the incarnations of Star Trek, but M*A*S*H. I first started watching it sometime during the second or third season of its original run, and then continuously through to the end. Nowadays, it’s the one show I make time for, now on MeTV.

I think a big part is Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, which is interesting, because he’s not very much like the Hawkeye of the book. I recently re-read the original novel, and it’s interesting to see how the characters diverged. In the book and movie, Hawkeye is brown-haired, married, has glasses, and is a general surgeon. The novel shows Hawkeye explicitly planning the strategy that is an implicitly shown in the series:

“This Blake must have a problem or he wouldn’t be sending for help. Maybe we’re that help.”
“Right,” the Duke said.
“So my idea,” Hawkeye said, “is that we work like hell when there’s work and try to outclass the other talent.”
“Right,” the Duke said.
“This,” Hawkeye said, “will give us enough leverage to write our own tickets the rest of the way.”

(In the novel, the character of Duke Forrest was a third surgeon, slightly more important to the story than Trapper John. In the movie, he was played by Tom Skerritt).

The Hawkeye of the book and movie has no trouble voicing the kind of racial slurs that the Hawkeye of the series found unacceptable. All three version show him as a prankster and schemer, but the book never shows the kind of bedside compassion the series Hawkeye has. The series Hawkeye is more principled — sometimes too much so — than the novel’s Hawkeye. The book’s Hawkeye lacks the Groucho-esque wordplay that I love about the series Hawkeye.

Once of the things I find interesting is that physically, Wayne Rogers is more like the novel’s Hawkeye, and Alda is more like the novel’s Trapper John. Some traits were switched between the characters — in the novel, Trapper is the thoracic specialist, and becomes Chief Surgeon; in the series, it’s Hawkeye.

One of the reasons Wayne Rogers gave for leaving the series is that he had been told that the two surgeons were going to be equals, but that Trapper was given less to do as time went on. It’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened had the roles been reversed, but I suspect in the end, Alda still would have wound up as star as the show. Actors have much more influence in television production; aside from gathering a following which gives them clout, they also inspire writers. If an actor comes up with an interesting bit of business, or does something particularly well, the writers will see that in the dailies and start writing to it. I think Alan Alda’s portrayal would have had that kind of effect whether he was playing Hawkeye or Trapper.

Cast Changes

M*A*S*H is unusual in that it survived several major cast changes. I remember being very upset that Henry Blake and Trapper John left, but at this point, I greatly prefer Colonel Potter and BJ to their predecessors. Colonel Potter is a lot more believable as a commanding officer than the series’ Henry Blake, and in fact, bears some resemblance to the Henry Blake of the novel, being a regular Army man whose first priority is the operation of his unit, and is willing to tolerate a lot of nonsense in exchange for surgical excellence. Trapper as a character wasn’t really different enough from Hawkeye, and this hampered him in some ways; it was harder to bring something different to the table. Mike Farrell’s BJ Hunnicutt, on the other hand, brought a different set of values to the show; it was easier to play the contrast between him and Hawkeye. He was a family man, where Hawkeye was not, he was less outraged by the war than Hawkeye, and at least in his earlier seasons, more likely to be amused by what he saw.

I’m still less pleased with the change from Frank Burns to Charles Emerson Winchester. I still feel the show lost a lot when Larry Linville left. Charles is an interesting character, but he lacks the inspired lunacy of Frank Burns. Linville left because the character had become narrow and strident, so they replaced him with a character with more headroom to grow.

Finally, the show lost a lot when Gary Burghoff left.  It actually lost two characters, because Klinger the company clerk was not the same as Klinger the Section 8 candidate. I understand why it made sense from a production standpoint, but I would have preferred that they had gone in a different direction. I think it would have been interesting to have seen an all new character — possibly a patient coming through who happened to reveal a talent for clerical work, or to have promoted one of the recurring cast. It would have been interesting to see Igor as company clerk.

One of the things I’ve realized is that with each cast change, the kinds of stories the show could tell changed. When Henry Blake died, you could no longer tell stories about Frank and Hot Lips getting upset and going to the brass; Colonel Potter would have never stood for it. On the other hand, the writers gained a straight talking fatherly figure the staff could bond with. When Trapper left, Hawkeye lost his wingman and to a certain extent, a fellow carouser, but the writers gained the ability to tell stories about trying to be faithful about a loved one at home, and dealing with guilt when one fails. When Frank Burns left, they lost the crazed Wile E. Coyote foil, but gained the ability to tell stories about a much more sophisticated nemesis.

Abyssinia Henry

As good as M*A*S*H is, it has a number of episodes that are simply not great, especially in the later seasons. There is one episode that makes me angry, though, and that’s “Abyssinia, Henry”, where Henry Blake is killed off. The writers have taken a lot of credit over the years for the way they did it, and I totally disagree.

For those who haven’t seen it, at the beginning of the episode, Radar comes into the OR and tells Henry he has all his points, he’s being discharged. The rest of the episode is about the camp saying goodbye to Henry. Hawkeye and Trapper take him over to Rosies for one last night, and give him an over the top civilian suit. Next morning, wearing the suit, he says goodbye the camp, then heads for the helipad where the camp sees him off.

Dissolve to OR, where a shaken Radar comes in, and announces that Henry’s plane was shot down over the sea of Japan, and that there were no survivors.

What bothers me is that the last scene was literally tacked on at the end — it was hidden from the actors in order to get a stronger reaction, and was added to make a point about the war.

I don’t have a problem with writers writing to make a point. I have a big problem with the way they handled this. Essentially, they had a happy goodbye story, and then they tacked on one scene that really has no relationship to the rest of the episode. There was no foreshadowing, it didn’t flow from the rest of the story, they didn’t even put Henry in a particularly risky position.

You want to kill off a regular to make a point? Fine. Let’s do it right. Let’s foreshadow it some. Let’s put him in jeopardy first. Let’s use this thing we’re going to do possibly open up some avenues for other characters. Let’s see him die, and not in vain. Let’s see the other characters starting to come to grips with it. Maybe for some reason, he and Frank have to visit an aid station or attend a conference or something. Let’s say Frank does something stupid, but not serious, and suddenly things go all wrong. Frank tries to make it right, and fails. And is uncomfortably aware that he failed, at least at some level. And he gets Henry back to camp, but he’s too far gone, and Hawkeye and Trapper are unable to save him, and they all have to live with that.

The writers could have still made their point this way. But the ending would have flowed organically from the rest of the story.

The Seasons of M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H went through several phases, most of which tended to correspond with the seasons. In the first season, M*A*S*H was to a certain extent, an Army hijinks show. It was not doing well in the ratings, and the network wanted it to be more of a comedy. There was more of a focus on capers. The show also had a number of subsidiary characters that were phased out by the end of the season. On the flip side, we had a sense that the camp was bigger than just the Swamp men; we saw other doctors, and a dentist, and other staff members.

By seasons two and three, the show was hitting its stride. It was still slightly surrealistic, but the stories were starting to become a little more character driven, and there was less emphasis on caper stories.

Season Four saw the introduction of Colonel Potter and BJ Hunnicutt. It was the last season where Frank and Hot Lips were together, and the last season written by Larry Gelbart.

For me, Season Five is the best season of the series. There is a certain jauntiness in the performances, more of a sense that the characters enjoy playing off each other. Colonel Potter is plain-spoken, but hasn’t yet developed the annoying verbal tics that he had after Season Eight. You can see the affection between Potter, Hawkeye, and BJ, and the growing respect between the Colonel and Margaret. Hot Lips and Frank have broken up, and Margaret is becoming more of a free agent. Frank is there, and still funny.

Seasons Six and Seven see the series becoming more serious. Without Larry Linville, it’s just not as funny as it used to be. Radar’s absences are starting to become noticeable.

The series really started going downhill beginning with season eight. I’m not sure whether it was the writing team in place for the last three seasons, or simply a matter of running dry, but it was really starting to show its age after Radar left. Potter developed a set of really annoying speech patterns. Some of the performances started to get broader and louder. And the stories got preachier, and less interesting. I’m generally happy to see most of the earlier episodes again; by the time the later episodes come around, I get choosier. There are still some good ones, but there are also a lot that I’ll skip.

M*A*S*H‘s Point of View

M*A*S*H was always a series that had a point of view, that war was evil and wasteful, that the Army was silly when it wasn’t brutal. This is correct in many ways; Isaac Asimov once wrote that “War is the last refuge of the incompetent”.

And yet, looking at it historically, I can’t help but feel that the Korean War was justified. The UN (at the behest of the US) went to Korea to defend South Korea which had been invaded by North Korea. It was a defensive war to repulse an invasion. I can’t help but look at the two Koreas now – North Korea in periodic famine, run by a despotic dynasty, and South Korea, one of the richest economies in the world. Satellite pictures at night starkly show the difference between the two economies.  South Koreans have a large amount of personal freedom, North Koreans are under the thumb of the Dear Leader.

Missed Opportunities

M*A*SH’s point of view lead to some missed opportunities as well. Colonel Potter was portrayed as pretty realistic, but he was a career army officer. We were told why he got into the army, but we never explored why he stayed. There was always a lot of complaining about the war, but we didn’t really see any of the surgeons take more than momentary satisfaction in their work. Their work was important, and meaningful; I think that would have been emotionally sustaining, especially for people, like them, who lived through World War II, but it really wasn’t shown much.

Margaret was always shown as competent and strict and by the book, but the flip side of competent people with high standards is that they are very proud of their people, and protective of them; it would have been interesting to see an episode where for some reason, she had to protect one or more of her nurses, either from the Army or some decision of Colonel Potter’s.

We had a couple of really nice fatherly scenes with Potter and Pierce, Radar, Klinger, and Margaret, but I don’t remember ever seeing a one on one between him and BJ, which is strange, since they had a lot in common, being faithful married men who missed their wives. There were several episodes where BJ went off the rails because he missed Peg; I think Potter could have helped him.

And finally, I think Frank Burns could have been handled better. It was difficult, because Larry Linville was such a talented physical actor, but a big part of the problem was that he had no redeeming qualities at all. In the book, Frank Burns is written as technically competent, but medically thoughtless, with a penchant for blaming others for his mistakes,  and an intolerance for others who didn’t share his affluence. (He is also a captain, like the others; his character was merged with a religious major for the movie).

I think “technically competent, but medically thoughtless” would have been a lot more sustainable for the series, than the complete idiot he was written as. It would have made him a more believable character. It gives the writers a little more flexibility – if they need him to do something stupid, he does it out of carelessness, but gives him a baseline of competence so that he’s not completely unreal.

I also think it would have given the character of Frank Burns more headroom to grow if the new characters introduced in Season four were more tolerant of him than Hawkeye. There is too much history between him and Hawkeye for them ever to be more than enemies, but I think they could have written BJ as at least tolerant of him. And I can imagine a nice walking scene between him and Potter where Potter makes it completely clear that he regards the 4077th is a hospital first and an Army base second, and somehow manages to get Burns at least somewhat on board with that.

Fan Fiction

I’ve discovered a fan site (bestcareanywhere.net) that has some fan fiction. Some of it is really poorly written, even at a grammar level, but a few of the stories are quite good. Some are alternate episodes, some show the characters after the war. One of the rather surprising things for me is how many stories pair up Margaret and Hawkeye. I just don’t see it myself. They always had professional respect for each other, and a certain amount of physical attraction, but as Hawkeye says at the end of “Comrades in Arms”, they’re just too different personalities.

In the end, M*A*S*H the series lives on because it was so well executed, especially at the beginning. The protagonists are likable and funny, many of the stories are well written, and transcend the “Army hijinks” format of the original. It’s now been around for over four decades, but it can still make me laugh.

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