8.08.2015

what i'm watching: thoughts on re-watching m*a*s*h, one of the greatest tv shows of all time

Can the comedy-before-sleep slot be filled with overt social and political relevance? We'll soon find out. After struggling through the last seasons of 30 Rock, I've rewarded myself by starting M*A*S*H from season 1, episode 1. (Thank you, Netflix!)

It's no coincidence that M*A*S*H, one of the best and most daring sitcoms of all time, first aired in 1972. It was a time of great openness and risk-taking in mainstream movies, radio, and publishing. That risk-taking extended right down to network television, bringing realism and social commentary to a level previously unseen - and not tolerated - on the small screen.

Even with that openness, no one could have made a movie and a TV show openly criticizing the Vietnam War while it was still raging. Larry Gelbart (like Robert Altman, who made the movie version), found a solution both elegant and obvious: set the action in a different war. The Korean War, fought from 1950 to 1953, was the perfect stand-in, an illustration of the maxim "comedy is tragedy plus time". We get Southeast Asia, anti-communist rhetoric, young people wounded and dying far from home - everything we saw on the nightly news. It was recognizable, yet safe.

Like most TV watchers at that time, I watched M*A*S*H religiously, often with my parents, who also loved the show. I'm guessing I stopped watching around 1980 - about the time it stopped being funny - although I did tune in for the famous final episode.

When I started the re-watch after not having seen the show in 30-odd years, I wondered, would it still be funny? Also, when it would become itself? When you re-watch a classic show, you often learn that the first few episodes, or even the entire first season, was clunky, or forced, or simply not itself yet; the writers and actors hadn't yet found the show's true voice. I was very curious to see when the show would become the M*A*S*H I remember.

The answer is: immediately. The show is itself - and funny - from the very first episode. It becomes overtly political only a few episodes later. Alan Alda, whose work as an older actor I find insufferably pompous, is a gifted star in the role of a lifetime. But then, the entire cast is perfect.

If I recall correctly, M*A*S*H may be one of the few shows that actually improved with later cast changes, becoming more nuanced and less broad. I'll find out if that perception holds up, along with my memory of the show becoming maudlin, overly sentimental, and repetitious towards the end.

The show was anti-war and anti-racist from the beginning - despite the early presence of an African American doctor bunking in "The Swamp," with the lovely nickname of Spearchucker. (He disappears after a few episodes.) And despite the adult female nurses being referred to as "girls" - as they would have been in the 1950s, when the show is set - women are portrayed as strong, competent, thinking people.

M*A*S*H isn't sexist or racist, but is it ever homophobic! This was the norm in all TV shows until very recently, but it still makes me cringe.* Even so, our hero Hawkeye is unafraid to hug, kiss, and even sometimes dance with other men in the unit.

The show may also be great for not-yet-famous cameos. So far I've seen Leslie Nielsen as a gung-ho corporal whose unit has abnormally high casualty rates, and Ron Howard, billed as "Ronny Howard". Pre-Richie Cunningham, viewers would have thought, "Isn't that the boy who played Opie?"

I'm sure my M*A*S*H re-watch will inspire several wmtc posts.

* Update. The homophobia ended in the middle of the first season. Hawkeye makes frequent joking come-ons to all the different men, either met with joking acceptance ("I thought you'd never ask") or with eye-rolling. And there are all the jokes about how hot Klinger looks, what "little number" he should wear. But no more jokes about how hilarious it is to be "one of those" men.

18 comments:

Amy said...

One of my all-time favorites, and we watched reruns with our kids into the late 80s and early 90s. I am glad that so far it is holding up under your 2015 scrutiny. Sometimes I am afraid to go back---what if I am bored by it? Or worse, disgusted by something I loved? I don't remember MASH being homophobic, but then I wasn't exactly sensitive to that back then.

Keep us posted!

allan said...

And the movie was based on a book: "MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors", by Richard Hooker (1968).

laura k said...

I had no idea until you mentioned it the other day.

And without Wikipedia or imdb I managed to remember the answer to my question: Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland.

laura k said...

Sometimes I am afraid to go back---what if I am bored by it? Or worse, disgusted by something I loved?

Same here! If old shows don't hold up, I'd rather not know about it.

I don't remember MASH being homophobic, but then I wasn't exactly sensitive to that back then.

It was nothing huge (at this point), just the things you used to hear all the time: Oh is he "that way", with the hand gesture, played for broad laughs. The hilarity of the idea of anyone being "that way". A fruit, a fairy, a pansy.

HillbillyInBC said...

Such a great show. I've seen every episode multiple times, with one exception. There's a Christmas episode late in the show's run where the doctors work to keep a mortally-wounded soldier alive until midnight so his kids won't remember Christmas as the day Daddy died. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen this one, but it completely devastated me because that's exactly what Christmas has meant to me ever since age 5. Every time this episode came on back when I watched the syndicated reruns regularly I switched it off.

laura k said...

Wow, that is heavy.

I didn't want to include this in the post, but I have a distinct memory of watching the episode where Henry Blake leaves (no spoilers, please) with my parents. My parents were angry and hurt by the way that episode ended. They said it was a bad choice, the show shouldn't have done that, it was too awful, too sad.

James Redekop said...

it was too awful, too sad.

Which is why it was such a good -- even brilliant -- choice.

allan said...

Looking through Wiki, I saw that both McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers left after the third season because they felt MASH had become The Alan Alda Show.

laura k said...

Which is why it was such a good -- even brilliant -- choice.

I agree. It was about war, after all. Leaving the audience with a feel-good ending would have been easier, but less honest.

laura k said...

Looking through Wiki, I saw that both McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers left after the third season because they felt MASH had become The Alan Alda Show.

That might be lucky for us. Colonel Potter and BJ were actually better characters than Henry Blake and Trapper - more nuanced, less cartoony. At least that's how I remember it. I'll find out if that holds up.

Stephanie said...

I loved every minute of it! I think your assessments of the caracters portrayed by McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers are right on. Happy re-watching, I look forward to future posts.

"Through early morning fog I see..."

Zenslinger said...

This show certainly brings up a lot of feelings. I watched it a lot as a kid, and we were aware of the issues with the laugh track even at a young age. Of course I can remember watching the final episode, but I've recently heard it referred to as awful and bloated.

Very nice post.

Can I very gently make a correction? Korea's not Southeast Asia like Vietnam -- it's East Asia or Northeast Asia.

laura k said...

Yes, you can most certainly make a correction, especially since your geography is more fine-tuned than mine.

Thanks for reading. :)

impudent strumpet said...

I was in my mid-teens when I watched MASH, so, like Amy, I wasn't yet sensitive to the homophobia you describe. But I do remember there was one episode where a patient had been beaten up for being gay, and he was treated compassionately by the non-Frank Burns doctors.

My favourite cast lineup was during the transitional period, where we had both Frank Burns and Colonel Potter. The contrast made things interesting.

Fun fact: I saw an episode or two of MASH as a child (under the age of 8), and I literally couldn't tell the doctors apart. They're all middle-aged (to my child eyes) white men in the same clothes...how can you possible be expected to distinguish among them?

James Redekop said...

This Matt Baume video talks about sitcoms handling homosexuality in the 60s and 70s, and cites that M*A*S*H episode. Though apparently it was more than the Frank Burns who had problems with the kid -- the video has a clip of Hawkeye berating "B.J. Hypocrite" for his attitude as well.

laura k said...

That's cool, I look forward to seeing that ep.

After the first half of S1, the homophobia stopped. Hawkeye makes a lot of joking come-ons to all the different men, either met with joking acceptance ("I thought you'd never ask", that kind of thing), or with eye-rolling. And there are all the jokes about how hot Klinger looks, what "little number" he should wear.

But no more jokes about how hilarious it is to be "one of those" men. I'll put this in an update at some point.

impudent strumpet said...

If it was just the first half of the first season, maybe that's why I don't remember it. I found those episodes cringey, so I wouldn't really rewatch them. I only remember that I found them cringey because it seemed like one of those people who makes terrible "jokes" and keeps repeating them at you and mugging with the expectation that you'll laugh - I don't remember the details of the terrible jokes.

laura k said...

This has been the one show that I didn't find cringey at the beginning. But in most of my end-to-end binge watches, the first episodes or even the first season is like that, so I know what you mean.