what i'm watching: m*a*s*h re-watch update: still funny and other observations (updated)

Back in August, I started re-watching M*A*S*H end to end on Netflix. I promised updates... and here we are. (tl;dr: it's great.) Random thoughts below.

A huge number of M*A*S*H episodes have no plot whatsoever, but are a series of unconnected scenes or vignettes. These aren't clip shows, as the scenes have not aired before.

For many years Allan and I have called any TV show comprised of vignettes and framed by narration "Hawkeye writes home". We both remembered M*A*S*H frequently using this structure, with Hawkeye writing a letter to his father. Turns out there's a reason we remembered it: it's used all the time. In the first season alone, there were three Hawkeye-writes-homes, two narrated by Hawkeye and another by Henry Blake. This remains a constant from season to season: Radar writes to his mom, Henry Blake writes to Lorraine, BJ writes to Peg, Colonel Potter writes to his wife. In most shows I would call it lazy writing, but here the writing is so good, I just go with it.

Every episode of M*A*S*H has two distinctly different parts, with two different feels: the operating room and everywhere else. The distinction is achieved by what must have been a very bold move in its day: there's no laugh track in the OR. (Much is written about this online; producer Larry Gelbart talks about it here.) In the absence of canned laughter, Hawkeye's bon mots are revealed as grim, gallows humour. Hawkeye's and BJ's commentary on Frank Burns' inferior surgery techniques becomes deadly serious.

In Season 3, the episode "O.R." is set only in the OR - which means that there's no laugh track at all, for the entire show. It's extremely fitting, as the episode is not funny: it's an indictment of war. (There's some good commentary on this episode, including a quote from Gelbart, here.)

Season 4 ends with a famous episode called "The Interview," in which a journalist - apparently an actual war correspondent playing himself - interviews the cast. It's another Hawkeye-writes-home, written by Gelbart himself, shot in black-and-white, with no laugh track - also with no laughs. This episode is clearly not intended to be funny.

When I started this re-watch, I wondered if these serious episodes would be maudlin or overly sentimental. They are not. They are hard-hitting and heartbreaking.

I know that M*A*S*H was a commentary on the Vietnam War, but I didn't remember how far it went as a commentary on all wars generally. One way this is achieved is by having serious, honourable characters make anti-war statements. Colonel Potter, who fought in both World Wars, will often comment on the waste, the futility, the brutality, the unfairness of war. He is an honest and revered figure, a career soldier, yet he understands war only as a necessary evil - and often questions the necessary part. Pro-war statements, on the other hand, only come from buffoons - Frank Burns, Colonel Flagg, and other bit roles.

The future-famous-actor cameos ended early. Since my last M*A*S*H post, only Alex Karras and Mary Kay Place have appeared. Mary Kay Place (who I adore) was absolutely unrecognizable, but I'd know her voice anywhere. She also co-wrote the episode. Of course, there might have been guest appearances by people who were known in real time, but wouldn't necessarily be remembered by a 21st Century viewer.

Here's something that dawned on me slowly: the most important character of the show isn't Hawkeye, it's Radar. Walter "Radar" O'Reilly is the thread that ties all the characters and scenes together, the one character who has reason to interact with every other character, in any setting. Over the seasons, Radar's character develops with both humour and pathos, and Gary Burghoff's performance is brilliant. When I watched M*A*S*H in real time, as a child, I was always confused by Radar's age: other characters talked about him like he was a teenager, even a kid, yet he was clearly an adult. I mean, he was balding! Watching it now, I still note his hairline, but it's very clear that the character is meant to be a young person.

And finally, a note about M*A*S*H's theme music. There's no cold open, and the show opening with those first minor-key notes, as the helicopters hover, preserves a plaintive feel. The music builds as the medical staff race to receive the wounded. The music is sad, and urgent, and very effective. In the first four seasons, however, one note was bothering me. Literally one note. As strange as this might seem, the final note of the theme music was out of place. It sounded comical, with almost a zany sitcom feel, more fitting for Gilligan than Hawkeye. It bothered me in every episode. Then, amazingly, in Season 5, the note is gone. Apparently I'm not the only person who heard an incongruity in this note. The producers cut one note from the theme music, and that changes the viewer's expectations from sitcom to serious.

Update. How annoying! I just found some notes I made with more inconsequential M*A*S*H information. It doesn't warrant its own post, so...

I was wrong about the disappearance of the guest stars. I spotted John Ritter, Terry Garr, Robert Alda (Alan's father), and Michael O'Keefe. I'm thinking that many other small parts were played by actors who were known in their day.

In one episode, Colonel Henry Blake remarks that they watched a double feature: "The Blob" and "The Thing". Now, The Blob holds a very special place in my life; perhaps I will blog about it at some point. The original The Blob came out in 1958. The Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953.

For "The Thing", the only similar title I found was the 1951 "The Thing from Another World." Making up a title, no problem. Using the title of a real film that wasn't out yet... you can bet the producers got cards and letters about that one.

My other observations, I've decided to hold for a post about re-watching TV shows from the 1970s.


Amy said...

It's great to have your perspective after watching these as a set. And great to know how well the show holds up. I think I mentioned that when our kids were young, we would as a family watch MASH reruns every night in the pre-cable, pre-DVR, pre-Netflix days. It was broadcast on some syndicated station so it was sort of like watching it as you did, one episode every day. I think that it had an impact on our daughters; in a very subtle but effective way they learned about the horrors of war without too much gore or violence. I am sure much went over their heads, and I am sure they liked the funny parts best, but I know it had some impact on their world view. Not that that's why we watched it---Harvey and I loved the show, and it was a family routine that brought us all together right before homework and bedtime.

I never noticed the "note"---now I will have to go see if I hear what you mean. Opening credits, right?

laura k said...

We also watched it as a family, at least my parents and I (not sure if my siblings did). In our house we were very aware of the politics of that show. Your daughters might have been, too.

Hey, never mind pre-cable and pre-Netflix, MASH was pre-VCR!

I never would have noticed that note either. It's interesting when you start to consciously analyze something, the things you see. Yes, it's in the opening credits, so if you watch on YouTube or Netflix it will be easy to find. I believe the edited music begins in S5.

laura k said...

So I stupidly and accidentally deleted a comment from you. But did I read correctly that you wrote "there's nothing to watch these days"??

Maybe I read it wrong. There's so much quality TV to watch these days that most people can't keep up. It's a true golden age of television - so many series to choose from, all so well written and full of great acting. We can only get to a small fraction of the series we hear about.

Amy said...

You're right that there is a lot more quality stuff on tv these days. But right now we have watched the shows we want to watch and are waiting for new seasons. And network tv is dreadful. We also don't subscribe to HBO or SHO. So aside from a few shows and baseball, we don't have much to watch these days that's new.

Remember we don't watch things that are too dark or violent. We also are not into mysteries or suspense. So we have a more limited palette---comedies (but not farces or stuff that is too weird) and dramas that don't fall into the categories I listed. Narrow band of taste!

laura k said...

Ah, I see, it's more that there isn't enough to your tastes. I get that. But not having HBO or Showtime shouldn't stop you. We've never had those and have seen whatever we want, between downloads, Netflix, and DVDs.

Yes, network TV is a pit. We haven't even had it in years! A wasteland.

laura k said...

So I know what you dont like. What do you like? What are some shows you like, besides Doc Martin?

Amy said...

Oh, what I like is somewhat embarrassing!

Besides Doc Martin, on the "quality" side are things like Downton Abbey, Mad Men, House of Cards (though quite dark and weird), Rectify, and we liked up to a point the Kimmy show (forgot the full title).

We also like family type dramas like Parenthood (no longer on) and political or legal dramas like Madame Secretary and The Good Wife and soapy prime time escapism like Nashville and Grey's Anatomy. Mindless but entertaining. On the comedy side we like Big Bang and Modern Family. And we watch a LOT of HGTV. Mostly as background. That's just current stuff.

We HATED Girls. We don't like fantasy or science fiction. Not into Buffy or Star Trek, for example.

I like teen dramas (none on now) like The OC or Dawson's Creek or Gossip Girl. Adolescents fascinate me. Probably because I never understood them when I was one.

Now you know what a lightweight I am! :)

laura k said...

Well, A, I already knew you were a lightweight ;) and B, a lot of those shows are not all that light. I haven't seen Rectify yet - it was highly recommended and it's on our list - but it doesn't sound light at all. House of Cards, The Good Wife, not light.

Did you watch My So-Called Life when it was on? That was one of my favourite teen dramas. Probably my favourite until friends turned me on to Veronica Mars.

Escapist has different meanings depending on the viewer (or reader) I find. I don't watch a lot of sci fi or fantasy at all, compared to real fans, but the few I have enjoyed are total escapism to me. Justified, one of our favourite series, was great escapism, although very violent, full of action and drama and humour - but not at all heavy. Not a lot of thought required, you're just along for the ride. So to me, that's escapism.

Amy said...

I loved My So Called Life. Great show. Too short a run.

I was referring to my choice of network shows like Nashville and Grey's Anatomy when I said I was a lightweight. Yes, House of Cards and Rectify are quite dark. Good Wife is not really that dark, but certainly is not cotton candy. Rectify, by the way, is excellent. My brother recommended it, and although some of it is very dark, it's also has the kinds of features I enjoy: well-developed characters, lots of interesting relationships among those characters, and a thought-provoking story line. The acting is superb.

For me anything that is violent is not escapist even if the violence is cartoonish or where there is lots of humor. I never even liked Moe hitting Curly on the Three Stooges!

impudent strumpet said...

I've always enjoyed the "Hawkeye writes home" type of episodes, not just in MASH but in other series too.

In fiction that takes place in alternate universe (and historical settings function the same way as alternate universes for me) I always enjoy immersing myself in the universe, and feel a bit disappointed when I get to the part the characters have to leave home to go on an adventure or their universe gets disrupted by the main plot. (Don't know that I'd necessarily enjoy a story with no adventure or disruptive main plot, but nevertheless I feel a little disappointment when the disruption occurs.) So I like these storylines that give us more slices of life in the status quo of the universe.

impudent strumpet said...

I think I've found The Note. At 0:44 in this youtube video, there's a note that could plausibly be the last note of the theme, but it's immediately followed by the same note, an octave lower. (Insert my many music teachers over the years despairing over the fact that I can't name the note.) I think it was the note an octave lower that was omitted.

laura k said...

(Insert my many music teachers over the years despairing over the fact that I can't name the note.)

I'm impressed that you can hear that they're the same notes an octave apart!

And yes, that's it. Do hear the inclusion of that note as slightly comical or silly?

impudent strumpet said...

It sounds comical to me now after reading you mention it (kind of like a pratfall) but I didn't notice it independently. I did notice that something about the tone and/or instrumentation of the theme varied from season to season, but couldn't specify what.

laura k said...

Pratfall, that's the word I was looking for.

I wouldn't have noticed it either, had I not been watching to critique and analyze.