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M*A*S*H (TV series)
MASH
The Title Screen of M*A*S*H

Started

September 17, 1972

Ended

February 28, 1983

Network/Country

CBS-TV (United States)

Co-Starring:

Alan Alda
Wayne Rogers
McLean Stevenson
Loretta Swit
Larry Linville
Gary Burghoff
Mike Farrell
Harry Morgan
Jamie Farr
William Christopher
David Ogden Stiers

Followed by/Related show(s):

Trapper John, M.D., AfterMASH, W*A*L*T*E*R

Runtime:

24-25 minutes

Seasons/Episodes

11 Seasons, 256 episodes

Developed for TV by:

Larry Gelbart with Gene Reynolds

Inspired by the 1970 film of the same name and the novel "MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors" by Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H was an American television series about a team of medical personnel stationed at the 4077th MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) in Korea during the Korean War. The series originally aired on CBS from September 17, 1972 to February 28, 1983, but can still be seen in syndication. The series spanned 11 seasons and 256 episodes[1] and proved to be hugely successful. After its first season, and except for Season 4 when it rated 14th, it was always rated within the top 10. Along the way, it also garnered 14 Emmy Awards (out of 99 nominations) as well as many other accolades for its writers, producers and actors.

SynopsisEdit

Although M*A*S*H has been classified as a "situation comedy", it proved to be something quite different. Some critics have referred to it as television's first "dramedy". From the beginning, its producers had intended that it was not to be "Albert and Costello goes to war".[2] So, like the movie which spawned it, the television series recounted in 26 minute weekly segments the experiences of a group of US Army doctors, nurses and medics as they worked desperately to save the lives of wounded soldiers. It also depicted how they struggled to cope with the realities and horrors of war. It was these coping efforts--the jocularity in the operation room, the practical jokes they played on one another and their crazy, wholly unmilitary antics which provided the show's comedic elements. But it did not depict war as fun. As journalist Peggy Herz put it, "They did not laugh at war. They laughed to keep the shadows away. War was always with them."[3]

The comedic elements of the show carried a darker antiwar message. Some viewers saw the series as a critique of the Vietnam War (still in progress when the series began), rather than the Korean War, given the attitudes of the characters. The show's producers have, however, said that it was really broader, it was about war in general. The dramedy format also proved to be an effective vehicle to expose and satirize pressing social issues of the times. Hence, through its 11-season run, various episodes of M*A*S*H would deal with topics like military bureaucracy, racism, gender bias, homosexuality, alcoholism. drug abuse and so on.

But MASH means "mobile" as the staff of the 4077th are constantly reminded. So just as the characters remained true to their medical mission in spite of the shifting fortunes of war, so the television series, while preserving its unique blend of drama and commentary with comedy, endured many changes through its 11-year run.

Mobility: Change in toneEdit

One significant shift observed by many viewers as the series progressed was a move from pure comedy to become far more dramatically focused. In the earlier seasons, the show placed most of its emphasis on the "zany" elements, but later focused on more serious topics and character development. However, both the serious and the comedic sides were present throughout. In fact, by Season 3, Peggy Herz had observed that on M*A*S*H, "There is no moralizing or sermonizing--yet it is probably the most moral show on TV."[4]

Where viewers have observed that later seasons became more political, often appearing to "preach" to its viewers, this shift has been generall connected with Alan Alda, the main star of the series, taking a more involved role in production, and many of the episodes in which this change is particularly notable were written and/or directed by Alda.

Some fans prefer the more serious and dramatic tone of the later seasons over the more chaotic humor of the early years, but many other fans consider the tonal shift to be an instance of jumping the shark. Nonetheless, it is noted that some of the most highly rated or innovative episodes such as "The Interview", "Life Time" and "Point of View" came in the later seasons. In "The Interview", a war correspondent interviews the various main characters about their thoughts and feelings. This unique episode, thought to be the best of the entire series, is almost entirely devoid of comedic elements and did not even contain a laugh track.

Mobility: Change in charactersEdit

The show survived many changes in its cast of characters. Of all the starring characters, only Hawkeye (the Chieft Surgeon), Major Houlihan (the Head Nurse), Klinger (a cross-dressing corpsman), and Father Mulcahy (the Chaplain) were in the show for its entire run. (Klinger and Mulcahy, were, in factguest stars for the first few seasons of the show and only elevated to the main cast later.

Henry Blake, the commander of the 4077th, buffoonish as a military superior but a skilled surgeon nonetheless, left when the actor who play him, McLean Stevenson, decided to leave for career advancement reasons. In the final episode of Season 3, "Abyssinia, Henry", Henry Blake had accumulated enough points to be granted a discharge and was given a fond farewell by the rest of the unit but in the dramatic last scene, it was reported that his plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan and he was killed. None of the cast (with the exception of Alda, who wrote the scene) knew about that development until a few minutes before Burghoff was told to go in and have Radar report that Blake had died. Up until then, as far as anyone knew, they were going to get a message that Blake had arrived safely home. This development garnered a barrage of angry mail from fans. As a result, the creative team behind "M*A*S*H" pledged that no other characters would leave the show in tragic fashion. Stevenson died in February of 1996 of cardiac arrest.

Trapper John McIntyre, another surgeon, was also written out when actor Wayne Rogers decided to leave the series after the end of Season 3 due to disagreements about his character. He felt that his character was never given any real importance, that all the focus was on Alda's character. Rogers has also mentioned that he was told to sign a "morals clause" on his contract renewal, which he refused to do.

Season 4 was thus in many ways a turning point for the entire series. At the beginning of the fourth season, Hawkeye was informed by Radar that Trapper had been discharged while Hawkeye was on leave, and audiences did not see Trapper's departure. At the same time, Colonel Sherman T. Potter (played by Harry Morgan was assigned to the unit as commanding officer, replacing Blake, while B.J. Hunnicutt (played by Mike Farrell was drafted in as Trapper's replacement.

The series, while still having an element of comedy, gradually became more emotionally rounded. Major Houlihan's role continued to evolve during this time; she became much more friendly towards Hawkeye and B.J., and had a falling out with Frank Burns. She later married an infantry officer based in Tokyo, Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot ("I could never love anyone who didn't outrank me"), but the union did not last for long. The "Hot Lips" nickname was rarely used to describe her after about the mid-way point in the series. Loretta Swit wanted to leave the series in the 8th season to pursue other acting roles (most notably the part of Christine Cagney on Cagney & Lacey), but the producers refused to let her out of her contract. However, Swit did originate the Cagney role in the made-for-TV movie which served as the pilot.

Larry Linville who played the officious and bureaucratic surgeon Major Frank Burns was frustrated with the lack of development of his character, and decided to leave at the end of Season 5. During the first episode of Season 6, Frank Burns had suffered a breakdown after Margaret's marriage to Donald Penobscott and was transferred stateside with a promotion, all off-camera. Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) was brought in as an antagonist of sorts to the other surgeons, but his relationships with them was not as acrimonious, although he was a more able foil. Unlike Frank, Winchester did not really care for the Army and was a very highly skilled surgeon whom the others respected professionally. At the same time, as a Boston "blueblood", he was also snobbish, which drove much of his conflict with the other characters. Still, the show's writers would allow Winchester's humanity to shine through such as in his dealings with a young piano player who had partially lost the use of his right hand, or his keeping a vigil with Hawkeye when Hawkeye's father went into surgery 8,000 miles away, or his continuing of a family tradition of anonymously giving Christmas treats to an orphanage.

Gary Burghoff ("Radar" O'Reilly) was one of two M*A*S*H actors to reprise his role from the movie, and the only main character (the other was G. Wood as "General Hammond"). Like in the film, Radar had an extraordinary ability to detect the arrival of choppers transporting wounded long before anyone else and appeared to have a knack for premonitions. He could usually anticipate orders well enough to recite along as they were given, and kept the business end of the 4077th running extraordinarily smoothly. Burghoff left the series in 1979, and rather than adding a new character to replace him, the company clerk role was taken up by Jamie Farr as Corporal (later Sergeant) Klinger, whose antics never got him the discharge he wanted. Radar's departure meant Klinger's (and Farr's) role was expanded, his attempts at being discharged were downplayed, and he almost never wore women's clothing anymore. (Klinger even shaped up well enough to get a promotion, and the camp counted on him as a "scrounger", who could obtain nearly anything.)

End of the Series: "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen"Edit

Main article: Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen

GFAtitle

Title card for "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," the series finale to M*A*S*H

By Season 10, although still doing very well, the producers, writers and cast were feeling that they were running out of good stories to tell. Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Potter, admitted in an interview that he felt "the cracks were starting to show" by Season 9.

The cast voted (by a majority) to end the series following the Season 10, but CBS and 20th Century Fox offered the actors a shortened eleventh season, permitting an opportunity for the show to have a grand finale.

So towards the end of Season 10, the producers and writers began work on the finale, a production effort which just grew and grew. The result was the 2½-hour Goodbye, Farewell and Amen television movie. The finale, which first aired on CBS on February 28, 1983, was written by a large number of collaborators, including series star Alan Alda, who also directed.

"Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" surpassed the single-episode ratings record that had been set by the Dallas episode that resolved the "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger. The episode drew 121.6 million viewers, more than both that year's Super Bowl] and the famed Roots miniseries. From 1983 until 2010, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" remained the most watched television broadcast in American history, only surpassed in total viewership (but not in Ratings or Share) in February 2010 by the Super Bowl XLIV.[2]Even today, it still ranks as 7th (the first 6 are all Superbowls) and so it remains the most watched scripted, non-sports television program ever, a record which is likely to stay given the more fragmented nature of television programming with the advent of cable.

The episode's plot chronicles the final days of the Korean War at the 4077th MASH and features several storylines intended to show the war's effects on the individual personnel of the unit, and to bring closure to the series. After the cease-fire goes into effect, the members of the 4077th throw a closing party before taking down the camp for the last time. After tear-filled goodbyes, the main characters go their separate ways, leading up to the iconic final scene of the series.

"Good Bye, Farewell and Amen" was added to the syndication package for the series in 1993 although its length means that it is screened more infrequently than the regular 30-minute episodes.

The M*A*S*H series had three spin-offs, the short-lived "AfterMASH", where three of the series' main characters (Sherman Potter, Maxwell Klinger, and Father Mulcahy) are reunited in a midwestern hospital after the war, the more successful Trapper John, M.D. (which a court later ruled was actually a spin-off of the original film), and an unpurchased television pilot, W*A*L*T*E*R, in which Walter "Radar" O'Reilly (still played by Gary Burghoff) leaves his home town and moves to St Louis to join the police force.

The Last Day of FilmingEdit

Although "Good Bye, Farewell and Amen" was the last M*A*S*H installment to be broadcast, it was filmed at the beginning of Season 11. The last episode to be produced was actually "As Time Goes By". In this episode the 4077th M*A*S*H personnel bury a time capsule with items symbolizing their lives and experiences during the war. In the process, they also decide to bury any past enmities they may have had.

The filming day of filming for that episode was a major event and extensively covered on media. Excerpts of this can be seen on the documentary Memories of M*A*S*H and also on the DVD set.

Alan Alda, in his book Never Have Your Dog Stuffed recounts a bittersweet ending to the M*A*S*H story. Just like in the episode "As Time Goes By", the cast actually buried a time capsule on the set filled with mementoes in the hopes that it would be found many years after the series ended. This plan was thwarted when 20th Century Fox sold the land shortly thereafter. A construction worker found the capsule soon after the sale and thought that the cast would want it back. When he tried to return it to them, Alan Alda told him to keep it.[5][6]

Critical ReceptionEdit

At the end of its first season, the show was 46th of 86 in the ratings and was in danger of being cancelled. CBS responded by moving the show to Saturday night, between hits All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore. As a result, M*A*S*H would end the next nine of ten seasons in the top ten.

Richard Hooker, who wrote the novel that inspired both the film and television versions of MASH, did not like the TV series based on his book, and in particular, he did not like the way Alan Alda played Hawkeye. Robert Altman, who directed the film, also greatly disliked the series, complaining that what his film accomplished through subtle humor the TV series assaulted with loud, obvious speeches, thus defeating the purpose of depicting people acting absurdly to stay sane against an insane setting.

Narrative formatEdit

Main article: M*A*S*H TV series narrative formats

Unlike other sitcoms which were usually filmed live on a sound stage before a studio audience, M*A*S*H was filmed on location, either at the Fox Ranch or on Stage 9 in the Fox Studios. This allowed the directors and screenwriters to experiment with various narrative formats which were quite rare and considered highly innovative in its time. Examples of these include Life Time which depicts the treatment of a critically wounded soldier in real time and Point of View where the camera takes the viewpoint of a wounded soldier all the way from being injured on the battlefield, his evacuation by helicopter to the MASH, his treatment and recovery.

The Laugh trackEdit

The producers wanted the show broadcast without a laugh track, but were overruled by CBS; eventually, as a compromise, the operating room scenes were shown without a laugh track. However, the show as first seen in the United Kingdom was broadcast by the BBC without a laugh track. Later, the Paramount Comedy satellite channel later rescreened the series there in the U.S. version with a laugh track. The DVD releases offer a choice of soundtracks with or without laughter. As the series progressed, Alan Alda and the producers were allowed to produce a number of episodes without laugh tracks. One of the more notable of these episodes is Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler, in which a crew member of a B-29 bomber crew member comes to believe that he is Jesus Christ.

RealismEdit

Main article: M*A*S*H and verisimilitude

One of the key success factors of M*A*S*H was arguably its realism. As Peggy Herz put it, while M*A*S*H dealt with the horrors of war,  viewers found it funny because the people in it were believable.[7]. Many of the plotlines in the series were based on real-life tales and events told by hundreds of real life Korean War veterans, including doctors, nurses, soldiers and helicopter pilots interviewed by the production team. A letter to TV Guide written by a former MASH doctor in about 1973 stated that the most insane jokes and idiotic pranks on the show were the most true to life, including Klinger's cross-dressing. The hellish reality of the MASH units encouraged this behavior out of a desperate need for something to laugh at. (Another former MASHer, though, pointed out later that a habitual cross-dresser wouldn't last long in such a place; real women were too scarce.)

Characters like Margaret Houlihan had a real-life counterpart while many MASH veterans could think of different candidates for the real Hawkeye. Even the caricature-like Frank Burns was thought by war veterans to be the most realistic character because they too had experienced just such "an SOB" in their units. The producers also took great pains to ensure realism in props, using outdoor locations, real military equipment and authentic military and medical terminology.

However realism was also limiting--the Korean War was a short war of only about three and a half years. There was a limit to the number of true accounts available. Burt Metcalfe later admitted that towards the end of the show much of their source material had dried up, with many new interviews only yielding past information, which hurt the show since it was locked in a specific time period.

Continuity errors and anachronismsEdit

Main articles: Anachronisms in M*A*S*H, Continuity errors in M*A*S*H and The M*A*S*H timeline

Despite the emphasis on realism, M*A*S*H did have the occasional anachronism. And just as there are M*A*S*H fans who delight in compiling the types of bathrobes used, the dresses in the Klinger collection or the view outside Potter's office, there are other fans who delight in tabulating the anachronisms and continuity errors in the series. These efforts are not a criticism of the show but rather demonstrate the devotion and loyalty of the fans who watch and rewatch the episodes countless times to extract every nuance and detail.

The existence of anachronisms is not surprising, as the producers never anticipated a run of 11 seasons and no effort was made in the early years to maintain an internal continuity. Writers changed as the series progressed and as Ken Levine pointed out, there was no series bible.

CharactersEdit

Main article: M*A*S*H TV series characters

M*A*SH was an ensemble show built around its main cast of up to 8 actors playing the roles of the key staff of the 4077th MASH. Over the years, the series endured many changes in its main cast as some members left. The series producers often experimented by introducing wholly contrasting replacements. For example, McLean Stevenson's Lt. Colonel Blake, a buffoonish but likable and friendly draftee placed in charge of the M*A*S*H despite a thorough lack of command skill, was replaced by Colonel Potter, a career soldier who nonetheless earned the respect of the draftee doctors in the 4077th.

Supporting the main cast was also a large recurring cast who played various doctors, nurses, supporting staff, patients and civilians. Many of these recurring characters became highly recognizable and an important ingredient in the atmosphere of the MASH as a close knit military community. Actresses such as Gwen Farrell and Kellye Nakahara compete with the main cast and probably outnumber some of them in terms of the number of episodes they appeared in. Another important feature of the series was the varied use of guest stars for occasional characters, many of whom were young actors and the beginnings of their careers. A good number of them, like Shelley Long, Ron Howard and Patrick Swayze would go on to carve significant careers on film and television.

ReferencesEdit

  1. The series was broadcast over 251 sessions. Most were roughly 26 minutes in length but 4 were produced and broadcast as hour long shows and finale was a two-and-a-half hour "special". The hour long shows were split into two for syndication and assigned separate production numbers making for a total of 256 segments or episodes with unique production numbers.
  2. Kalter. 29
  3. Herz, 92.
  4. Herz, 3.
  5. "Alan Alda's favorite 'M*A*S*H' episodes," CNN.com, October 6, 2005, URL.
  6. Alan Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed (New York, Random House, 2005), 181.
  7. Herz, 92.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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