By the time the final episode of M*A*S*H aired on February 28, 1983, viewed by 50,150,000 viewers (a world record), it had little in common with the original novel beyond the names of a few characters. While the TV series was regarded as one of the finest examples of sensitive, socially relevant television, the original novel was a black comedy teeming with racist, sexist humor, and cruel pranks. M*A*S*H was written by Dr. H. Richard Hornberger under the pseudonym Richard Hooker, and published in October 1968. Hornberger was a surgeon who had worked in a M*A*S*H unit in Korea, and wrote a realistic novel, whose characters were very different from the ones we know today. Colonel Blake was a humorless Regular Army commander. Hawkeye was a crude opportunist who persuaded other surgeons to take advantage of their indispensability, and their "mischief" became more cruel and extravagant whenever they expected casualties. On one occasion, Hawkeye and Trapper kidnapped the Protestant priest from a neighboring camp, tied him to a cross, and offered him to Father Mulcahy as a human sacrifice.
Ring Lardner, Jr. liked the antiestablishment tone of the novel and adapted it into a screenplay. Twentieth Century Fox gave it to a relatively inexperienced director, Robert Altman, who applied a gritty, quasi-documentary style. It was a loose adaptation of the novel, but the characters were generally the same. Released in 1970, the movie shocked viewers with its graphic operating scenes and morbid humor, and was originally rated X. But the film appealed to the antiwar and antiestablishment sentiments which had been growing throughout the sixties. Richard Hooker cashed in on the popularity of the film with a series of slapdash sequels to his novel, beginning with M*A*S*H Goes to Maine in 1973.
The film was popular enough, and television was becoming sophisticated enough, that Twentieth Century Fox created a TV series of M*A*S*H with producer/director Gene Reynolds, who had previously explored the comedy/drama genre on Room 222. Larry Gelbart wrote the pilot episode, and associate producer/casting director Burt Metcalfe procured the actors. The producers planned to show the film to the actors in order to inculcate them into the roles, but the actors refused to watch it, believing it would be a mistake to try to imitate the original actors. Gelbart approved of their decision to strive for originality, and expanded upon it. He decided to embellish each character by observing the actors themselves and encouraging them to invest some of their own personalities into their parts. Throughout the series the cast would examine the script critically to ensure that their lines were true to character. This method contributed to the longevity of the show by allowing the characters to grow and evolve.
The Hawkeye of the novel and film was recalcitrant, sneaky, and manipulative; a prankster, comedian, and ladies' man. In the TV series he retained many of these qualities, but also became a humanitarian, with the soul of a poet. Besides getting all the best punchlines, he also got the best speeches, criticizing the hypocrisy of pompous officers, consoling wounded soldiers at their bedside, or waxing eloquent on any topic that came along. One remarkable episode, appropriately titled "Hawkeye" (fourth season) was comprised solely of a monologue. After suffering a concussion, Hawkeye was taken in by a Korean family who spoke no English. In order to keep himself awake, Hawkeye talked aloud to himself and to the uncomprehending family, discoursing on the evils of war, the wonders of the anatomy, and other topics. Writers often used Hawkeye as a pretext for inserting purple passages, with variable effectiveness.
Obviously, a character with so many admirable virtues could lead to superficiality, monotony, and sanctimony. Alan Alda sought to keep the character interesting by exploring his faults. In "Fallen Idol" (sixth season), Radar was wounded during a trip to Seoul which Hawkeye had encouraged him to take. Hungover and guilt-ridden, Hawkeye was unable to operate on Radar. When the recovering Radar expressed his disappointment, Hawkeye blew up at Radar, sick of the mantle of heroism he was expected to maintain. This episode furthered the growth of Radar's character as well. The award-winning "Inga," written by Alda, showed Hawkeye reluctant to learn from a female surgeon who upstaged him in O.R. (This episode had an autobiographical element, for as a child Alda was cured of polio by a technique discovered by a woman doctor, who had also met with opposition when proposing her theories.) In later episodes writers went out of their way to dig up the dark side of Hawkeye. In "C*A*V*E" (seventh season) we discovered that Hawkeye was claustrophobic, and in "Bless You, Hawkeye" (ninth season) an allergic reaction to wet clothing awakened Hawkeye's latent but bitter hatred for his best friend and cousin, who had nearly drowned him in a childhood prank. Finally, in the last episode, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" (eleventh season) Hawkeye had a mental breakdown after suppressing a gruesome memory.
Margaret Houlihan developed in the opposite direction. Whereas Hawkeye began as an almost ideal person, and writers had to labor to furnish him with faults to create character conflict, Margaret started out with few likable qualities. She was an uptight, authoritarian, Regular Army warhorse, an amorous ally of Frank, and a fink, always threatening to go over Henry Blake's poor befuddled head. Of course, there was a passionate side to Margaret as well. She wasn't called "Hotlips" for nothing, and seemed to have had affairs with various high-ranking officers. However, Margaret soon evolved into one of the most interesting characters in television. The introduction of a fiance, Colonel Donald Penobscot, contributed to Margaret's growth as she experienced love, marriage, and divorce. Margaret's role as head nurse also provided some touching moments. A breakthrough came in "Nurses" (fifth season), when she first revealed her loneliness to her nurses, and in "Temporary Duty" (sixth season) when an old friend from nursing school visited and reminded Margaret of what a warm, funloving person she had been. These episodes unpeeled Margaret's camouflage toughness, exposing her more human side. A convergence of Hawkeye's and Margaret's development occurred in the two-part "Comrade in Arms" (sixth season), when the romantic undercurrent between the two rose to the surface while they were stranded in a hut amid shelling. "Father's Day" (ninth season) introduced Margaret's father, General "Howitzer" Houlihan, yielding insight into her childhood and motivations. Loretta Swit's performance of Margaret Houlihan as she broke down, opened up, and flowered as a human being throughout the eleven seasons of M*A*S*H was one of the greatest achievements of the series.
The humanization of Margaret Houlihan reflected the show's tendency to move toward character-oriented stories, and this in turn eroded the irreverent tone of the early years. The show continued to expose the atrocities of war, the inanities of bureaucracy, and the corruption of authority, but it became difficult to sustain convincing characters to represent such evils, and Margaret was the first to buckle. Frank's character was fundamentally limited, and could not evolve in a way that would be both realistic and dramatically effective. The introduction of Margaret's engagement in the fourth season was intended to develop Margaret's character and also put Frank in new, interesting situations (as when he went berserk and arrested an ox). However, this precipitated Frank's decline, and at the end of the fifth season, Linville quit, feeling that Frank's dramatic possibilities had been exhausted. Frank was replaced by Charles Emerson Winchester III, a Boston blueblood and Harvard graduate. Intelligent, shrewd, a formidable surgeon, Charles was a much-needed rival for Hawkeye and B. J. It had been too easy for them to pick on Frank, an incompetent doctor and petty bigot with no redeeming qualities. Charles brought new dramatic possibilities just when the show might have gone stale. He helped keep the show interesting and funny for another two or three seasons. Writers now had the opportunity to concoct rhetorical, allusive speeches for someone besides Hawkeye. Charles' snobbery and egotism were overplayed in the first few seasons, but this gave him somewhere to fall from. The humiliations Charles suffered were usually comic, but they could be quite touching too, when the character was handled with subtlety and not treated as a mere stereotype of the snob. Later seasons often hooked up Charles and Klinger in a trite rich man/poor man routine.
But although the villains became less villainous, there was a compromise on the other side, as well. When Hawkeye's barely-distinguishable sidekick, the irreverent, philandering Trapper, left the show, he was replaced by B. J. Hunnicut, a straitlaced, devoted family man. The bumbling, beloved Henry Blake, who would always "try to wait till noon" before having a drink, was replaced by no-nonsense Sherman Potter, a veteran of World War I and II. Potter provided a medium between the irreverent doctors and their authoritarian opponents, Frank and Margaret. Potter partially sympathized with Margaret, and his presence contributed to Margaret's growth. In each case, the new character—B. J., Potter, and Charles—was intended to contrast with the old character, to keep the show interesting. But the in the long run, it tended to turn the cast into one big happy family, once the conflicts between these more moderate characters became exhausted. James H. Wittebols, in Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America, argues that these changes reflected the changing mores of the seventies and eighties as America moved from sixties irreverence and hedonism to Reagan-era family values.
The departure of Radar, one of the most popular characters, was a grievous but necessary loss to the show. The teddybear-toting company clerk, with his rural simplicity and naivete, was so appealing that the writers did not bother to develop his character significantly until later in the series. The "Fallen Idol" episode discussed above was a major breakthrough, but Radar remained essentially a child. His departure in the two-part "Goodbye Radar" (eighth season) featured fine performances and a sensitive script, with just the right balance of drama and subtlety. The story gained poignancy through allusions to Henry Blake's departure five seasons before, and was the most dramatic episode since Henry's death. Many viewers must have held their breath, fearing Radar would be killed on the way home, but the dreaded denouement revealed only Radar's teddybear, left behind in Korea. Radar the person had grown up, and Radar the character had grown stale.
Radar's departure led to Klinger's promotion as company clerk. Klinger had been a strictly comic character, providing laughs with his increasingly outrageous women's clothing. After seven seasons of wearing dresses, piling fruit upon his hat, and dressing up as the statue of liberty or a big blue bird with fuzzy pink feet, Klinger finally became a "serious" character and put away his dresses. The advancement of Klinger and Father Mulcahy as central characters with their own episodes was a sign that the show was running out of steam.
Sometimes the writers devised new storytelling techniques to alleviate the tedium. Actually, this had been a characteristic of the series from the beginning. Larry Gelbart had decided that each season should feature a few innovations. One of the first innovations involved telling the story through a character's letter to his family, with amusing reminiscences to demonstrate the letter-writer's point. The first of these was Hawkeye's "Dear Dad" episode (first season), followed by Radar's "Dear Ma," Potter's "Dear Mildred," etc. Eventually even guest characters like Sidney Freedman ("Dear Sigmund") were given their turn, and Hawkeye racked up three additional "Dear Dads." A more original experiment was "The Interview" (fourth season), which featured Clete Roberts interviewing the characters on their reactions to the war. Roberts had been a correspondent in the Korean War, and played himself in this episode, which was filmed in black and white. This technique was also repeated in the hour-long "Our Finest Hour" (seventh season). "Point of View" (seventh season) was filmed entirely from the point of view of a wounded soldier, from the battlefield to postop, to mess tent, spongebath, and so on. "Life Time" (eighth season), was filmed in "real time," as a clock in the corner of the TV screen counted down the twenty minutes that the soldier had left until the crucial surgery was performed. Perhaps the most dramatic experiment was the surrealist "Dreams" (seventh season), written by Alda, which peered into the crew's troubled nightmares to expose their deepest fears.
Although the innovations kept coming, the stories and dialogue grew worse in later years. Episodes were built around trivial plots that would have been barely acceptable as subplots in earlier seasons. Certain tropes—the arrival of wounded just when the gang was having fun and forgetting their troubles, the silent fadeout in O.R., the dramatic showdown with an unfeeling general—had become cliche. Pathos often sank to bathos or just plain schmaltz. A particularly embarrassing formula in later years was to fade out an episode with a singalong, as when Colonel Potter began singing "Oh My Darling Clementine" in O.R., gradually joined by everyone else. Other songs recruited for this cheap emotional effect were "Keep the Homefires Burning" and "Dona Nobis Pacem." As with so many shows, the creators wanted to go with dignity, while they were still on top, but they waited too long. Although the final episode had some fine moments, the show had become unpardonably self-absorbed and was painful to watch. Even the title, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" was suggestive of emotional overindulgence.
But the decline in quality was not entirely due to increasing "seriousness," as is sometimes claimed. The infamous "Abyssinia, Henry" (third season), which reported the death of Henry Blake, was one of the most shockingly dramatic episodes of any comedy, and remains a milestone of television history. Grief-stricken viewers sent letters to the show expressing their outrage and indignation; people felt cheated that they had been made to care about a character who was so gratuitously "killed off" at the last minute. McClean Stevenson, who had quit the show due to poor working conditions, believed at the time that the character was killed to prevent him from coming back to the show; however, the creators were actually making a radical statement about war which raised viewers' consciousness. It is doubtful whether the writers of the later seasons could have made such a bold move when they were so immersed in the beauty, the fullness, the roundness of their beloved characters. The original plan to mingle actor and character was at first a fruitful technique which allowed the characters to grow, but it peaked about midway and then degenerated into the common Hollywood malady of narcissism. An episode from the final season, "Hey, Look Me Over," concerning a nurse named Kellye who felt she was being overlooked by Hawkeye, may have reflected an actress (also named Kellye!) who felt she was being overlooked by the producers. The episode was an unintentional parody of what the show had become: a feelgood group for the actors. The success of M*A*S*H —its believable, lifelike characters—had become its failure, and the show lingered on too long, like a dying relative on life support.
M*A*S*H was followed by a truly wretched sequel, After M*A*S*H, which insulted viewers with the grotesquely improbable reunion of Potter, Mulcahy, and Klinger in a stateside hospital. Another sequel of sorts was Trapper John, M.D. (1979-1986), featuring a balding Trapper righting wrongs in the eighties in an hour-long drama in the style of Lou Grant (another Gelbart show). This Trapper, played by Pernell Roberts, had little in common with the old one other than his ratings-winning name. Meanwhile, Wayne Rogers, who had played Trapper on M*A*S*H, again played a funny doctor on the sitcom House Calls (1979-1982), a blatant M*A*S*H ripoff. But he was actually closer to the old Trapper than the Trapper John, M.D. character, and the show was funnier than later M*A*S*H episodes. At its best, M*A*S*H managed to be both relevant in its day and enduring in its syndicated afterlife. The army setting, away from civilian fashions, prevented the show from becoming an eyesore to future viewers. Its fifties setting prevented the writers from using topical jokes that would become dated—although there were many references to forties and fifties film and radio that went over younger viewers' heads. There were a few ideological anachronisms, however: in "George" (third season), Hawkeye, Trapper, and Henry (all the good guys) showed sympathy toward a homosexual soldier whom Frank, predictably, wanted to persecute. It seems unlikely that there would have been such liberal understanding toward homosexuality among three out of four doctors back in the Freudian 1950s. This episode might have been less glibly didactic, and more dramatically challenging, if Henry, Trapper, or Hawkeye had been homophobic rather than just the ever-nasty Frank. After all, Hawkeye had used the pejorative "fairy" in the first season, when the film version still exerted an influence on the series. But things had already changed by the third season.
Although M*A*S*H in retrospect seems more modern than its great seventies rival, All in the Family, and has aged better, both shows drunk deep from the well of didacticism, offering liberal platitudes with heavy-handed poetic justice. Plotlines always steered primly towards the moral in 22 minutes flat. And this became the longlasting legacy of these two pioneering shows—drama and didacticism. Every comedy since then would tackle racism, and you always knew who the racist would be; every comedy would have its gay tolerance episode, with an utterly uninteresting gay cousin or neighbor hastily invented for the occasion; every show would kill off, or at least endanger, some character to keep things interesting (who among us can forget Richie Cunningham's accident?). Even 1990s kingpin Roseanne adhered to this hackneyed seventies format, despite its claims of originality and artistry. Americans found no reprieve from the comedy/drama until the postmodern playfulness of Seinfeld and the early Simpsons. Their refusal to be didactic was one of the major innovations in situation comedy since M*A*S*H.
Reiss, David S. M*A*S*H: The Exclusive, Inside Story of T.V.'s Most Popular Show. Bobs-Merrill Co. Inc., Indianapolis/New York, 1980.