If you want to talk about iconic, milestone TV shows, few can claim to be more so than “MASH,” which has now been finished with its run for 25 years but of course lives on in both syndication and now DVD availability.
It’s amazing to think that an entire generation has passed since Alan Alda and company came into our living rooms each week. The show itself was nearly a generation after the war that it portrayed, yet — like the movie that preceded it — found plenty of political relevance in making comments about the Vietnam War, which was still going on during at least the early years of its run.
The show, in fact, ran 11 years — nearly four times as long as the Korean War — a fact that I always found to be dramatically effective, since it brought home how the conflict, like any war, must have seemed to go on forever for those men and women over there serving on the front lines. The characters were already adults when the show started, and yet in some ways it was like watching them grow up over the years of the show’s run — or at least, they became people we cared about, maybe even seeming as familiar as family.
It was a rare show that managed to effectively blend gut-busting laughs with moments of serious, even intense, drama and tear-jerking moments. And it maintained this balance flawlessly. I’m sure there must have been some sub-par episodes, at least in the later seasons, but overall I am hard-pressed to name any off the top of my head.
Over the years, roughly half of the cast saw a turnover. The earlier seasons (which I prefer) had Wayne Rogers as Trapper John, McLean Stevenson as commanding officer Henry Blake, and Larry Linville as the uptight Frank Burns. And of course, Gary Burghoff as Radar O’Reilly, the only cast member who appeared in both the movie and the TV show.
I think that cast had more laugh potential than the later group of Mike Farrell as BJ Hunnicutt, Harry Morgan as Col. Sherman Potter and David Ogden Stiers as the stuffy Charles Emerson Winchester, which seemed better geared to more serious drama. But there were no slouches; every character was memorable.
It was basically an ensemble show, and yet on another level you cannot deny that Alda, as Hawkeye Pierce, was the heart, the star, the main character who we came to care about more than any other, and who probably made us laugh the hardest. Yet, it’s tough to forget the more somber episodes, like those where Hawkeye struggled with nervous breakdowns. Or the one where Henry Blake was killed in a plane crash on his way home. Or the tear-jerking two-hour finale, which drew the highest-ever ratings for a TV show at that time.
I don’t get to see the show all that much anymore, and yet whenever I do stumble across an episode, I’ll usually keep the TV on that channel and watch it through to the end. Funny how very few modern-day shows often fail to engage my attention, but an episode of MASH will always draw me in, no matter how many times I have seen them over the years.
I love the movie, which I own on DVD, but to me the movie is a different animal that works for other reasons. The movie is more a laugh-out-loud comedy that represents the best talents of Robert Altman, its director. The cast seems so jarringly different whenever I watch it that I always have to remind myself that the movie came first, and it was the TV show cast who were the ones stepping into their shoes. Yet whenever I think of the characters, it’s always the TV actors who come to mind first. I can’t think of another example of something going from the movies first to TV second and finding much more success and shelf life on TV. (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” perhaps.)
And the world, and pop culture, have changed so much in the past 25 years that watching the show is somehow like taking a trip back in time, to a day when we were less concerned with reality TV and cell phones and the Internet, when scripts were seemingly better written and vulgarity wasn’t necessary to make people laugh. Odd that a show about war can seem like the TV version of comfort food.
Here’s to the members of the 4077th — may they live on forever in syndication, on DVD, and definitely in our hearts and memories.