Saturday, July 15, 2017

Classic TV: M*A*S*H (1972)

Two years after Robert Altman had adapted a novel into a feature film, 20th Century Fox decided to revisit the 4077th's Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or, M*A*S*H for short.

It had been one year since CBS' infamous rural purge had wiped out The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, Green Acres, and even The Ed Sullivan Show. The network had already reloaded with All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At first, M*A*S*H was moved around the schedule before settling into a permanent berth on Mondays, where it ended its run in February 1983.

For anyone that didn't really learn anything in school about the Korean War in the 50's, M*A*S*H, to an extent provided some semblance of a history lesson, as seen through the eyes of the 4077th's staff. The ensemble cast experienced quite a bit of turnover in 11 years, more befitting a daytime drama than your average primetime show. Before the series had ended, four core cast members (Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Gary Burghoff, & Larry Linville) had all left. While the parts were not recast, new characters were created to take their places, or, in the case of Walter "Radar" O'Reilly (Burghoff), Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) was promoted to company clerk, and swapped out his cross-dressing attempts to get a section 8 discharge in favor of a different kind of R & R---respect & responsibility.

M*A*S*H was just a sitcom at first, but as time progressed, the laugh track was phased out gradually, and so the series was reclassified as a comedy-drama, as it dealt with not only the realities of war, but also social & political issues.

With the exception of Burghoff, who didn't land another series, Rogers, Linville, & Stevenson all landed with new projects. Linville wound up with a pair of bombs. First, he was cast opposite Jack Albertson in Grandpa Goes to Washington, then opposite Marla Gibbs in the Jeffersons spinoff, Checking In. Neither series was a success. Rogers (ex-Stagecoach West) tried drama anew and flopped with City of Angels before getting a fresh stethoscope in House Calls.

Stevenson signed on to M*A*S*H after a run on The Doris Day Show, and it can be argued that maybe he left a wee bit too soon. As it happened, of the series that followed, the closest to a real success Stevenson would enjoy was NBC's Hello, Larry before becoming a regular panelist on Match Game PM.

The two rocks at the front of the ensemble were Alan Alda and Loretta Swit, who were there from start to finish. The professional relationship between Hawkeye (Alda) and Margaret (Swit) went gradually from adversarial to one of respect. Maybe the friction might be because "Hot Lips" was in an affair with a very much married Frank Burns (Linville), who was portrayed as a jingoistic patriot who was also gullible and often dumber than a bag of hammers, before finding Mr. Right herself.

After Stevenson left, Harry Morgan came over from Hec Ramsey as Colonel Sherman Potter, and, in hindsight, was the final piece of the foundation.

Let's take a look at a sample clip. It's Halloween, and Major Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) has to treat a patient (a pre-Cheers George Wendt) with an unusual malady.....

All the fresh parts added during the course of 11 seasons managed to fit in seamlessly. Again, kind of like a soap opera.

Rating: A.

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