Magnificent M.A.S.H.

M.A.S.H. is an amazing show. I've wondered what it is about M.A.S.H. that makes it so amazing. There's nothing that gets my back up quicker than anti-War propaganda. This isn't because I think war is a whole bunch of fun. It isn't because I think war is always the answer. And it isn't because I think any war is fought without mistakes.

M.A.S.H. attacks all of those ideas and very effectively. But the power of M.A.S.H. is that it is about ordinary people who think war stinks and who behave heroically anyway. Subsequently, the message is less "50 Ways to Protest Your Government" and more about surviving as an honorable person despite horrible circumstances. Instead of self-righteous admonitions by people who think that talking solves everything, you get the cocky wryness of Pierce in the face of people who think that ideologies solve everything. And the viewer ends up on his side since he's the one actually stitching up bodies and sending soldiers back to the front.

I've been watching the earlier episodes. I grew up watching the later ones, with Colonel Potter rather than Henry Blake. I never appreciated before how well characterized Henry Blake was: a mild-mannered guy who isn't cut out for war-time service and who doesn't have Pierce's manic drive, yet manages to survive (at least the M.A.S.H. unit) in his own way. The episodes reveal a man who is actually quite good at his job and very compassionate but whose basic effectualness is masked by his diffidence and lack of ambition.

I have also gained enormous respect for Loretta Swift. Frankly, I don't think television has produced her equal since. She makes the so-called assertive feminists of later television look like so many self-conscious wannabes. When you consider that the show was produced in 1972, Houlihan's blend of femininity, ambition, vulnerability and sense of duty are really something. One receives the distinct impression, at least in the earlier episodes, that her linking up with Frank Burns is an attempt to control a tiny part of the male patriarchy (which keeps her a nurse, no matter how much she is a Major). She is the best nurse, just as Pierce is the best doctor, which she also knows. But Pierce is too much a maverick for her to befriend, at least on a long-term basis. He is uncontrollable.

All this is conveyed without whining, without belittling Houlihan's faults or her strengths, without forcing the viewer to take sides for or against. It's what feminism could be if feminists would acknowledge that men are biologically the more aggressive member of the species and therefore understandably feared by women (without that making men evil or women weak) instead of all this gender-is-a-construct stuff, which turns the whole thing into a head game and darn it all, why don't men play along?!

CATEGORY: TV

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