Family-Friendly M.A.S.H.

I'll get the usuals out of the way first:

1. M.A.S.H. seasons do become more and more anti-war (and preachy). The change was enabled by a fundamental shift in the underlying philosophy,  mostly due to Alan Alda. The initial philosophy, perfectly encapsulated by the impressive Larry Linville, was about jesting in the face of tragedy--how to handle cognitive dissonance. It's the same reason Shakespeare includes jesters in the middle of his tragedies.

The later philosophy was WAR IS BAD--IT UPSETS PEOPLE. If this seems kind of obvious, that's because . . . it is!

2. Larry Linville as Frank was genius. Unfortunately, as the actor himself recognized, he reached the point where he was no longer funny. When I watch M.A.S.H. from the beginning (as I did recently), I always reach a point (about Season 4) where I want him to simply die, he is just so tragically awful. If he had been allowed to change (like Howard of Big Bang Theory), he would have remained interesting and sitcom-usable. But Larry Linville was too good! The Franks of the world rarely change.

A cute "problem" episode: "Picture This"
3. The later episodes are mostly "problem" episodes, similar to episodes of Family Ties, Full House, etc. That is, they are based around a "family" that must solve a problem in order for everyone to be friends again (I am excepting the episodes that focus exclusively on pushing an anti-war message).

I don't much mind "problem" television. What is so interesting to me here is that although M.A.S.H.'s family-focus is obvious in the later seasons, it started much earlier than post-Radar.

By Season 2, for example, Trapper John is still playing around with nurses, but he talks about his children  more; Henry Blake makes *many more* references to his wife and even gets jealous of her supposed infidelity.

Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan also change from being the weird couple in camp because they are so kinky to being the hypocritical couple in camp *because* they are having an affair. Eventually, they become the dysfunctional couple.

Personally, I think the last was a mistake. In a Season 6 or 7 episode, Houlihan remarks to Hawkeye that she would like her future husband to be 10% him and 3% Frank Burns, which struck me as an insightful line. Despite Frank's awfulness overall, he--like Spike and Buffy--provides a decent counterpoint to Houlihan's toughness. They have similar goals and care about similar things. His honest sadness when she marries is one of Linville's most perceptive moments. 

From a popular culture standpoint, what fascinates me about M.A.S.H. is how the writers and producers began adjusting--almost immediately--to their audience's expectations and moral frameworks. It's a great example of why arguing that television creates culture (rather than reflecting it) misses the mark. We are not victims of television; we are its fodder and inspiration.


a calvinist preacher said...

I liked MASH when it got away from mere silliness, and I stopped liking it when it forgot it was supposed to be a comedy instead of a sermon illustration.

And I think that says something about comedy. It does need to have a point, but it can't take that point too seriously. The earlier episode where Hawkeye and Trapper are trying to get an incubator, only to be thwarted until Radar saves the day, is far better than some of the later episodes that had Hawkeye and BJ contending against the evil supply sergeants. In the first, while it mocks the system, it shows how a skilled operator (Radar) can make it work. In the later ones, it's just adolescent rage against the machine.

By the way, my all time favorite episode for mocking government bureaucracy is Captain Tuttle.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Slight non sequitur: two great comedy series about the pitfalls of bureaucracy are Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Of the two, I think Yes, Prime Minister is slightly more enjoyable (both are fun to watch) because Humphrey the civil servant doesn't win quite so often. Railing against the machine can get tiresome, especially when the machine never moves! I enjoy the minister/prime minister's occasional successes.

With M.A.S.H., I quite enjoy the episodes that show the characters dealing with the mundane--like the time that someone, I believe BJ, receives a mystery book with the last chapter missing--so everyone in the camp starts "detecting," each person presenting his or her own theory for how the book MUST have ended.

A lot of Radar episodes fall into this category.