TV Tuesday now turns to the third serious contender for All-Time Favorite television series. I’ve taken the liberty of excluding Star Trek from consideration, because it’s so integrated into my life, so big that it transcends being just a “favorite TV series.” That leaves four in the Fave Five, and in the last two days I’ve celebrated the two top contenders.
Today I celebrate the series that, until it was knocked down by the other two, was easily my favorite show ever. It’s one of the only two series I tried to fully capture to video tape back in the 1990s (before DVDs made all that effort a sad, silly waste). The other series was Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The third place contender, formerly number one, is M*A*S*H.
If you’ve somehow missed this series—perhaps you are too young to have ever seen it—it was about army doctors and nurses during the Korean war. In the TV series, the doctors, nurses and staff all worked at the 4077th MASH unit. (The number is always pronounced, “four-oh-seven-seventh.”)
[MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. MASH units bring medical people and equipment into war zones to provide quick aid the wounded. They are credited with saving countless lives during conflicts. A special feature of such units was their ability to quickly pack up and move to a new location.]
Over the years I’ve heard people say they didn’t like the show because it was about war. The people who say that, of course, don’t like war (which is entirely sensible; no one should like war—do not click the [Like] button on war). The irony is that M*A*S*H was an anti-war statement. It was a black comedy that spoke to the ugliness and horror of war.
The series ran for an amazing eleven years. The word “amazing” applies in at least three senses. Firstly, the series ran longer than the actual Korean war, which went on for three years. (I originally wrote “went on for only three years,” but there is no only when it comes to war).
Secondly, it’s pretty amazing for any prime time episodic TV series to last eleven seasons. Only two of the five Star Trek series made it as far as seven. JAG made it to ten; NCIS begins its tenth season soon. The delightful Scrubs got to nine (and probably should have stayed at eight). ER racked up 15 seasons, and Law & Order went all the way to 20. The Simpsons scores an outstanding 23.
And finally, most importantly, the series was just plain amazing. Great writing, great acting, great characters, great stories. M*A*S*H was one of the first television series to explore new and different ways of telling stories. (There is also that the series finale, Goodbye, Farewell and Amen, was, at the time, one of the most watched TV episodes in television history.)
Here are some examples of the unique ways they found to tell stories:
A fourth season episode, The Interview, featured real-life reporter Clete Roberts interviewing members of the MASH unit.
The episode is shot in black & white as if it were a news interview of the era. Many of the responses to the Roberts’ questions were ad-libbed by the cast, while other responses were scripted. I’ve never been able to really tell what was script and what was ad-lib!
The seventh season episode, Point of View, is shot entirely from the point of view of a soldier with a throat wound (so he cannot speak). The episode shows us what it’s like to arrive by chopper, be treated and recover in the MASH unit.
In the eighth season episode, Life Time, a wounded soldier arrives by chopper and has 20 minutes to live unless the surgeons can transplant an aorta.
At the moment the time limit is pronounced, a small clock appears on the screen and begins ticking down the minutes left. The show takes place in near real-time as the time elapses.
A tenth season episode, Follies of the Living—Concerns of the Dead, is about the ghost of a dead soldier who wanders the compound observing the events of the day. Only Corporal Klinger—who is ill and fevered—is able to see and converse with the ghost.
For me, one of the more heart-rending moments in the series is the ending of that episode. We see the American dead marching down the road shoulder to shoulder with the “enemy” dead to… whatever comes next. The message is overwhelming; the dead are beyond caring about the petty conflicts of the living.
And there are many other episodes memorable for the story they told. There is the death of Henry Blake at the end of season three and the exit of “Radar” O’Reilly in season eight. And, of course, there is the series finale mentioned above. (That episode broke the viewer ratings previously held by the Who Shot J.R. episode of Dallas. On the other hand, Dallas went on for 14 seasons!)
“Hot Lips” Houlihan
I’ve mentioned before how much of a crush I had on Loretta Swit’s Major Margaret Houlihan. In the movie version, as well as in the original book, Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan is not a pleasant person. She and Major Frank Burns are mainly comic foils for the “good guys” in the series, such as Hawkeye, Trapper John, “Radar.”
In the first season or two of the TV series, this held true, but as the series continued Loretta Swit campaigned the producers to grow Margaret Houlihan into a real person. A person with feelings and goals, hopes and compassion. Over the years, she grew into an amazing person, as rich and complex as any character on the show.
In general, as the series progressed, all the characters grew into very real people. Even Frank Burns showed a core of touching humanity, a real person behind the buffoon.
There is a moment, in the first episode of the sixth season, after Frank is gone—driven insane due to Margaret’s marriage—that identifies that core. Margaret is in Hawkeye and Hunnicutt’s tent while they pack Frank’s belongings. B.J. and Hawk are teasing her about Frank. Margaret replies that, in some ways Frank was a better man then the one she married.
Even in the beginning, Frank Burns was not all bad. In the first season episode, Sticky Wicket, Hawkeye misses a small nick in a patient’s colon, and this causes the patient not to recover properly. It is Frank Burns—the man Hawkeye mercilessly teases about his ability as a surgeon—who comforts Hawkeye by telling him that “anyone could have missed it.”
I have a little “insufferably pleased with myself” moment regarding a prediction I made that Hawkeye and Margaret would end up in a romantic relationship. Naturally, such an “odd couple” relationship would have to fail, but the course was set back in season three.
In that season three episode, Aid Station, Hawkeye, Margaret and Klinger are sent to a forward aid station on the front line. Under the tense conditions of battle surgery, all three come to have mutual respect for one another.
In particular, Hawkeye and Margaret see for the first time the character, ability and dedication in each other. As the episode ends, with them safely back at camp, they share a secret salute and smile as the usual squabbling goes on around them.
At that moment, I knew what was inevitable!
And sure enough, in the sixth season double episode, Comrades in Arms, Hawkeye and Margaret, lost behind enemy lines, fall into each others arms. They attempt to remain lovers, but the attempt is doomed because they are just too different to succeed as a couple. They part, however, as even greater friends because of what they have shared. (Margaret’s marriage is already rocky by this point, and she divorces in the next season.)
The pairing of Hawkeye and Margaret, as well as the early conflict between them and the differences in their character, reflect the poles of the show. She represents military order and decorum; he represents everything non-military and chaos. And because Margaret was just as real and serious as Hawkeye, we get a more balanced view of the war than the somewhat simplistic “war bad” original message.
As awful and horrifying as it is, sometimes it is necessary. And when it is necessary, you can only try to minimize the damage as much as humanly possible. M*A*S*H at its heart is about the struggle to bring humanity to an inhuman situation.