On Saturday, March 3rd, we lost a member of my family. Well, not my real family, mind you, but in my Television-based education, there wasn’t a show that had more impact on my belief structure than M*A*S*H, which aired for a total of eleven seasons, through my own coming of age, from 1972 to 1983.
I thought I’d written elsewhere about the series, but clearly that’s not true. At least, not ever in depth, and that’s a shame because I was obsessed with the series as a teenager.
Back in November of 2006, I noted that director Robert Altman had died at 81. The man’s work was amazing. The Player and M*A*S*H had more influence over my adult life than most other movies I can name, but it was really the series that mattered most to me.
Let me paint you a picture of me, roughly age 14-19, prime rerun time for the series, but first, a little background for the post-cable set:
Back in the dark ages, when cheap televisions were still black and white and the best we could hope for was unimpeded access to the analog airwaves, when there were so few channels available you could still count them on fingers and have fingers left over, M*A*S*H aired in the syndication market. I don’t remember when it started, or when I started to care, other than to say that by the time I got to high school, the reruns became a major focus of my out-of-school time.
It’s important to know that Rochester, NY (before cable) picked up TV signals from three other markets: Buffalo, Syracuse, and (when you held your arms just right) from Toronto. At one point in its heyday, M*A*S*H aired in eight half-hour slots, at least two of which overlapped, and because of the scheduling process, these slots were never synced up.
I don’t have an accurate count for the number of times I’ve seen certain episodes in the series, but I can tell you I got good enough to ID an episode before the title came up on the screen, in something like the first 15 seconds, and could switch to the episode I wanted to watch without missing more than a minute of any of them.
That’s how I avoided watching Dreams, one of the few to air without a laugh track. I haven’t seen that episode in well over 30 years, and yet it still gives me chills. And it’s how I stopped watching the earlier episodes for the meatier ones after Larry Linville’s departure and Winchester’s arrival.
While Frank Burns was often portrayed as the mean-spirited bastard, and Loretta Switt as his partner and “moll,” Burns’ departure gave “Hot Lips” a chance to grow and become a more principled, stronger woman, and a good deal of the misogyny that characterized the earlier years went away, too.
Henry Morgan’s Colonel Potter, who replaced McLean Stevenson (Henry Blake), brought his representation of “old-school war movie meets modern day police action” to the series, which helped move the stories from the glory of World War II to the senseless reality of Korea. I can’t watch the episode where they announce Henry Blake’s death without crying.
From these characters I learned a lot about people that informs my feelings about today’s military action.
I learned that you could be smart and still not quite with it (got that from Radar). That you could find humor in even the darkest moments (Hawkeye). That you could be a woman and have a job and earn respect (Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan). That it was okay to be spiritual even in the least spiritual moments (Father Mulcahy).
I truly disliked Winchester’s snide snobbery, but his character grew so much in the second year that I simply can’t imagine the series without him.
Even Klinger, whose Section 8 fantasy seen through today’s filters smacks of problematic gender appropriation and feels wrong when held up to a more enlightened understanding of trans reality, provides a human connection, especially seen in context of the Korean war.
In many ways, Klinger is the most “everyman” character, a guy from Toledo who represents not just your average Joe who doesn’t want to be there, but the working class stiff who’s proud beyond measure of his Lebanese immigrant roots. This becomes truly clear once he drops the dresses for the uniform as Radar’s replacement in the office.
More than anything else, I learned that war is ugly, that good people placed in bad situations can still be human, and that evil sometimes wears the same uniform you do. It’s a perspective that’s sorely lacking in today’s arms-length wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
I came to believe that peace is more important than a flag, that maiming people for the sake of property is WRONG. That war isn’t glorious. That there are senseless deaths. And that there are people on both sides of the conflict who often get in the way of indiscriminate ammunition and shrapnel.
I watched the final episode at my then-boyfriend’s house in New Paltz with around 40 like-minded people. It was an historic moment in television history, not just for the length and breadth of the series, but because the episode pulled no punches. Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen did as much in its final two hours as the movie had done over a decade before, to focus on the people who made that art and give us some sense of closure.
I can’t imagine a time when M*A*S*H wasn’t a part of my life. And when I heard about David Ogden Stiers’ death from bladder cancer last Saturday, I realized that I’ve never written these things down to share with anyone, although I’ve talked about it in the past, at enough length to make the listener’s eyes glaze over.
I visited the Smithsonian American History Museum as a tourist and made my pilgrimage to the set when it went on display, must have been the summer of 1984, a full two years before I moved to the metro DC area.
Somewhere along the line, I acquired a copy of one of the shooting scripts for an episode. (It’s downstairs and the title isn’t relevant to this post.) I’ve watched the reunions, read material, followed the careers of the series’ stars. I tried to watch the spin-offs, but they never quite worked for me because they lacked the guts of the series. Too sanitary, too…alien to be believed as a continuation.
I have the entire series on DVD. Now that I know that you can turn off the optional laugh tracks on the DVDs, I will watch all 256 episodes without them when I have some time to just kick back and relax. It would be worth watching the show without the invasion of fake people that the network though was mandatory for situation comedies. (Larry Gelbart despised the fake tracks.)
I know that David Ogden Stiers had a long and varied career after the series ended. It’s not possible for me to hear Cogsworth and not see Stiers voicing the role, even if Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is animated. His career was wide-ranging, as broad as it was deep. Chances are, I even saw him perform in The Magic Show on Broadway in 1974. I’ve seen a lot of the titles listed in his obituary appreciation on Variety.com.
And so another member of the cast in my head departs this plane. There are only a few still here, and I hope they are still doing what they love. I’ll be grateful forever for the impact they have had on my life.