It was during the 1975-76 television season, "M*A*S*H's" fourth year, that its writers finally broke the curse of Robert Altman. All things considered, the TV version of "M*A*S*H" had done a pretty decent job of aping Altman's 1970 theatrical feature. Sure it sanitized both the humor and the almost daily horror of life at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital near the front lines of the Korean War. Even so, "M*A*S*H" was still fairly risqué in those pre-cable days and, in its first season, the show even imitated Altman's visual style. In fairness, much of this look was budgetary: 20th Century-Fox, producers of both the movie and TV show, reused the same sets, costumes, and especially the location. Exteriors for "M*A*S*H" were shot at the Fox Ranch in Malibu, not far from Ape City and Mr. Blanding's Dream House. That location became so much a part of the show that non-veterans are surprised to learn that Korea really doesn't look much like the Santa Monica Mountains the helicopters flew over every week. (see below)
Up until its fourth season, "M*A*S*H," like its movie antecedent, had been funny and innocuous. Most of the episodes revolved around irreverent surgeons Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper (Wayne Rogers) trying to help some war orphan or down-on-his-luck private. In each episode, they battled Army red tape and its absurd policies. They couldn't much count on Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), their ineffective, wishy-washy commanding officer; he relied heavily on his company clerk, "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) to get the job done. But Hawkeye and Trapper's biggest opposition came in the form of by-the-book McCarthyites (and illicit lovers) Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and head nurse Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit).
Larry Gelbart and Laurence Marks, among others, wrote the consistently funny scripts. You'd think the limitations of the Hawkeye/Trapper vs. The Army formula would wear thin fast, but even in its third season, "M*A*S*H" only seemed to be getting better, not worse.
Then fate stepped in. Two of its three leads – Rogers and Stevenson – suddenly left the show. Many thought "M*A*S*H" would go into the toilet, ratings-wise. Up to that point, no show had taken that big of a cast hit and survived. But someone, somewhere, came up with an ingenious solution: replace Trapper and Henry with opposing, rather than similar, characters. Henry's wimpy leader was replaced with a "regular army" colonel, Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), a tough-as-nails former cavalryman going back to World War I. Trapper's boozing playboy made way for devoted family man B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell). These characters added an extraordinary freshness just when the show needed it most. Better still, they had a pliable complexity that better suited the program's move away from the sort of broad slapstick and wild sight gags which would soon disappear from the show altogether.
Eighteen episodes into "M*A*S*H's" first season came "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet," the classic show in which an old friend of Hawkeye's dies during surgery. It was the first episode to mix comedy with real, immediate tragedy, the first episode to express genuine emotion about the war. Acclaimed as it was, there was hardly anything else like it until the last episode of the third season, "Abyssinia, Henry," which cruelly though appropriately reminded both the show's characters and its audience that "M*A*S*H," ultimately, was a show about people trapped in the middle of a war. If the first three seasons were about characters trying to keep their sanity, to shrug off the war with booze and sex, the shows that followed proved that their minds and emotions were no more safe near the front lines than their bodies were. Not one continuing character would return home unscathed. In its fourth season "M*A*S*H" became angry, frustrating, sad, joyous, human.
That fourth season was the turning point; this is where "M*A*S*H" went from being a good show to a great one. It includes such well-written episodes as "Dear Mildred," in which Radar saves a horse and presents it to his new colonel; "Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?" in which a wounded soldier claims to be Jesus Christ; "Hawkeye," with Alda's character is wounded and has a running monologue with a Korean family; and especially "The Interview," the famous episode filmed in black and white and presented like a cinema verité documentary.
"M*A*S*H" barely missed a beat for the next half-dozen years, though in its final seasons, the show became sloppy and uneven. There was an over-reliance on studio sets for exteriors, some of the humor became forced, the drama was occasionally pretentious, and even some of the performances became downright bad. But even "M*A*S*H's" last season had its share of fine episodes, and its final episode rightly became an instant classic.
Video & Audio
It's difficult to assess Fox's DVD of "M*A*S*H's" Season 4 Box Set because the studio provided an absurdly incomplete review copy. In nearly 15 years as an arts writer, I've never seen anything like it: for starters, Fox provided only the first and third disc. (Ever try to review a movie based only the first and fifth reels?) There's no booklet, no episode list, nothing – the case doesn't even have a sleeve. I can only assume the second disc is on par with the others, and that the packaging and booklet, if any, are comparable with the earlier season collections.
I looked at several episodes from discs 1 & 3, and these have the same qualities as the earlier sets. At a time when most half-hour comedies were three-camera shows shot on (now prehistoric) one-inch tape, "M*A*S*H" was filmed in standard 35mm. This is a decided advantage today, though the compression of so many shows (about four hours worth) onto each disc has its drawbacks. Moreover, "M*A*S*H" was so phenomenally successful in syndication that its original elements seem to suffer from over-printing. The shows basically look fine, just not impressive. The mono sound is no better or worse than similar TV shows from the period. As with the other seasons, Fox has provided an optional audio track without the canned laughter.
One interesting note: The episode that introduces B.J. Hunnicut, "Welcome to Korea," is presented in its original hour-long form. In syndication, this episode is generally re-edited into two half-hour shows.
At a time when such questionable "special edition" DVDs like Kangaroo Jack abound, it's a shame there are no extras on these "M*A*S*H" sets. These things cry out, at the very least, for the same kind of treatment "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Simpsons" have been getting.
The power and influence of "M*A*S*H" seems to be lost on those who know it only from reruns. The show gracefully retired in 1983, just as cutting-edge (and "M*A*S*H"-influenced) dramas like "Hill Street Blues" and especially "St. Elsewhere" and "China Beach," were taking trauma-drama to a new level. Compared to contemporary programs like "ER" or "NYPD Blue," "M*A*S*H" must seem a might creaky to young people today. You couldn't do a 30-minute comedy-drama today, what with all the commercial space that's been shamelessly added since "M*A*S*H" left the air. (If nothing else, these shows are worth having just to avoid the grievous cutting and time-compressing "M*A*S*H" suffers in syndication.) Though it began life as a simple sitcom cashing in on a popular movie, "M*A*S*H," ultimately, became the last of the great half-hour TV dramas.
Residents of and visitors to Southern California can still visit the M*A*S*H site. Fox donated the land some years ago and it's now part of Malibu Creek State Park. The park is halfway between Pacific Coast Highway and the 101 Freeway on Malibu Canyon Road (aka Las Virgenes Road). Once you get to the park, walk about 1.5 miles straight back and you'll be in Korea. The buildings and tents are all gone, but a few rusted out Jeeps and the recognizable helicopter pad are clearly visible.