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M*A*S*H - Season Six Collector's Edition

Fox // Unrated // June 8, 2004
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 17, 2004 | E-mail the Author
M*A*S*H's six season (1977-78) finds the long-running comedy-with-drama show, about a medical unit near the front lines during the Korean War, still at the top of its form. Episodes exude a breezy confidence, its writers still managing to create fresh dramatic conflicts for its cast of familiar characters, along with an increasing number of experimental shows that tested the boundaries of American television in the 1970s.

Appropriately, box art is dominated by Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers), the arrogant, Harvard-educated snob who arrives during the season opener to replace a departed Major Frank Burns.

M*A*S*H's creative team had shrewdly handled cast changes by replacing such popular characters as Trapper (Wayne Rogers) and Colonel Blake (McLean Stevenson) with new ones that completely contrasted their predecessors. Playboy Trapper was replaced with straight-laced family man BJ Honeycutt (Mike Farrell), while spineless, pliable Henry Blake gave way to no-nonsense career soldier Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan). This not only kept the show fresh overall but also infused it with new dramatic conflicts for its veteran characters.

Winchester in many ways is the most successful application of this technique. Frank was an inept surgeon, a brainless, inarticulate boob who was no match for the biting barbs of Hawkeye, Trapper, and BJ. Winchester, on the other hand, is a superior surgeon, better in many ways than either Hawkeye or BJ. His acid tongue is evenly matched with those of his tent-mates and, most important of all, Winchester is a fully three-dimensional character where Frank, though in some ways the show's funniest creation, was often like a cartoon.

Early episodes both overemphasize Winchester's wealth and test the waters by making him much more devious than he would ultimately become. In one episode, for instance, Winchester takes advantage of an Army-mandated currency exchange by offering local Koreans ten cents on their soon to be worthless Army dollars. Soon enough, though, M*A*S*H's writers realized that Winchester's snobbery didn't have to be proportionate to his wealth, and that the character's great possibilities lay in other areas.

What works best about the Winchester character isn't so much his Frank-like conflicts with Hawkeye and BJ, but rather with Winchester's incorrigible and self-imposed isolation from the rest of his comrades. Where Hawkeye, BJ, Radar, Colonel Potter et. al. have become one big family, Winchester wants no part of them. He steadfastly refuses to adapt to the tumultuous M*A*S*H environment by trying to adapt it to his. But in trying to insulate himself from the horrors of war and his rat-infested surroundings with classical music and canned gourmet appetizers, he only succeeds in setting himself up for one fall after another. One sixth season show that takes full advantage of this is "Dr. Winchester and Mr. Hyde," in which he becomes dependent on amphetamines to get him through the long hours of surgery. In this sense Winchester becomes M*A*S*H's tragic figure, a man who by war's end is outwardly unscathed but for lack of a catharsis inwardly is probably more screwed up than any other continuing character.

Winchester's isolation presented problems for the character of Major Margaret "Hotlips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit). Her engagement and marriage the previous season was a creative dead end for the character, and with Frank gone Margaret was more cut off than ever. Early sixth season episodes (such as "The Light That Failed") hint at an uneasy alliance fraught with sexual tension between her and Winchester, but the writers wisely moved away from this. Eventually, the show would unwisely dumb down both Margaret (as well as Klinger), giving her lowbrow tastes and attitudes to provide additional conflict for Winchester, but that was still several seasons away. In the end, Margaret's crumbling marriage affords the character better dramatic opportunities this season, though it's still sporadic.

Radar (Gary Burghoff) is missing from about a third of the shows. In both the movie MASH (1970) and in the first seasons of the TV show, the character had been much less the childlike virginal innocent (though Burghoff was then in his mid-30s) he would eventually become. Though much loved by audiences of the time, Radar was teetering on the edge of insufferable sweetness and the character had pretty much run its course. Here, episodes like "Fallen Idol" work hard to make Radar more adult while exposing Hawkeye as something less than a perfect human being.

Perhaps owing to star Alan Alda's popularity (he was then at the height of his "Mr. Sensitive" period and an offscreen advocate of the ERA and other women's issues) Hawkeye is given more than his fair share of romance in M*A*S*H's sixth season. He falls in love with a Korean woman, and in the two-parter "Comrades in Arms," has an affair with Margaret. For his part, Alda wrote and/or directed five shows this season, all excellent. Besides Alda, the majority of good shows this season were written by the team of Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum.

This season also has a good line-up of guest actors and interesting situations, many lifted from real wartime stories. Guest stars include Kieu Chinh (The Loy Luck Club) as Hawkeye's Korean lover, Mike Henry (replacing Beeson Carroll as Donald Penobscott), James Cromwell, Philip Baker Hall, Keye Luke, and the incomparable Johnny Yune. Curiously, Peter Riegert (Local Hero) turns up in several episodes as Igor, the gangly cook formerly (and latterly) played by Jeff Maxwell.

Video & Audio

For whatever reason, Season Six is a marked step upward video-wise from previous seasons. Earlier shows appeared worn from years of over-printing due to its unprecedented popularity in syndication. Maybe because this season is newer, maybe because Fox put more effort into its transfers, the image looks better if still not pristine. As with earlier seasons, an optional audio track minus the canned laughter is offered (both are mono), along with English, French and Spanish subtitles, as well as a French mono track. There are no Extra Features to speak of. This is a shame because it seems doubtful that Fox will ever revisit this title on DVD the way Paramount has with TV's Star Trek.

Parting Thoughts

It's hard to quibble with one of television's all-time best shows, whose 11-season run maintained an almost unsurpassed batting average of good episodes. Though again lacking in obvious and desirable extra features, M*A*S*H's sixth year is consistently superior television.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.

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