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

Fox // Unrated // May 24, 2005
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 22, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The stars of M*A*S*H's eighth (1979-80) season are notably older and grayer, but the quality of the writing remains high. Indeed, overall the season is a slight improvement over the previous year, which treaded water with overly familiar situations as much as it broke new ground. There's more innovation this time, though the season gets off to a rocky start with what would be the program's final major cast change.

At the 4077th, the mobile army surgical hospital stationed just three miles from the front lines during the Korean War, chaos reigns while Cpl. Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) is on leave in Tokyo. Cpl. Klinger (Jamie Farr) has temporarily taken Radar's place, but is in over his head. Meanwhile, Col. Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), doctors Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda), BJ Hunnicut (Mike Farrell), Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers), and head nurse Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit) struggle with the great influx of wounded.

Four episodes into the new season, word comes that Radar's beloved Uncle Ed has died, leaving Radar's mother unable to take care of the family farm in Ottumwa, Iowa. Entitled to a hardship discharge, Radar is going home.

Actor Gary Burghoff was notably absent for much of the previous season, and agreed to come back only to give the character an extended farewell. Shamelessly padded into a two-part show, the first half of "Goodbye, Radar," is annoyingly cloying and stickily sentimental, but his final departure generally works and in some ways predicts the approach taken for the big series finale. Burghoff was given a season-long "Also Starring" credit at the end of the new main titles, a billing retained throughout the season, even though he's barely heard from before the big two-parter, and not at all after that.

Truth be told, the character had been run into the ground. What began in both Robert Altman's movie and the first seasons of the TV show as an innocent farm boy corrupted by all the vice around him was gradually transformed backward into the virginal, childlike symbol of youth who looked up to his elders. This worked for a while though it was sometimes taken to sickly sweet extremes. During seasons six and seven, some effort was made to have Radar "grow up," to lose his innocence with the horror of war, but the results were uneven.

Radar's departure also threw the show's carefully woven ensemble off-balance, though the effect of this isn't immediately apparent. Rather than replace Burghoff's Radar with a new character, as had been done with those played McLean Stevenson, Wayne Rogers, and Larry Linville, the decision was made to instead increase the prominence of Jamie Farr's Cpl. Klinger (who would inherit Radar's job as company clerk) and, to a lesser extent, William Christopher's Father Mulcahy. The problem was Farr's character, up to now almost exclusively used for broad comedy relief, in often wild blackout gags and to contrast episodes' more serious "A" story, wasn't really a good fit.

Klinger was at his funniest dreaming up wild schemes to win his much coveted Section 8, an insanity discharge, and responsible for some of the series' biggest laughs. The sight of hairy, cigar chomping Klinger on guard duty in a dress was a joke all by itself. With Radar's departure, however, Klinger was transformed into a disorganized, uncultured dolt who did nothing right. Even the street smartness of the character present in earlier episodes seemed to vaporize, replaced by a patsy who'd wandered in from an ordinary TV sitcom, not one on the high order of M*A*S*H.

This, however, was still mostly in the future, and once Radar's out of the picture, the quality of M*A*S*H's scripts go way up. Among the season's highlights: "Lifetime," written by Alan Alda and Walter D. Dishell, M.D., in which one patient's care is dramatized in real time, with a clock superimposed in the lower right-hand corner of the frame to count the minutes as the staff of the 4077th race to replace the soldier's destroyed aorta; "Yessir, That's Our Baby," by Jim Mulligan, which grapples with the issue of mixed-race babies and their treatment within Korean society; Dennis Koenig's much-loved "Old Soldiers," in which Col. Potter toasts his comrades, past and present; and "Dreams," by Alan Alda (adapted from Alda's and James Jay Rubin's story), in which the sleep-deprivated characters experience nightmares that reflect an inability to completely escape the horror of war.

M*A*S*H's eighth year also has an unusually good line-up of guest talent, including John Randolph, Ed Begley, Jr., Mako, Shelley Long, Edward Herrman (especially good as a highly-skilled, never-fazed doctor who unexpectedly suffers a complete nervous breakdown), James Stephens, Susan Saint James, and Pat Hingle. G.W. Bailey puts in his first of many appearances; Allan Arbus's Dr. Sidney Freedman makes his annual visit, and Alda's actor father Robert returns to the series for another guest shot after five seasons.

Video & Audio

M*A*S*H's transfers have steadily improved and these are the best yet. Presented in their original full-frame form, the episodes are generally bright and much sharper than the first several season sets, though there's still a good deal of room for improvement. The 25 episodes are spread over three discs and do not appear time-compressed, running on average about 23 minutes apiece. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, available with or without the canned laughter, is adequate. French and Spanish tracks are available, along with English and Spanish subtitles. There are no Extra Features, but these will surely be included on the last season set, right Fox?

Parting Thoughts

M*A*S*H Season Eight Collector's Edition is another recommended, can't-go-wrong year with many more great shows than bad ones, and among the very finest the medium had to offer as the seventies became the 1980s.

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. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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