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

Fox // Unrated // December 6, 2005
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 27, 2005 | E-mail the Author
In its ninth season (1980-81), M*A*S*H's main title theme got a new, sparser orchestration, heralding the beginning of a last creative phase, a final three years of highs and lows, when much of its cast and crew became anxious to move on to roles that didn't require khaki slacks and long excursions to the Fox Ranch in Malibu. Both visually and in its writing, M*A*S*H of the 1980s was notably weaker than the more fruitful mid- and late-1970s period, and by season 9 the show had become virtually unrecognizable from its first year and the Robert Altman feature that had inspired it. M*A*S*H's Neilsen ratings actually went up slightly in its ninth season (the show ranking 4th among prime-time series), but creatively it was winding down.

A television writers strike further emphasized the aesthetic barrier between the late-'70s shows and the early-'80s ones. The strike resulted in an unusually short season of just 20 new episodes, down five from the previous year. Those in the cast wearying of the show must have liked the break and perhaps worked it into their contracts. The following season produced just 21 shows, and the last year just 16 (including the two-and-a-half hour series finale). Even by the show's ninth season, people were already noting how the series had lasted much longer than the actual Korean War.

But there was still life and death and inherent drama in the show because, as in war, the wounded and the dying kept right on coming, while doctors "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda), BJ Hunnicut (Mike Farrell), Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers), head nurse Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit), commanding officer Col. Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), company clerk Max Klinger (Jamie Farr), and camp priest Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) try to cope with the topsy-turvy environment in which they find themselves.

The dramatic situations in M*A*S*H*'s final seasons, though occasionally mawkish, were often quite exceptional while the situation comedy that had made the movie and the show so popular in its earliest seasons was fast growing stale. In both the comedy and the drama earlier seasons were built around the premise of Hawkeye and BJ / Trapper (Wayne Rogers) trying to get around the by-the-book antagonism of Hot Lips, the childish pettiness of sanctimonious Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) or the incompetent if genial leadership of Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson). Over the years Margaret Houlihan was softened into a sometimes shrill but sensitive "damn good nurse." And while Frank and Henry's replacements initially offered an impressively varied source of conflict in Colonel Potter's no-nonsense regular army leadership and Major Winchester's skilled, snobby surgeon, they too eventually joined what by now had become one big happy family. (Even Hawkeye's once notorious reputation as a lady-killer was regrettably brought more in line with Alda's offscreen image as "Mr. Sensitive" and a champion for woman's rights.)

Having run the Hawkeye and BJ vs. Army Red Tape into the ground, there were few fresh sources of conflict. Season opener "Best of Enemies" is a prime example, an ill-conceived and telling show whose "B-story" has Col. Potter and Maj. Winchester at each other's throats over which is the superior bridge player. They drive reluctant partners BJ and Margaret to the brink before they turn the tables by teaming up themselves and beating the two would-be experts. But instead of funny the script is merely annoying - intensely so, with jokey insults hurled in every direction like the pies at the end of Battle of the Century.

As introduced in the previous season, poor Cpl. Klinger likewise has become a source of conflict almost by default. The harmless wild schemer trying to get out of the army has inexplicably been transformed into a total dolt. In "Cementing Relationships," Klinger is written as a standard sitcom boob and revealed as nearly illiterate, a man who can't even spell the word "caution." The same episode finds Margaret the object of a stereotyped hot-blooded Italian solder's affections, in situations better suited to M*A*S*H's first season than its ninth.

That said, the season still has its share of top-flight shows. "Letters" is a delicately written variation on the "Dear Dad" vignette format, with the gang responding to a sack of letters written by elementary schoolchildren, including one which pointedly asks why doctors treat wounded soldiers only to send them back on the line to be killed. The episode is highlighted by a surprising letter that winds up on Major Winchester's desk. Similarly, John Rappaport and Alda's "The Life You Save" neatly explores the dark loner side of Winchester's character, always interesting (as in an earlier season episode where Charles disastrously self-medicates only to become hopelessly addicted to uppers) but underutilized.

Guest actors this season include include Mako, Andrew Duggan, Keye Luke, Barry Corbin, Tim O'Connor, and Patrick Swayze. Eileen Saki continues in her semi-regular role as Rosie the bartender, as do Jeff Maxwell (as cook Igor), Kellye Nakahara (Nurse Kellye), G.W. Bailey (Sgt. Rizzo). Allan Arbus makes his annual visit as psychiatrist Sidney Freedman, and Val Bisoglio makes his first of several late series appearances.

Video & Audio

This season's transfers are pretty much the same as the past few sets; that is, reasonably decent but not great. Shows are presented in their original full-frame form, and are generally brighter and much sharper than the earliest season sets. The shows, not time-compressed, are spread over three discs, with episodes 1-7 on the first, 8-14 on the second, and 15-20 on the third. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, available with or without the canned laughter, is fine. French and Spanish tracks are available, along with English and Spanish subtitles. There are no Extra Features, though this season would seem to cry out for something, given its shorter-than-usual run.

Parting Thoughts

M*A*S*H Season Nine Collector's Edition is more for the completest than the casual fan, with shows that are uneven but still frequently worthwhile, where even the weaker shows still slide by on the affection we have for these characters.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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