The crew of the good ship Mannion has hit the sack early, leaving their skipper alone on deck for a solitary night watch. Hot dog, I said, after I tucked in the boys and took the book off the sleeping blonde's chest and turned out her light. I rushed to the car to retrieve the DVDs I rented from Hollywood Video this afternoon. I'd picked up Discs One and Two of the fifth season of MASH and couldn't wait. I poured myself a tall glass of milk, filled a plate with the blonde's homemade chocolate chip cookies, and hunkered down.
Give me a little taste of the bachelor life and I go wild.
I love MASH. It's my second favorite show of all time, after Cheers, although as I do with everything that should just be fun I tend to think too much and too hard about it. I've got whole episodes memorized. Half my conversation is made up of Hawkeye-isms. (The other half is stolen from Cheers.) I quote from MASH the way Christians quote from the Bible and psychiatrists from the Interpretation of Dreams. But when I called up the menu on the first disc I realized that I couldn't recognize any episodes from their titles.
There are some people who when they watch a TV series on DVD, start with the first episode on the first disc and work their way through in order to the end. There are others who enjoy playing TV roulette---they pop in whatever disc comes to hand, point the remote at the television, close their eyes, and click.
Me, I like to pick and choose. Some shows, like the Sopranos, you have to watch from first episode to last, and that's how I'll watch Deadwood when it finally shows up on DVD. But with most shows you can skip around. Whatever the show, however good it was, there are episodes you don't have to watch, nothing happened to move the story arc, and the episodes themselves are fairly weak efforts. And I like to pick episodes based on my mood at the time I'm going to watch. Tonight I wanted a good laugh.
So I went to the computer and checked out this fine site for MASH fans. I looked up the episode guide for Season Five.
Bug Out. After a rumor grows out of proportion, the 4077th moves out, assured that the Chinese are about to attack. Hawkeye, Margaret and Radar remain behind as they are in the middle of critical surgery. All is well when the Chinese are pushed back and the camp returns.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind. While fixing a stove that explodes, Hawkeye's face is badly burned. His eyes are bandaged, and it is not known if he will ever see again. Meanwhile Frank bets on the outcome of a baseball game which he has already heard on the radio. After much tension in the camp the bandages come off, and happily, Hawkeye can see again.
Mulcahy's War. After Frank discovers that Danny Fitzsimmons has shot himself to get out of combat, Father Mulcahy is called in. Realizing his lack of under- standing of the fighting, Mulcahy accompanies Radar to an aid station where they encounter the front. Mulcahy performs an emergency tracheotomy guided by Hawkeye on the radio.
Hawk's Nightmare. After Hawkeye bemoans the young age of the wounded, he appears to develop problems. Sleepwalking and bad dreams, according to Dr. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus), are taking Hawkeye back to a simple time, but the horrors of war continue to intrude. After assurance by Dr. Freedman that he is as sane as can be, Hawkeye's life once again seems to settle down.
End Run. Billy Tyler (Henry Brown), a young black sergeant, is brought into camp with a bullet wound in the leg. He is a football player, and when he discovers that his leg has been amputated, he wants to die. After talks with Radar, Billy agrees that he must live on.
This wasn't promising. I began to recall the episodes but for the life of me I couldn't remember any one containing a lot of laughs.
Then it dawned on me.
Oh yeah. This was the season when they decided to stop being funny.
Neither incarnations of MASH, neither the movie nor the TV show, was about Korea. They were about Vietnam and life in Richard Nixon's America. But by the beginning of the fifth season, Nixon was hiding out in disgrace in San Clemente, Jerry Ford was in the White House working on losing the election to Jimmy Carter, and Vietnam was over, for us, and the whole country was determined to pretend it had never happened. (It would be a few more years before we started pretending along with Rambo that we'd actually won the damn war.) Without real life providing a daily subtext, the producers and writers began to fret that their audience would stop taking the show seriously, that they would start seeing it as just another sitcom, a service comedy like Sgt. Bilko. This is understandable. Some of the funniest episodes of the first three seasons were the ones where Hawkeye and Trap channeled the ghost of Phil Silvers.
But the producers, who by this time included Alan Alda, didn't want to be just another sitcom. They wanted to keep MASH on a higher level. They decided the best way to do this would be to bring what used to be subtext and background into the foreground. The Korean War, which had before been treated as a given, became WAR, and WAR became a character.
Every show, it seemed, began to include at least one big scene in which WAR intruded and threw its weight around. After little while, whole episode after whole episdoe featured WAR as a main character. And WAR, we had to be told every time, was a bad guy.
War was not healthy for children and other living things.
Don't you know that?
How could you have forgotten it? We just told you so last week. Do we have to remind you again. I guess we do.
Souvenirs. Korean children and American soldiers are often badly wounded when they hunt for souvenirs which the enemy has booby-trapped. Potter asks for it to stop, and Hawkeye and B.J. put a local junk dealer out of business.
Post Op. In the midst of a deluge of patients and their individual medical histories, the 4077th is out of blood. Everyone in camp is donating blood at 48-hour intervals when a truckload of Turkish soldiers arrive to offer their blood and save the day.
The fifth season was also the season when they decided to get rid of Hawkeye and replace him with Alan Alda.
The show began to have messages. Episodes that weren't about WAR were about ISSUES. Many episdoes were about both. The show got preachy. Watching it was like going to Liberal Church.
It was also the season when the crew of regular nurses stopped being pretty. The first three seasons all the nurses were dolls. But about the time Hawkeye began to morph into Alda the nurses all began to look like Mrs Walwrath, my 9th grade social studies teacher, tall, middle-aged, horse-faced, and angular, with about as many curves as a highway in Nebraska. I'm not sure one didn't have something to do with the other, because Hawkeye/Alda was far less of a cad and was even growing sensitive on the subject of women.
MASH never stopped being excellent television. It was always well-acted, well-written, intelligently made, and better than just about everything else on TV at the time. Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart had left the air, and All in the Family had jumped the shark. When the writers relaxed and let the show be funny it was very funny. But they made sure the laughs didn't last too long. Just when you thought things had gone comfortably back to the way they'd been during the first couple of seasons, the tone would change abruptly. Something BIG would happen. It was as if a stern, motherly voice suddenly snapped, "Eat your vegetables. Don't you know there are children starving in Africa?"
Hepatitis. Father Mulcahy comes down with infectious hepatitis while B.J. performs a very difficult operation and Hawkeye deals with a psychosomatic back pain.
On another night I might have been in the mood to eat my vegetables. Tonight I want nothing but dessert.
I'm putting in Cheers.