Thursday, May 07, 2015

Revisiting M*A*S*H

I was my son's age (14) when I started to watch the TV show "M*A*S*H" in 1975.  It was the series' 4th season, just after Blake and Trapper were gone.  We were introduced to B.J. Hunnicutt and Col. Potter.  My parents and I watched the show every Monday night in it's 9 PM time slot, and I would get home from school and watch the reruns at 4:30 from the San Diego channel.  I learned lines, jabs, quick witticisms, and loved Hawkeye's often Groucho Marx-ish humor.  When Burns left, and the character of Winchester came on, the humor changed, because it wasn't filled with the stupidity of the Burns character.  Much of the slapstick that had been part of the show during Burns' time, left with the character.  Winchester was more formidable.  As the show continued, I found the humor was forced, storylines not very clever, and by the time the show ended, I was disappointed, but not sad.  I had always felt the decline started with the introduction of the Winchester character, even though he was smart, intelligent and sophisticated. But I missed the wacky humor that had been so much a staple of the first 5 seasons.  

However, in watching two episodes today on Netflix, I found something else, something I'd seen, but not really absorbed. The two episodes were "Fallen Idol" and "Images".  In "Fallen Idol", Hawkeye encourages the young and innocent Radar O'Reilly to go to Seoul to, well, get things taken care of. In doing so, Radar is wounded, and Hawkeye feels a great sense of guilt. He gets very drunk, and during surgery has to leave to throw up.  Radar, who's recovering in post-op, talks to and somewhat scolds Hawkeye for getting drunk, and says that a lot of people (mainly Radar himself) look up to Hawkeye. And in Hawkeye's leaving surgery, he let a lot of people down.  The scene is tense, because Hawkeye blows up at Radar, and says several unkind things.  

Now, I'd seen this episode many times, and really, it was not one of my favorites.  But today I saw it differently: I saw it as a wonderful study of character, and more importantly, character development. At the end of the episode, the two close friends reconcile, and while they're over at the local watering hole, Hawkeye trades his beer with Radar's soda.  I really found myself watching the episode intently, because it was such a wonderful job of acting for those two.  Radar "grew  up" in front of my eyes. The episode was written and directed by Alan Alda himself.  

The other episode was called "Images", and it followed "Fallen Idol" chronologically. Over the length of the series, and due to the influence of both Alan Alda (a well known feminist) and Loretta Swit (who played Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan"), the character of Houlihan evolved, and the often caustic relationship between she and Hawkeye changed as well.  She was fleshed out more as a woman and as a person.  She dumps Frank Burns for someone else, and he leaves at the end of season 5.  Upon her return from her honeymoon in the first episode of season 6, she confides in Hawkeye and B.J. about something that happened during her honeymoon.  "Hot Lips" is gone.  Margaret is now her name. And in these early episodes of season 6 we see the dynamic between Margaret and Hawkeye change.  In "Images", we see this relationship take a significant step towards that friendship that the two eventually will have. This episode, like "Fallen Idol", was directed and written by Alda, and he briefly explores the evolution between Hawkeye and Margaret from adversaries to friends.

There is a touching scene where Margaret is in the mess tent, and overhears that a small dog that she's been secretly feeding was killed.  She starts to cry, and leaves the mess tent, running into Hawkeye. He senses that she's troubled and offers to help, but she refuses, escaping to her tent. He follows her in, and soon she breaks down. It is a wonderful moment that gives us a sense that Margaret is a real and complex person, and Hawkeye is beginning to understand and appreciate that. Just like the episode with Hawkeye and Radar, this was one that had layers, wonderful acting, and a depth that went beyond the humor.  These episodes both explored key relationships between the characters. That was something Alda wanted to do, and we see season 6 as key to when we really learned who these people were.

Now as I watch M*A*S*H, I can watch it for what it became - a sitcom that had wonderful drama, and real characters.  Yes, it was funny with Burns and Blake, and Trapper as Hawkeye's buddy.  But the introduction of stable and complex B.J. Hunnicutt, and then Winchester, elevated the series into something very unique.

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