mash_title card_cropped

Welcome to Korea: The 40th Anniversary of “M*A*S*H”

The rarely seen title card that opens the first episode of “M*A*S*H,” seen 40 years ago tonight.

We understand that 40 years is a long time, but in TV time, it’s an eternity. Forty years ago this fall, Gunsmoke and Bonanza were still on the air. So was Mission Impossible, and Dean Martin and Julie Andrews starred in variety shows. But 40 years doesn’t seem all that long when you think of it this way: 40 years ago tonight, M*A*S*H premiered on CBS.

Most of the new fall premieres that year quickly vanished from history. Who remembers Anna and the King or The Sandy Duncan Showwhich bracketed M*A*S*H on Sunday nights that first season—or The Little People, or Banyon, which premiered on other networks? Three new shows that fall would earn the status of television classic: M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Bob Newhart Show; The Rookies had a successful run for several years, and Kung Fu would become a cult favorite. I haven’t done the research to determine what sort of batting average that is, but it strikes me as decent.

But back to M*A*S*H. During its first season, it ranked 46th among all primetime shows. It wasn’t until its second season, when it was moved to Saturday nights between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show that it vaulted into the top 10, where it would rank for nine of its next 10 seasons. (It was never #1 for a whole season; it reached #3 during its final year, 1982-83.)

During its first three seasons, M*A*S*H never forgot the prime directive for a television comedy: be funny. It could be serious—and it was at times more serious than any comedy show had ever tried to be—but it wasn’t until later seasons that its commitment to seriousness replaced belly laughs with sanctimony.

During Season 3, the producers of M*A*S*H found a unique way to combine seriousness and humor. They added a character named Calvin Spalding, played by Loudon Wainwright III. He appeared in only three episodes, during which he and other actors sang a number of songs Wainwright wrote especially for the show. Although the show’s roots in the 1970 Robert Altman film were growing ever harder to see by 1974, the Wainwright songs provide some of the series’ most Altmanesque moments.

The only Internet videos I can find look like hell, so I won’t embed them. “North Korean Blues” is used to set and comment on the episode “Rainbow Bridge.” The episode “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse,” in which all female personnel are evacuated from the unit, features an untitled song containing the refrain, “I wonder if they miss us / Now wouldn’t that be funny / Now that we’re without them / We can hardly stand ourselves.” That same episode ends with the single oddest tag in the history of the series, one that’s often omitted from the butchered episodes seen on commercial TV: Spalding, Hawkeye, Trapper, and other members of the cast sing “Unrequited to the Nth Degree” while dancing across the compound.

The Spalding character vanished after the season, and other, more prominent characters would also be written out at the end of Season 3. M*A*S*H would never be the same after that, although its next couple of seasons remain pretty funny today. It’s not until Season 6 that the show begins its long slide into unwatchability. Forty years ago tonight, however, all of that was in the future. The M*A*S*H pilot, about a fundraising raffle to send the surgeons’ houseboy to college in America, is remarkably vulgar for 1972 (and a Sunday night at that), and while it’s not one of the series’ great episodes, the potential is visible. What no one could see then was that M*A*S*H would become one of the most honored and popular shows in TV history.

  • Beau

    The post-Radar episodes were occasionally self-indulgent dramas, but they still had a few moments of brilliance toward the end.

  • DwDunphy

    Toward the end of the series Alan Alda was much more in charge of things and that often played out in a lot of heavy-handedness. I believe he felt that, after so long, war was neither funny nor conducive to subversion. So things became very upfront about what war was doing to the characters. I will admit a weakness to two occurrences: the episode where everyone is falling asleep and having nightmares scared the crap out of me as a kid, but has stuck with me as an adult, as has Hawkeye’s mental breakdown in the final episode.

    But yeah, I never needed to hear this exchange ever again:

    The sound of falling bombs stop.
    “Do you hear that?”
    “I don’t hear anything.”
    “That’s what I mean!”

  • jabartlett

    That tic–where the characters speak in a hyper-clever jokey dialect that no real human being ever used–is the single most annoying thing about the later seasons of MASH. That, and the way they turned Radar from the savvy operator of the early seasons into a retarded child.

    FWIW, the most indispensable actor on the show was Larry Linville–although Frank Burns was a one-note character that Linville grew tired of playing, once Burns was out of the show, most of the humor went out of it too. The more I watched the later shows, the more I detested the Winchester character, because the show eventually became every bit as humorless as he is.

  • Brett Alan

    OK, someone has to be the guy who speaks up for the idea that the later seasons were better, so I guess that’s me. I think the multidimensional Winchester was light-years better as a character than the cartoony Frank Burns, and I think Potter and BJ were better than their predecessors as well. Radar’s departure did hurt, but overall I think the chances the series took and its ability to mix the serious with the silly in its later years were great television.

    I had never heard of this Anna & The King. Wow–a half-hour sitcom version of The King And I? WITH YUL BRENNER? Wow, that’s just so deeply bizarre! Here’s a funny thing–the cast included Rosalind Chao, then 12, as the King’s daughter. She ended up on the finale of MASH–as an adult, as the woman Klinger falls in love with. That’s longevity!

  • DwDunphy

    Frank Burns was starting to go somewhere important by the end of the character’s run but the production team didn’t have the will to get there fully. In wartime there are these relationships of convenience, and you’re never going to fall fully in love while “loving the one you’re with.” So his vulnerability when Hot Lips gets married could have said a lot more about the nature of human interaction and “love” in times of greatest stress. Didn’t happen. I guess that would have to wait for China Beach.

  • Bob

    “It’s not until Season 6 that the show begins its long slide into unwatchability.”

    Boy… talk about sanctimony (or perhaps pretentiousness).

    None of M.A.S.H. was unwatchable, but if that term must be tossed around, it should be pinned on the first season.

    I’ll go one further than Brett; not only were the later seasons better, but they were far better. Those episodes were more imaginative, took far more chances, and were like no other show on television.