Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Slow Burn of M*A*S*H Jumping the Shark

I was pleased when I noticed that the television show M*A*S*H was added to Netflix for streaming. I often watch Star Trek while trying to sleep at night. I have seen these episodes so much that I can close my eyes and listen. It puts me out. Since I have never watched M*A*S*H from start to finish, this was a good time to start rewatching one of my favorite shows from my childhood. I've always been curious as to when the show got bad (aka Jumped the Shark). The show starts off as one of the best shows on television being both very funny and socially relevant, which is rare. It also has its fair share of pathos. By the end the 11th season, it is unwatchable. The last few seasons are so bad that I cannot watch it while trying to sleep. It just makes me angry. It is no longer funny, the drama is bad and so preachy and self-righteous. It is almost insulting at times. How did something so good get so bad?

For those that don't know, the term Jump the Shark, is in reference to an episode of Happy Days when the character Fonzie jumped a tank of sharks with his motorcycle. It marks the moment which the show went from being a pretty good show to a really bad show. When a show Jumps the Shark, they have started to decline into a bad show. This moment is not clear for M*A*S*H for its decline is a slow burn happening in stages.

The book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Surgeons by Richard Hooker (aka H. Richard Hornberger) came out in 1968. I haven't read it mostly because I've heard it isn't worth it. It is mostly a retelling of stories and anecdotes of his experiences in the Korean War with the names changed (the 8055th MASH unit was changed to 4077th etc). The general theme revolves around how three army doctors (Trapper John, Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest) used comedy to deal with the tragedy and stress of war. The books covers the entire war and ends with a big good-bye scene when the war ends.

The film, based on the novel, came out in 1970 directed by Robert Altman, screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and starring (the three army surgeons) Elliot Gould as Trapper, Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye and Tom Skerritt as Duke. Duke is the only one not to make it into the television show. The movie poster was the first place where the asterisks appeared between the letters in the name: M*A*S*H. It caught on afterwards. Altman was the 9th director offered the task. His style of directing clashed with the stars. Gould and Sutherland tried to get him fired at one point. Like most of his films, it is difficult to follow without a star or a strict plot but with an ensemble cast of characters appearing somewhat chaotically throughout the film. The script was only loosely followed because the actors were given direction on what was happening in the scene and asked to improvise. Most of the dialogue in the film come from the actors. Like most of his films, I love it. I find his films more lifelike because of the chaos. It won the Golden Globe that year for best film and the Palme d'Or at Cannes but lost all the major Oscars to Patton, a much more serious war picture.

After the film's success, Hornberger wrote follow-up novels, the first being M*A*S*H Goes to Maine which follows the characters after the war and then M*A*S*H Mania, the characters in their old age. Eight more novels were published, written by ghost writers and published under Hornberger's pen name (Hooker). When the filming of the second book failed, it was decided to attempt a television show instead. The show started in 1970 and was almost cancelled after the first year due to low ratings but was saved after its time slot was changed to be after a hit show, All In the Family.  Time slots were important back then before DVRs and the Internet. Two of the best comedies ever made for American television were now going back to back. A few seasons in, I started watching when I was old enough to stay up that late. I remember having classmates in elementary school whose parents did not watch it or let their kids watch it because of the war aspect. "There is nothing funny about war." The Vietnam War was still very much active and in the news. Looking back on it now, comedy seems to be a completely appropriate response to the quagmire of war.

First big problem with the show is that the show went on almost four times longer than the actual war. The US was involved in the Korean War a little over three years ... from June 1950 to July 1953. The show went on for 11 seasons (255 episodes).  This means that, in showtime, roughly four days happens in between each episode. Watching the show now, this causes some problems. In one episode, they are suffering from a heatwave and the very next episode, they are preparing for below zero temperature. They also had four Christmas episodes (seasons 1, 7, 9 & 10).  Of course, when they were making the show back in the 70's, no one knew anyone would be binge watching in the 21th century. Also, when they started they didn't know they were going to have 11 seasons. If they did, they might have paced themselves differently. But don't you think once they had gotten to the third Christmas episode, they would have called an end to any new ones?

I've talked to people who were in MASH units in Korea and they like the show. They say that it is not a bad depiction of what it was like. The war, of course, is worst than 1970's American television could show and the jokes were dirtier but they basically got it right, which is really nice to hear. The big thing they got wrong is the amount of time the G.I.'s got to stay together. They spent a very short amount of times together. The characters Margaret and Hawkeye spend the entire war in the same unit together. This just did not happen. People were in and out of their lives so fleetingly that they barely got to know each other. Perhaps this made it easier to clown around. Close attachments were not made. As soon as you got close to someone, they were gone. Not to sound too meta, but perhaps this is why the show got so lame in the later years; the characters got to know each other too well. Intimacy eliminated the need for comedy.

It is ironic that if M*A*S*H had only been on television the same length of the war, it might have gone down as the best show ever. But as the main characters started leaving the show, they were replaced with good characters but not quite as good as the original. This makes the shows fall from grace to be a gradual one. When the show was cast, Wayne Rogers (who portrayed Trapper John) was told that his character would get equal billing to Hawkeye. But after a couple of seasons, he saw how his character was playing second fiddle to Alan Alda's. His character was edgy. He was cheating on his wife, he missed his kids and he drank heavily. He was replaced with B.J. Hunnecutt (portrayed by Mike Farrell) who was much less edgy and more moral than Trapper. B.J. doesn't look like a Californian in 50's; he looks more like a porn star from the 70's. McLean Stevenson (who portrayed Colonel Henry Blake) left the show the same season as Rogers for similar reasons. Stevenson's Blake was one of the funniest part of the early years. Blake was incompetent, bumbling and a skirt chaser. He was replaced by Harry Morgan's Colonel Potter who was stern, mature and not very funny. After a great three years, they lost two of the best characters, replaced them with less funny more moralistic counterparts. Let the shark jumping begin.

Another two seasons go by and the two trouble making surgeons continue to gang up on Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan and Major Frank Burns, but the two Majors are no longer a couple. Margaret gets married and Frank loses it. Frank, a cartoonish character, doesn't really develop much. The Major Burns that Robert Duval portrayed in the movie is much more serious and pious. Larry Linville's Burns is a buffoon that did not mature as the show progressed but became increasingly unbelievable as the show continued. Linville recognized this and was simply sick of playing the same fool for five years, he quit after his contract ran out. His leaving the show should have been an improvement at this point if they hadn't replaced him with Charles Emerson Winchester III (portrayed by David Ogden Stiers), a stereo-typical Boston snob. They replaced the buffoon with a self-righteous douche-bag. Another less funny character coming in making the show more serious.

The show is becoming a drama at this point, often called television's first dramedy, a poorly written drama with a laugh track. The laugh track always seemed out of place in this show because it was obvious that they weren't filming in front of a live audience. It is a left-over from the radio days when a joke could not be followed by silence. The network insisted on it. It is easy to forget it is even there until the jokes stop being funny. In the later seasons, when the show becomes painful to watch, the laugh track was toned down a little, but not enough. You can watch the last six seasons without laughing once, but that laugh track is there laughing along with the "jokes" as an awful reminder, this show used to be funny.

If you need a Jump the Shark moment, the best I can find is when all the characters began to get along. Of the two heavies in the early episodes, Margaret was the only one left. In the season five episode, "The Nurses," Margaret takes a turn toward being nice. She says to her nursing staff, "When did one of you ever even offer me a lousy cup of coffee?" and is invited into the nurses tent by the end of the episode. In season six's "Comrade in Arms," she and Hawkeye are caught behind enemy lines and have a love affair. From this point on, the show is not the same. Everyone gets along including Charles ... it is the camp against the world and no inner conflict. This makes for bad television. The fact that Margaret now has a 1980's style big hair perm at this point, makes the show downright ridiculous. They don't look like people from the 50's.

The Jump of the Shark is complete and we land on the other side of the shark tank when Radar (portrayed by Gary Burghoff) leaves the show at end of season eight. He is the only actor of the main characters to carry over from the movie and probably the most comically understated performances on the show. Burghoff hated portraying a teenager for eight years. By the time he left the show in 1979, he was in his mid-30's. His screen time was replaced by two recurring characters Klinger and Father Mulcahey who should never have left the shadows of any plot line.

Anything after this point is not worth watching. These late seasons are a reminder of how bad American television was back then. M*A*S*H  stood out as an excellent show for many years. It was a ground breaking show that should have ended long before it got this bad. It ended with a big bang though. The last episode in February 1983, a two and half hour long movie, had a record 125 million viewers. We only had 83 million homes at the time. These type of numbers nowadays are unheard of, mostly because we have a lot more options. Of the really bad episodes, it is one of the better ones but that is the best thing I can say about it. 

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