On an unrelated thread, Philip Portelli wrote:

 

"To the Commander: I would be very interested to hear your views on M*A*S*H, McHale's Navy, and particularly Hogan's Heroes, given your service. I know that they were comedies but I would like to hear your views, if or when you want. Heck comment on CPO Sharkey for that matter!"

 

I'll try.

 

First, let me state that, with regard to military series, both dramatic and comedic, television imposes certain necessary restraints to accuracy.  I understand this.  J.A.G. demonstrated a few of these necessary bars to accuracy.  For ten years, the two stars served in the same billets at J.A.G. headquarters (except for occasional story arcs which temporarily shifted them around).  Normal tours in the military are eighteen months to three years, at the most, and usually are two years.  So, no way that would have happened in real life.  But I understand that a popular show just can't go retooling itself with new formats and new cast members every couple of years.  So I can accept that as a necessary fictional device.

 

Also, the two stars would not have reported to the Judge Advocate General of the Navy directly, as they did in the show.  There would be a Chief of Staff and other ACOS's in the hierarchy.  But then you're talking about the expense of additional cast members, so I can accept that as a necessary fictional device, as well.

 

Those kinds of things I grudgingly give a pass to.  Other things I do not.  Things which do not affect the budget, such as improper military protocol or errors in the uniform.  These things don't cost a cent to fix, and J.A.G. had the least excuse of all shows for such mistakes creeping in.  J.A.G. had a retired rear admiral on the payroll as an advisor.  He must have been asleep through many of the episodes, though, for all the uniform mistakes---and obvious ones to anybody in the Navy---to have gotten by.

 

And, sure, many military-related series, especially sitcoms, didn’t hire a military expert as an advisor.  But you can sure bet the shows received mail from vets who watched the show and called them on errors.  So when I see mistakes of this sort appear, my estimation of the show immediately drops.

 

Now, to military sitcoms.

 

I understand, in order to evoke humour, certain aspects of military life have to exaggerated or lampooned.  But the key here---from my standpoint as a military man---is to not go beyond my willing suspension of disbelief.  Granted, the bar is higher for me than it is for someone who has never served.  And there are lots more of career civilian television watchers than there are career military television watchers.  So, if a producer wants to play the numbers game, he can go as extreme as he wants.

 

On the other hand, television history has had several military-oriented sitcoms that were successful and never strayed across my line of believability.

 

Let’s start with the two military sitcoms that are remarkable in the fact that neither one of them ever---ever---committed an error in protocol, uniform wear, or general military practice.

 

The first was Hennesey (CBS, 1959-62), starring Jackie Cooper.  This show was so remarkable that it is tied, with Father Knows Best, as my favourite sitcom ever.  It tells of a newly minted Navy physician, Lieutenant Charles “Chick” Hennesey, stationed at the Naval Dispensary in San Diego.

 

It’s a show that takes it’s humour from the characters’ reactions to simple, yet logical twists and developments in Navy life.  While Hennesey and his nurse, Martha Hale, pretty much play it straight (though they are not beyond a witty line or two), there are some characters who are “characters”---Hennesey’s commanding officer, Captain (later, Rear Admiral) Shafer, and Chief Corpsman Bronsky.  Yet, they never get so broad as to be unbelievable and underlie their minor eccentricities with remarkable humanity.  It’s a show loaded with sentimental moments, but never saccharine ones, mostly because Hennesey is just a decent, likeable man, usually right but not always.

 

As I said, Hennesey never committed a single error in military protocol, not even a situation that bordered on being impossible to really happen.  I credit this to the fact that Jackie Cooper, who also produced the show, hired a great number of military veterans as staff and he himself was a Navy veteran.  The show was also distinctive in utilising techniques infrequently seen on television then, especially in sitcoms.  It relied strongly on overlapping dialogue.  And for most episodes, it eschewed an opening credit sequence.  The show would begin with a cold open and a minute or so into it, the dialogue track go silent and the theme would play, while the credits got “painted” over the scene, which would still be going on.  Even without the benefit of dialogue, the viewer could still follow the gist of the scene. 

 

Many episodes were done without a laugh track.  Particularly one tour-de-force episode which has only two cast members---Cooper, as Hennesey, and guest star Don Rickles as a chief petty officer.  The TV Guide entry for this episode probably read:  “Hennesey gives a C.P.O. a reënlistment physical.”  Because that’s all it was.  But the dialogue keeps you so riveted that you don’t realise that nothing else takes place.

 

As in many other Hennesey episodes, something pointed out early on comes back as the clincher in the end.  And for this episode, throw away any previous conceptions of Don Rickles.  He performs with nuance and subtlety.  And in the last shot, which shows him walking toward the camera, away from the examining room, he looks and moves like every thirty-year C.P.O. I ever met.

 

Personal Sidebar:  I was a tadpole when Hennesey aired and it was the first exposure to the Navy that I ever had, and from it, I got the idea that maybe the Navy wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend my life.

 

Fast-forward to 1999.  It was Christmas Eve, and I was in my stateroom, lying on my rack, on board the flagship Blue Ridge, in Yokosuka, Japan.  I had just been assigned to the staff of Commander, SEVENTH Fleet, and the Good Mrs. Benson, having a good job that neither of us wanted her to sacrifice, was back home in the States.  The ship was quiet, practically deserted, except for duty personnel, everybody else home with his wife and family.  And I started thinking about all the events that led me to that particular point, at that particular time.

 

I followed that thread all the way back to Hennesey, which I hadn’t thought about in years.   It was about mid-night, Christmas now, when I got an idea.  I was going to write Jackie Cooper a letter, telling him how his show had been my first inspiration to join the Navy and how much satisfaction my Naval career had brought me.

 

Right then, I went down to my office and wrote.  Getting his mailing address wasn’t difficult---Cooper was still famous enough and, hey, I worked for an admiral.  And I mailed it.

 

About three weeks later, there was something on my desk from mail call.  It was a letter from Jackie Cooper, written in his own hand.  He said that my letter was one of the nicest Christmas presents he had ever received.  He was glad that Hennesey had been such an inspiration to me.  And, to me, the most important thing he wrote was that “of all the things I’ve done as a producer, director, or actor, Hennesey is the thing of which I am proudest.”

 

(The same night I also wrote and sent a letter to his Hennesey co-star, Abby Dalton, that produced some interesting results.  But that’s another story, for another post.)

 

 

 

The other error-free military sitcom came much later in television’s history, but has many of the same qualities as Hennesey.  That was Major Dad (also CBS, 1989-93).  As Hennesey was for Jackie Cooper, Major Dad was obviously a labour of love for Gerald McRaney.  While the central premise was different---die-hard Marine Corps officer meets and marries a liberal-minded lady journalist with three daughters---it shared Hennesey’s impeccability in showing both the light side and the serious side of military life, including the grimness of combat, without diluting either.  Like Hennesey, some of the regular characters were slightly eccentric but never beyond feasibility and were always underlaid with professionalism and competence. 

 

Major Dad wasn’t a “quiet” sitcom, like Hennesey.  It played comedy a bit more broadly and cranked in the generational humour with the three daughters.  And it vested Major MacGillis with a Marine Warrior image that the plots both validated and poked fun at.  It also plumbed the sentimentality well a bit more deeply, along with adding the cuteness factor of pint-sized youngest daughter, Casey.

 

It’s telling that the then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray, appeared in a guest spot on the show.  The Marine Corps usually doesn’t go in for that kind of thing, unless they respect a show.

 

Since I’ve rambled on here, Philip, let’s make this “part one”, and I’ll get to some of the military sitcoms you specifically mentioned on the next go ‘round.

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At least, it's one childhood TV memory that they won't make a bad movie out of!

 

Never say never!

Now, as far as M*A*S*H goes, I never saw the motion picture or read any of the books. I did watch the TV show regularly - to my recollection, I saw every episode. Now, the Internet Movie Database informs me that the ran from 1972-1983, from the year I turned nine, to the year I turned twenty. Again, when the show began, I had no real knowledge of the Korean War, except insofar as one of my uncles had been involved in it. Later, I came to the belief that the show wasn't really about Korea, anyhow, but that it was meant to be an indirect look at Vietnam, which was, I felt, too fresh for a TV show to feel safe addressing directly.

 

(As an aside, I wonder when we'll be seing a sitcom about the Iraq War, with Abdul the Wacky Terrorist Who Somehow Never Manages To Blow Himself Up...)

 

Anyway, M*A*S*H to me was a game of two halves - there were the early years, when the show was a comedy with dramatic touches, and the later years, when the show became a drama with comedic touches.  I preferred the earlier years - in later years the show got a little too preachy for me. It sort of became a little too much of the Sermons of Saint Hawkeye to me. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying a show shouldn't have a message, it's just I feel that the message ought to be delivered a little more subtly.  Plus I began to feel that Hawkeye as a character just became too sanctimonious - I came to believe that Alda was maybe being overindulged by the producers.  Plus, the literal-minded part of me could never quite accept that a character as persistently insubordinate as Hawkeye Pierce could possibly have continued to get away with the stuff he did, no matter how brilliant of a surgeon he was.

 

As I recall, there were two sequels to M*A*S*H. The first was Trapper John, M.D., which ran from 1979 - 1986 (Much longer than I remembered it running!), which was set in the (then) present day, and involved Trapper working at a hospital where one of his subordinates was a younger surgeon who'd served in Vietnam.   I never got into that show - I never was big on medical dramas to begin with, and I never could quite make the imaginative leap that Wayne Rogers had grown up to be Pernell Roberts.

 

The second sequel was AfterM*A*S*H, which ran from 1983-1984, and featured Colonel Potter, Father Mulcahy and Corporal Klinger all working at a VA hospital after the war - I watched a few episodes of it, but didn't hold my interest - it was just too much, "Let's see if we can feed off the success of the show by doing something with some of the mid-card characters", and it just didn't work.  I remember years later they did a callback to this show on an episode of The Simpsons when the character of Troy McClure mentioned a fictional TV program called AfterMannix.

 

 

 

 

I agree with your analysis of the TV series as "a game of two halves," but I tend to think of M*A*S*H in three separate and distinct phases: 1) the book, 2) the movie (definitely about the Viet Nam war), and 3) the tv series. I also included a fourth, lesser phase: 4) the "M*A*S*H Goes to..." series of paperback books.

 

I did watch Trapper John, M.D., and if you're having trouble picturing Wayne Rogers "growing up" to become Pernell Robets, think of Elliot Gould because it was really more of a sequel to the movie than it was the tv show. (The "younger surgeon who'd served in Viet Nam was Gregory Harrison as Gonzo Gates, BTW, and I was surprised to discover in an episode I watched last week that he had pplayed a guest role on M*A*S*H.) I never saw AfterM*SA*S*H but I learned all about it I care to know on Wikipedia.

Well, 'Allo 'Allo was a strange beast in many ways.  Written by Croft and Perry, who created Dad's Army, it was actually a spoof of Secret Army, a very serious drama set in Belgium during the occupation that dramtised the undergroudn railroad run by the resistance to get downded Allied combatants home.  That was very true to life - the cafe owner almost got lynched in the last-but-one episode as he had been seen as a collabrator.  'Allo 'Allo on the other hand soon went into incredibly broad farce.  Personally I never saw the funny side of it, but my late father enjoyed it - and he served in the European theatre post D-Day.

 

I do vaguely remember the spooh. however.  Curiously, apart from Dad's Army and The Army Game, only one other sitcom that was set in the forces has ever been a big hit - and that was Blackadder Goes Forth.

Figserello said:

In Britain there was an extraordinary long-running and popular series called 'Allo 'Allo that was a broad double-entendre laden comedy set during the resistance in France. It was all stereotypes and farcical situations, but didn't reflect the true horror of that aspect of WWII at all. One sketch show on a rival station did a spoof set in Belfast in the 80's where cuddly IRA men blow things up under the noses of clueless RUC policemen. Of course the latter sketch was a spoof and could never be made as a series, but for some reason the WWII show was fine. It's hard to see the difference.

Military Sitcoms Part Two.

 

 

Let’s see if I can actually manage to post this one to-day.

 

As we leave Hennesey and Major Dad behind, we now get into the territory of which Randy Jackson and CK spoke:  the ones infused with the stereotypes, such as the incompetent commanding officer, which require the viewer not too take them too seriously.  With some of these, the ones handled well in the other entertainment departments, I could look the other way, even as a career military man, and enjoy.  Others were just too absurd for any level of suspension of disbelief to kick in.  This time around, I’ll talk about one of each, and one that sort of straddled the middle for me.

 

McHale’s Navy (CBS, 1962-6) is at the top of this tier for me.  The show boasted all of the stereotypes that were common in military sitcoms:  the not-by-the-book but über-competent star, his bumbling second-in-command, the petty and officious and not terribly competent commanding officer, and the C.O.’s sycophantic assistant.  Nevertheless, the show worked.

 

The principal reason it worked was the chemistry between the regulars, even those ‘way down in the credits, such as the men who played the members of Lieutenant Commander McHale’s crew.  That kind of interpersonal charisma is always important, but especially in this show.  The plots themselves were not much to write home about; they were almost always some form of “Captain Binghamton schemes to get McHale court-martialed or transferred.”

 

But, as a good comic artist will always do with a ridiculous story, outstanding talent here elevated the banal and repetitive.  The plots may not have been noteworthy, but the dialogue was funny.  Not the phoney kind of funny where the laugh track signals the viewer that he is supposed to laugh, but genuinely clever and witty and always within the personalities that the characters were supposed to have.

 

In addition, the writers were able to insert some truly clever bits of business.  In the debut 1962-3 season, there were a few references to another PT boat in the squadron, the 109, and its youthful skipper with a winning personality.  On one occasion, McHale remarks to Ensign Parker that the skipper of the 109 might have quite a career in politics after the war.  Parker replies, “I don’t think so, Skip.  I’ve heard him talk . . . .”   And Tim Conway launches into an impersonation of JFK’s speaking voice so spot-on it would make Vaughn Meader nervous.  “You can’t understand a word he says.”

 

I love in-joke like that.  Such as the early episode then the PT-73 has pulled into New Caledonia for some R & R.  All of the enlisted guys have hit the beach, leaving McHale and Parker on board.  In a sneaky nod to Marty, the two men have a conversation which replicates the famous one from the film.

 

“What do you wanna do to-night, Skip?”

 

“I dunno.   What do you wanna do, Chuck?”

 

“You wanna go to the pub?”

 

“Nah, I don’t wanna go to the pub.”

 

“Then what do you wanna do?”

 

And so forth.

 

Perhaps the most clever bit came in the last season, after McHale, his crew, and Binghamton were all transferred to Italy (a desperate format change to try to revive flagging scripts).  Fuji, the Japanese P.O.W. who was the mascot to McHale and his band of pirates had stowed away on board the boat.  For once, even Binghamton wasn’t a total nimrod and tumbled to Fuji’s presence.  McHale and his crew were able to stay out of the brig by putting Fuji in an American G.I.’s uniform and passing him off as a member of the 100th Infantry Battalion---the famous Nisei battalion.

 

And McHale’s Navy at least attempted to provide some plausible rationale for the stereotypes.  It was established that, before the war, McHale had been the captain in the merchant marine and had sailed the south Pacific for twenty years.  His knowledge of the area was invaluable to the big brass and they tended to give him the benefit of the doubt whenever Binghamton raised a fuss.  As for Binghamton, his back-story was that, before the war, he had been the commodore of a Long Island yacht club, and cronyism had resulted in him attaining the rank of captain in the Naval Reserve.  After the war started, he was activated and assigned as the C.O. of the base at Taratupa before anybody at the top level realised what a moron he was.

 

As for bumbling Ensign Parker, well, truth to tell, he wasn’t that much worse than some new ensigns I had worked with.  Even Binghamton knew that Parker was a clod who should have been put in charge of nothing more important than handing out towels at the base gym.  But it was for that very reason that Old Leadbottom assigned Parker to McHale’s crew---to add to McHale’s grief.

 

Another thing.  While never attaining that combination of comedy and drama that M*A*S*H did, at least McHale’s Navy took the matter of the war itself seriously.  The forces of the Japanese weren’t usually a bunch of loveable bumblers, like Hogan’s Heroes’ Germans.  When the occasional battle scene arose, it looked and was treated as very real.

 

I suspect that much of that came from McHale’s Navy’s genesis.  The pilot, Seven Against the Sea, featured McHale and most of the characters who would appear in his crew on the series.  But it was a drama---with a scattering of funny interludes, such as in the film Stalag 17---as opposed to an outright comedy.  I figure that attitude was what kept the writers from making a total farce out of the series.

 

With all the things going for McHale’s Navy, one would expect that the producer, Edward J. Montagne, would have just as much success replicating virtually the same situation in another show running at the same time and spun-off from a guest character seen in McHale’s Navy itself.

 

Unfortunately, as we all know, that trick rarely works.

 

In the 1964 season, Montagne launched Broadside, a distaff version of McHale’s Navy.  I doubt I would lose my pension if I bet it that nearly all of you have never heard of that show.  Up until several months ago, my only recollexion of it was that I had seen it.  But last fall, I discovered that, believe it or not, someone had posted several episodes of Broadside on YouTube.

 

Don’t waste your time looking for them.

 

The premise was a carbon copy of McHale’s Navy.  Kathleen Nolan portrayed Lieutenant Anne Morgan, the officer-in-charge of a crew of machinist-mate WAVES.  Because of the wartime manpower crunch, the brass has sent LT Morgan and her girls to run the motor pool of a supply base in the south Pacific safely away from the battle area.  The commanding officer, Commander Roger Adrian, has set up a cushy life for himself on the base and doesn’t want the presence of female sailors disrupting the placid running of the base.  Consequently, he spends all of his time plotting to get them transferred or court-martialed out of his command.

 

The plots were as repetitive as those of McHale’s Navy---but Broadside didn’t work because it lacked the chemistry between actors that McHale’s Navy had.  The actors were reading lines and nothing more.  Some of the weaknesses should have been obvious.  CDR Adrian was about as competent as CAPT Binghamton, but he was a great deal more larcenous, making him unlikeable.  Moreover, it was one thing when Binghamton used his rank to lord it over McHale; it was another to see Adrian browbeat the female LT Morgan.  Adrian looked like a bully.  It didn’t help that Kathleen Nolan played LT Morgan too timidly in her dealings with Adrian.  It was, no doubt, meant to be her showing deference to a senior officer, but it came across as being obsequious.

 

Moreover, the show’s own internal logic didn’t hold up as the series went along.  No matter what snare or difficulty Adrian placed before LT Morgan and her WAVES, they would triumph in the end, and nearly every episode would end with an admiral marveling over the exceptional performance of her motor pool.  Unlike CAPT Binghamton, who rarely was able to bask in McHale’s successes, Broadside’s CDR Adrian enjoyed a good reputation as a result of Morgan’s outstanding performance.

 

After seeing four or five episodes, you start wondering why Adrian has such a bee in his bonnet over having WAVES in the motor pool.  At some point, you’d think he’d say, “Give Morgan and her girls anything they want---and get rid of all those male slackers!”

 

But Broadside’s cardinal sin was that it just wasn’t funny.

 

 

And for the final military sitcom of this entry, I’m going to jump ahead a decade or so, and talk about M*A*S*H.

 

I’ll tell you right now, at the risk of the tar and feathers, that I don’t see M*A*S*H as some sort of landmark classic.  My feelings about the show run along the same lines as the Baron’s---it’s a show of two halves.  With some elements that are very good and some elements that are very bad.

 

Let’s talk about the minor-league stuff first.  The quickest way for a period-piece show to lose me is to not look a thing like the era in which it is set.  Not so much at first, but as the seasons went by, it became obvious that we were looking at ‘70’s actors playing 1950’s.  The hairstyles on Alda and Farrell and Burghoff were clearly ‘70’s, as were that of the nurses.

 

And that ties in with the lack of proper uniform wear by most of the regular cast and the lack of shaving and other grooming requirements.  Now, defenders of the show will insist that the non-regulation hair and lack of shaving and other laxities can be attributed to the 4077 being in a war zone.  That wasn’t an excuse at genuine mobile hospitals in Korea.  And most telling, if Colonel Potter could maintain a regulation haircut and a daily shave, why couldn’t any of the others?

 

For all I said against Broadside, at least the performers on that show would have been able to pass a military personnel inspexion.

 

As for my big criticism, the Baron beat me to it:  there is a noticeable difference between the early seasons and the later ones---usually demarked at the point when McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers departed and Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan arrived.

 

In those early seasons, the show was completely irreverent.  Except for the matter of treating the patients.  But other than that, everything and everybody was a target.  Not even Hawkeye was immune to some skewering and belittling.  I didn’t have a problem with any of that.  When everybody gets a turn in the dunking booth, then no-body has any reason to feel persecuted.  And as been pointed out, it was more comedy-less drama in those first few years.

 

And those were the years I liked best.

 

The shift in paradigm came when the show killed off Lieutenant Colonel Blake.  That was one of very few times I had ever been surprised by a development on a television show.  Until the very last credit, I kept expecting to see a scene showing Henry washed up on some beach, surrounded by attentive island beauties.

 

It was an impressive moment in television.  The first episode of the next season, showing Captain Hunnicutt’s introduction to war was also expertly done.  I never had a problem with the show turning to more drama-less comedy.  It was what came with it.

 

The Baron hit it on the head.  As the seasons rolled along and Alan Alda became more of a controlling authority in the production of the show, Hawkeye Pierce became more and more sanctimonious.  Plot outcomes were usually arranged so that his viewpoint would prevail.  And the few times it didn’t, the script would provide him an epiphany at the end, so the viewers would know that he was even a better person than he was before.  Eventually, it got to the point where the show should have been called Saint Hawkeye of the 4077.

 

The canonising of Hawkeye resulted in the Army becoming the butt of most of the humour, either directly or indirectly.  To go by M*A*S*H, the Army---and by extension, the entire military complex---was incompetent, venal, duplicitous, and jingoistic.  There was nothing wrong with the message that “War is bad.”  The problem was, under Alda’s reign, the message turned into “War is bad, and it’s all the Army’s fault!”

 

Now, that’s not just my personal pride talking.  In a television show, whenever any singular thing becomes the sole target of ridicule, the butt, of humour, it gets old.  Just like it got old on The Dick van Dyke Show, that Mel Cooley was constantly, unceasingly the target of Buddy Sorrell’s harassing.  Just like I kept waiting for the day when Mel finally said to Buddy, “You’re fired!”, I kept waiting for the Army to tell Hawkeye he was being court-martialed.

 

Despite the overall downturn in the series for me, M*A*S*H in the later seasons did do some things very well.  The producers were wise enough to replace departing characters with different types of characters.  Trapper John was a womaniser without conscience; B. J. was a devout family man.  Blake was a doctor in over his head when he was drafted to be a commanding officer; Potter was a career military man.  Burns was an incompetent surgeon and a hypocrite; Winchester was the best cutter of the bunch and had a set of ethics, albeit based in class distinction.

 

It was in those later seasons that the writers really learnt how to shade the characters, make them more than just stereotypes.  To show sides of the characters that we saw little of.  This was done especially with Winchester.  He was a blowhard (worse yet, a blowhard with considerable justification in being so), but he could be touched by receiving a maple-tree leaf in a letter from a little girl, and he would downdress a squad and its officer for making fun of a stuttering soldier, and he refused to guarantee his reassignment to Tokyo by lying for a senior officer who tried to accost Hotlips.

 

It was moments like this that picked up the later seasons and kept me from tuning it out completely.  When I have the chance to catch a re-run of the show now, the only interest I have are in the episodes which feature moments that I have just described.

 

But if it’s just a run-of-the-mill episode of M*A*S*H and it’s running at the same time as an episode of McHale’s Navy, I’m going with McHale.

 

Next time, I’ll talk about the shows I put at the bottom of the barrel.  Offerings like Sergeant Bilko, Gomer Pyle, and Hogan’s Heroes.

Commander:

Never heard of Broadside before your post, but have seen some of the pre-Italy episodes of McHale's Navy and do agree with your comments on it.

As for M*A*S*H...

I'm with the Baron as far as viewing the series goes, although my personal time line would put me between 10 and 21 during the course of the show.

Being a live long civilian, I cannot comment about military protocol/procedures and the accuracy of their portrayals in any program. However it was my belief that M*A*S*H presented things more from the civilian, if not human, perspective than any other p.o.v.

Only the Hoolihan and Potter characters were the closest to true military types amongst the cast. Burns may have had the gung ho attitude, but I remember one episode where, after Hawkeye was cleared of court martial charges, Frank was told by the judge that if military didn't need doctors, he probably would have wound up serving as a pastry chef!

Hawkeye, Trapper John, BJ, etc; were all people from various aspects of private life who were drafted and thrusted into a situation they didn't want to be in to begin with.

Granted, for better or worse, the later years did center around Alan Alda as the star of the series. But still, about the only thing truly G.I. about most of the main cast were their dog tags.

I had a real problem with Major Frank Burns.  One thing M*A*S*H did well nearly all the time was its characterisation.  One exception---the canonisation of Hawkeye Pierce---we've talked about.  The other exception was the show's mishandling of MAJ Burns.

 

Now, I have no quarrel with Burns being a sub-standard surgeon and physician.  That happens in the military; somebody looks good on paper, but is abysmal in actual ability.  And that lack of skill doesn't become evident until the serviceman gets to his command and actually starts going to work.  So, yeah, a surgeon as inept as Burns could very well have made it to a field hospital.

 

Where I believe the show erred was in making Burns so thoroughly detestable.  He possessed absolutely no positive qualities.  Now true, there are people like that---but I don't want to watch them on television.  Unless he's the villain and Steve McGarrett is about to put a round between his eyes.  Burns was a throwback to '60's sitcom television---a two-dimensional stereotype.  I was always surprised that the writers never gave Burns any depth, any pathos, any redeeming moments---something to lighten up the intense pall his character brought to the show.  The show came close to doing so a couple of times, particularly when Major Houlihan threw him over in favour of becoming engaged to Lieutenant Colonel Penob-Scott.  But it was never more than a tease.

 

As I recall, Larry Linville left the show because he believed he had taken the character of MAJ Burns as far as it would be.  And frankly, I was glad to see him (the character, not Linville) go.  If the writers had layered his character a bit more, Linville might have stayed around longer and I might have enjoyed that.

 

The manner of Burns's departure, though, perfectly illustrates the ascention of Saint Hawkeye and its concordant refrain of "the Army is screwed up."  I will never claim the military is perfect.  It's a bureaucracy, and like any bureaucracy, things sometimes get through that shouldn't.   But there is no way---in twenty-seven years, I never saw anything even come close to it---that Burns would go bonkers, running amok through Tokyo, as the episode writing his character out of the show had it, and have that result in him being transferred to a cushy stateside job and promoted to lieutenant colonel.  The Army would have court-martialed him at worst, administratively discharged him at best.  But the show had to get in one more kick on how blind and lacking in common sense the Army is.

 

You make a good point about Colonel Potter and Major Houlihan being the only career Army officers assigned to the 4077.  The rest of the officers were draftees and essentially civilians.  If the show had taken the tack that Hawkeye and B.J and the others could just not adapt to military life and its way of doing things, that would have been a legitimate angle.  But the show, in the later years, didn't leave it at that.  Instead, Saint Hawkeye and his fellow civilians in khaki not only wanted to cling to their civilian perspectives, but the show was written so that the civilian perspective was always superior to how the Army did things.

 

Incidentally, MAJ Houlihan may have been a top-drawer head nurse, but she was a poor officer otherwise, and had I been the commanding officer, I would have called her on the carpet many times.  For her treatment of enlisted.  Now, let me get make this clear---the Good Mrs. Benson, who should know better, misunderstood the first time I brought this up to her---I am not talking about the episode where at the end, she berates her nurses for ostracising her for doing her job ("You never even invited me in for a lousy cup of coffee!").  Nurses are also commissioned officers and her leadership of them was demanding but not out of bounds.

 

I'm talking about the way she would harangue, verbally abuse, and physically assault the enlisted personnel---especially Radar---if they didn't cater fast enough to her whim of the moment---getting a call through to LCOL Penob-Scott or whatever.  These situations were almost always personal and not in the line of duty, and in any event, striking a subordinate is  a violation of  regulations.  She was a shrieking harridan and it was a failing of COL Potter's that he never reamed her a new one for it.

For what it's worth, Frank Burns was a captain in the original novel. I suspect that Robert Altman (the man behind the movie) and the TV producers thought it was a better conflict to have Burns outrank Hawkeye, Duke, Trapper, and Spearchucker.

There was a little bit more to Frank Burns, not much but a little. He obviously was looking for the respect that he did not get at home. He both loved and hated dominant women. He was jealous at how liked Hawkeye was, not to mention being a better doctor. In the first black & white interview episode, it was painfully apparent that the others had evolved from their sitcom origins and became dramedy characters while he stayed stagnant. That's the main reason for his replacement by a worthier opponent, Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, who while pompous, egotistical and greedy, was an actual character who loved, grew and cared. We didn't hate him as much as tolerated him but we did respect him and his quest to maintain his dignity.

I grew up watching M*A*S*H* and believe, as many do, that it was one of the best shows ever but I do concur that Hawkeye was too preachy at times, given the fact that he was an egotistical, childish and condescending womanizer/drunkard (in the good sense of the word, of course). Alan Alda found his soapbox and seldom missed a chance to pontificate from it, sometimes effectively and sometimes using a sledge hammer! He could be charming, scathing, caring and bitter all at the same time.

BJ Hunnicutt was in some ways more of the moral center of the show. Would the Army send a married doctor with a child overseas? His evolution from the Rookie to the Mustached Veteran was interesting to observe as was Hotlips becoming Margeret with all her hopes, passions and fears revealed.

Radar was probably the truest character there. An Iowan farmboy who sleeps with a teddy bear becomes an indispensable part of the camp. He found his niche! 

That (nearly) says it all about M*A*S*H, but I'll find something to comment on, anyway ... 

 

I don't recall when I started watching M*A*S*H; I know I've seen the early seasons only in rerun, but I did become a regular viewer somewhere along the way, right up to the series finale. And, yeah, it is two different shows, beginning as an anti-Vietnam War show in Korea drag and shifting, bit by bit, into "The Alan Alda Show." Wayne Rogers quit because his contract called for him to be the star, and he got fed up with Alda's scene-stealing. By the end, Alda was an executive producer, "creative consultant," story editor and was writing and directing several episodes. (Producer Dick Wolf of Law & Order fame would never have let that happen.)

 

I found it entertaining enough although the preachiness got tiresome the longer it went on. I recall a scene in a MAD magazine parody of the show in which Hawkeye prepares to operate on a patient and announces, "You're going to pull through this ... but I'm damn mad! Why don't they stop this war?! I'm tired of death and loneliness and despair! Whatever happened to decency and compassion and feelings? Whatever happened to encouragement and caring and warmth? Whatever happened -- "

 

"Quick! Somebody STOP him before they start flashing TELETHON NUMBERS across the screen!" (MAD #234, October 1982).

 

To keep it interesting, they did a few gimmick episodes, like the one in which several characters had vivid dreams; and the one in which a reporter interviews the #4077 staff and the actors ad lib their answers in character; the one done as a race against time, with a little countdown clock in the corner of the screen, and one told from the point of view of a wounded soldier -- that is, all the viewer sees is what the soldier sees, through his eyes.

 

The biggest gimmick, of course, was "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," the series finale, which still ranks as the highest-rated program of all time. I think it's because these characters got the homegoing that the folks on Gilligan's Island were denied.

 

 

The Baron said:

As I recall, there were two sequels to M*A*S*H. The first was Trapper John, M.D., which ran from 1979 - 1986 (Much longer than I remembered it running!), which was set in the (then) present day, and involved Trapper working at a hospital where one of his subordinates was a younger surgeon who'd served in Vietnam.   I never got into that show - I never was big on medical dramas to begin with, and I never could quite make the imaginative leap that Wayne Rogers had grown up to be Pernell Roberts.

 


The notion with Trapper John, M.D. was not just that he had grown up to be Pernell Roberts, but also that Gregory Harrison's Gonzo Gates was a reminder of his younger self, the kind of wisecracking hotshot he used to be. But the M*A*S*H connection was thin. I think it was just a fig leaf to allow the network to greenlight the show, because it was a thoroughly generic medical drama in every respect. I watched the pilot, but I don't think I ever watched it more than a half-dozen times after that, and never any in their entirety.

 

The Baron said:

The second sequel was AfterM*A*S*H, which ran from 1983-1984, and featured Colonel Potter, Father Mulcahy and Corporal Klinger all working at a VA hospital after the war - I watched a few episodes of it, but didn't hold my interest - it was just too much, "Let's see if we can feed off the success of the show by doing something with some of the mid-card characters", and it just didn't work.  I remember years later they did a callback to this show on an episode of The Simpsons when the character of Troy McClure mentioned a fictional TV program called AfterMannix.


I don't think it's fair to say AfterM*A*S*H was an effort to cash in on the parent show's success. It was more like the bigger stars were ready to move on, and the others -- William Christopher, Henry Morgan and Jamie Farr -- weren't. After all, without M*A*S*H, what were they going to do? Cat food commercials? Match Game? Sitting on the couch on The Mike Douglas Show? I'm not sure I even made it all the way through the pilot for that one.

"The biggest gimmick, of course, was "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," the series finale, which still ranks as the highest-rated program of all time."

 

I do know that the last two Super Bowl games have finally beaten "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" in total viewers but I think the M*A*S*H finale still holds the record for audience share.

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