Joy of Sets: M*A*S*H

M*A*S*HThere have been many medical shows in my past. I have hazy memories of Angels, was an avid viewer of Casualty for years until being lured away by ER, but my first love was M*A*S*H.

It’s a good job I’m not seeing any other medical shows at the moment, because I went from “Meeting my first crush is bound to be disappointing” reticence to “oh-my-god, why did we ever split up?” obsession in under a week, and there would, by now, be hurt recriminations coming in from Holby City and Facebook status updates that end in tears.

Apparently there have been people labouring under the misapprehension that M*A*S*H is a sitcom. I can only assume they never watched more than a couple of early episodes.  M*A*S*H is all ‘sit’ (all 250-plus episodes are about the highs and lows of the members of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean war ) and has plenty of moments of glorious comedy, but it will break your heart more than once and can be bleaker than a convention of fictional Scandinavian detectives.

What kept M*A*S*H going nearly four times longer than the actual war in Korea? It was blessed with great writers and actors who created characters you could believe in. If you wanted to, you could draw up a list of Hawkeye’s flaws that would be almost as long as his attractive qualities, and Charles Winchester – for all his pomposity – got his fair share of chances to show us (if not always the rest of his unit) his kindness. Even Frank Burns, for all his lack of spine, whining, hypocrisy, pedantry, etc, could occasionally move you to feel some sympathy for him (even if he would inevitably blow it five seconds later).

Alan Alda has described the show as a series of 30-minute plays, and that’s true too. Even when the writers were in the main business of tickling funny bones (as opposed to dissecting the human heart and analysing the mind), M*A*S*H was never a collection of stand-up pieces. Crucially, M*A*S*H was also in the business of punching up, not down. And while the show stayed true to that, it allowed its characters to stray – but always with a kick in the ass as a reward. It’s heartening to watch a show made in the 70s (and set in the 50s) that is human, humane and humanist.

I’ve read a review that found the show preachy – perhaps if I didn’t agree with its liberal, anti-war, anti-bigotry tone, I’d find it preachy too. But I will never tire of watching Hawkeye put racists and homophobes in their place or raging against the insanity of war. Equally, watching him grow up in his attitudes to women is a pleasure too (though, for all his faults, I love that he is all about consent, and may be the only person in the camp who makes sure his dates don’t wear a wedding ring). There’s a tension that comes from having a feminist play (and increasingly shape) a non-feminist character which is fascinating. And talking of feminism, seeing Major Houlihan grow from being Hot Lips into Margaret is a beautiful thing…

What stands out most when you watch 11 seasons in six weeks is the way the writers stretched the show in as many different directions as they could. They did a real-time episode at a time when Jack Bauer would still have been playing in a sandpit; they gave us a concussed Hawkeye talking to himself (and a Korean family who didn’t speak English) for an entire episode; they combined refined and spontaneous improv in The Interview; they shot a whole episode from the patient’s point of view; and they showed us the 4077 from the perspective of the dead.

Trapper and HawkeyeDon’t make me choose between the early Piercintyre years where Hawkeye spends much of his non-OR time laughing so hard he falls off his cot (someone once said that if Alan Alda had a bigger laugh, he’d break his neck – I couldn’t agree more) and the later Hawkeye-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown years. It’s all good.

So make yourself a dry martini (“…a very dry martini. A very dry, arid, barren, desiccated, veritable dustbowel of a martini. I want a martini that could be declared a disaster area. Mix me just such a martini.”) and reacquaint yourself with the family of the 4077. You won’t regret it*.

*Neither Pauseliveaction or this blogger take responsibility for any hangover that results from following these instructions.

Jo the Hat

1 Comment

Filed under Joy of Sets

One response to “Joy of Sets: M*A*S*H

  1. I grew up in the seventies and MASH was favourite viewing in our household. From the iconic theme tune to the fantastic ensemble cast, classic comedy that will never date.