About a month ago, I watched the final episode of M*A*S*H – aka the most emotional television show to ever air. Everyone that’s a generation ahead of me is saying right now: “You think that’s bad? Imagine watching it every week when it was actually on.” Believe me, I’d rather not.
A brief background: For those of you saying “Oh, is that the one show…?”, here’s a quick fact check. M*A*S*H follows the lives of [centrally] the surgeons at a mobile army surgical hospital (or, a MASH unit) in the Korean War. The main, main character through the entirety of the show is Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce – his dad gave him the nickname because Last of the Mohicans was his favorite book – who is portrayed by Alan Alda. It ran for eleven seasons, from 1972-1983.
Watching M*A*S*H from beginning to end was a four month endeavor for me. I started it on Netflix while I was home for Christmas break and wanted something to watch at my own pace (the rest of my family has a habit of flying through shows, and I was only catching bits and pieces). I’d seen some episodes here and there, when the reruns were on TVLand and my grandparents were watching them, but I had no real concept of the show’s weight. The only specific episode I could really recall at the time was the one where Hawkeye and Trapper are playing cards in gorilla suits.
The first three seasons were easy, with some more sobering episodes every once in a while, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I lived through watching the last two seasons of House on live TV, after all. Then the show takes a severe turn for “I’m an emotional wreck”. I actually had to take a few weeks off and regain my stability before I could continue.
From that point on, I expected (and received) the worst. But what else can you ask from a show about army doctors in Korea? And yet, I kept watching.
It’s not just me: the finale of M*A*S*H, called “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”, was the most watched television broadcast of all time until 2010. It still remains the highest rated. I will say nothing of the final episode, as this is a spoiler-free post, except that I started crying before the opening credits were over and I didn’t really stop at any point during the two hour feature.
So, I’m writing this post to address the question: why was such a tragic show so endearing? Here’s what I came up with.
[insert two days of contemplation here]
Alright, well, I’ve been thinking about it, trying to sort out my thoughts, and I’ve come to a conclusion.
This show has many good qualities (I feel like I’m starting an ACT essay…). The humor is enjoyable, the setting and situation are unique, some episodes make very relevant and thought-provoking (or heartwrenching) statements.
The thing that makes M*A*S*H endearing, though, and the reason that so many millions of people watched it every week, is the characters.
By the end of the show, there are two themes that have been pounded into your forehead: war is hell; and people come together in the midst of hell. The dynamic that exists between the men and women of the MASH 4077 is irreplaceable. You almost wish by the end that they were real people, just so you know that they’d all get to see each other again.
I wish I could insert an audio clip here of the PA voice saying “The following personnel are assigned to the MASH 4077”. I’d like to introduce a few of the more notable characters to you now.
Colonel Sherman Potter
Though he’s not the unit’s first Commanding Officer, his stint on the show lasted almost three times what Colonel Henry Blake’s did. And while I did love Henry, Colonel Potter gives the 4077 the father figure that they so desperately need. Even the mischievous Hawkeye and BJ respect and oblige Colonel Potter.
Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan
I didn’t like Margaret at first. She’s the head nurse at the 4077, and one of three characters (but only two actors – stay tuned) that appears in both the pilot and the finale. She didn’t become an appealing character for quite a few seasons. As the show progresses though, especially toward the very end, she evolves – I think more than any other character. She develops friendships with both Major Winchester (Charles Emerson Winchester, III, to be exact) and Captain BJ Hunnycut that make you smile inside. As for Hawkeye and Hot Lips, I always wanted them to end up together in the end, but their strange yet irreplaceable friendship is enough for me.
Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy
First of all, I apologize for including his entire name, but I do so because he makes a point of telling Klinger: “Remember [all of my names] when you’re naming a kid after me.” He was also one of the three characters that was in the pilot and finale, but William Christopher did not appear in the role until the second episode. He was played by someone else in the pilot.
It’s hard to put a single word on what Father Mulcahy is to the unit. He’s there as the chaplain, and his primary purposes are holding religious services, giving last rites, and hearing confessions. However, the purpose that he serves most is more like everyone’s protective older brother. I adore him and I do believe that the sanity of everyone would have not persisted throughout the war if he had not been there.
Sergeant Maxwell Klinger
Alright, we’re into the big three now – my absolute favorites. Klinger is the first.
Klinger’s character comes about in the third or fourth episode, and was only supposed to appear once or twice. However, he worked so well that he became an instant regular. What worked was the fact that he wore dresses constantly, in an attempt to be sent home on a Section 8 (a psychotic leave). He threw other ploys in here and there to spice things up – my favorite was when he decided he was a gypsy and tried to put spells on everyone – but primarily just wore extravagant women’s attire and acted as though it was the most normal thing in the world.
In the ninth season though, he gets a promotion and, although he still makes references to the dresses and desperately wanting to go home, begins to take his position seriously and becomes the most lovable character on the show. In my opinion, Klinger gets the happiest ending out of everyone, and it makes me unbelievably happy. It’s also fantastic irony that makes the writer in me giggle with joy.
Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly
If I had to name the character that creates the most emotional turmoil and heartache in the show, it’s Radar O’Reilly. They call him Radar because he has “a habit of knowing things are gonna happen before they happen,” to put it in his words. That means that he always hears the choppers full of wounded about ten seconds before everyone else does, and he hands Colonel Potter the papers he needs to sign before he asks for the papers that he needs to sign.
The reason that Radar causes so much pain [don’t worry, no spoilers, I promise] is because he’s just a kid. Hawkeye and Trapper (the original other half to Hawkeye’s surgical brilliance and conniving ways – he left after the first three seasons and was replaced by BJ) make countless jokes about him being their son.
The biggest reality check in this show, as far as making a statement about war, is that so many of the men that get [got?] drafted are really just kids. Radar drinks grape Nehis, blushes when girls talk to him, and sleeps with a teddy bear. His place in the unit is to know what’s going on at every second of every day, do all of the paperwork, and to give everyone an innocent little brother to keep them thinking of home.
His teddy bear’s place on the show is to make the whole world cry. Twice it does.
Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce
Oh boy. Here we go.
The only character that appears in every single episode of all eleven seasons is Hawkeye Pierce. There’s one episode called “Hawkeye”, where he crashes a Jeep and has to treat his own concussion while trying to communicate with a Korean family whose dinner he ends up interrupting – it’s a 23 minute monologue for Alan Alda, really – and he’s the only regular character in it.
You know how they say that you don’t realize how much you love someone or something until they’re gone? That’s how I feel about Hawkeye. It wasn’t until I had finished the show completely that I felt a gigantic, Chief Surgeon-shaped hole in my heart.
I asked almost 1400 words ago, why was M*A*S*H so endearing? The real answer, I’ve decided, is that it wasn’t; Hawkeye Pierce was.
At first he’s the guy that you love to hate. He pulls pranks, he jokes around constantly, he womanizes, and he’s never serious – even when performing surgery. However, you know immediately that he’s brilliant, and that he’s the best damn surgeon in Korea, and that’s why he gets away with it all.
Then every few episodes, something happens that gives him some depth. One of the more well-known is one called “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (okay, some spoilers here, but oh well). A childhood friend of Hawkeye’s shows up at the 4077, to say that he’s writing a book about war. Long story short, he comes back to the MASH 4077 a second time on a stretcher, and he doesn’t make it back out again. It’s the first time (one of I think three) you see Hawkeye cry.
As the show continues, he gets deeper and wider and more complex, and then when it’s over, you’re left with the realization that no one would have survived the war without him.
A war is like when it rains in New York and everybody crowds into doorways, ya know? And they all get chummy together. Perfect strangers. The only difference, of course, is in a war it’s also raining on the other side of the street and the people who are chummy over there are trying to kill the people who are over here who are chums.
-Capt. B.F. Pierce
I’ll be honest, I’m writing this blog post to try and quell the urge to buy the entire series on DVD on Amazon right now. It destroyed me from the inside out, as it did to so many, because that’s what we get for falling in love with a show about war, and with an army surgeon. And yet, I want to watch it again. Every single episode.
I’ve never been to war, I’ve never performed surgery on anyone, and I’ve never been to war-torn Korea. But I’ve experienced death, and heartbreak, and happiness, and love. When Hawkeye loses a patient, or watches the love of his life get onto a chopper and knows she’s not coming back, I can feel those things. That’s what made M*A*S*H endearing, and that’s why it’s one of the most highly regarded television shows to date.
War is hell, but we all have our own hell, and we all have the people in our lives that allow us to get through it. If there’s one thing to take away from this show, it’s that out of the bleakest of days can come the most wonderful people.