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mash_title-card_cropped(Pictured: the rarely seen title card that opens the first episode of M*A*S*H.)

We own the first six seasons of M*A*S*H on DVD, but that hasn’t stopped us from developing a new dinner-hour habit these last few weeks: watching M*A*S*H repeats on MeTV. They’re edited (MeTV’s own edits, it looks like, and not the familiar syndication versions) and the commercial breaks are interminable, but as something you can turn on and pay attention to with half an ear while eating dinner and discussing the day with your spouse, you can’t beat ’em.

M*A*S*H was so omnipresent on TV for so long, 11 seasons on the air and an eternal life in syndication, that it takes some effort to imagine it as a new show, back there in the fall of 1972. That fall, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Mission Impossible were still on the air, and Dean Martin and Julie Andrews starred in variety shows. Most of the new fall premieres that year quickly vanished from history. Who remembers Anna and the King or The Sandy Duncan Show—which 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.

M*A*S*H is based on the 1970 Robert Altman film, and when the series begins, its Altmanesque roots are perceptible. 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 on Sunday night to boot), as if the new frankness of the movies at the dawn of the 70s was finally making inroads into TV. M*A*S*H would never again be so gleefully transgressive, however, and whatever Altman influence the show had at first quickly faded.

At the beginning of Season 3, a new group of writers came aboard, and while they continued to sand off the show’s rougher edges, they also added a character that felt like a retroactive nod to Altman: Captain Calvin Spalding, played by Loudon Wainwright III.

The Spalding character, seen in three episodes, was another surgeon at the 4077th, but his main dramatic function was to sing songs that commented on the action of the episodes in which he appeared. “North Korean Blues” is seen and heard in 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 is framed by “Unrequited to the Nth Degree,” which would appear on a Wainwright album in 1975. “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse” ends with Spalding, Hawkeye, Trapper, and other members of the cast singing the song while dancing across the compound. For his last appearance, in the episode “Big Mac,” Wainwright wrote “Five Gold Stars” on demand, in two hours. (In 2008, he told an interviewer that the experience taught him he could be “a songslinger for hire.”)

Wainwright has told various interviewers over the years that he doesn’t know why he was never called back for further appearances (but he appreciates the royalty checks that continue to come his way). It strikes me that the Spalding character wouldn’t have been a good fit with the less jaded tone of the series after Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell replaced McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers for Season 4—and maybe that’s what executive producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart thought, too.

The end of Season 3 marks the point after which M*A*S*H is never the same. The first two Morgan/Farrell seasons, with Larry Linville still in the cast as Frank Burns, are fine. But in Season 6, with David Ogden Stiers joining the cast as Yoko Ono, I start losing interest, and in the final seasons, when the show is frequently drowning in sanctimony, I can’t watch at all.

MeTV is somewhere in the fourth season now, so we’ll be watching at dinnertime for a while yet.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post at Popdose, but largely new.)

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