After The Mrs. and I got our first VCR, in 1984, we started building a library of M*A*S*H episodes, taped off the air. So we’re fans from way back. In recent months, we have been watching the last few seasons of the show on MeTV. Not long ago, we reached the end, and I have thoughts.
—One of my main complaints with later seasons of M*A*S*H is that its characters speak in a hyper-jokey, pun-laced patois that makes me want to throw heavy objects at the TV. This phenomenon only lasts a couple of seasons, thank the gods—although it makes me sad to note that they are the seasons in which the esteemed Ken Levine and David Isaacs were running the show.
—I have never been fond of the Winchester character, but it occurs to me that my wisecrack in a post about the show last fall, referring to David Ogden Stiers as Yoko Ono, is unfair to him. The problem with the character is not the actor, but the writers. It takes them more than two seasons before they even attempt to humanize Winchester—but they never allow him to be consistently human. For every episode in which he displays a depth of character, there’s another one in which he’s the pompous cartoon he was at the very beginning. He grows less than any other character on the show apart from Frank Burns—the one-dimensional character he was intended to improve upon.
—Winchester is not the only character who’s written inconsistently; the show frequently loses its grip on other major characters, too. Hawkeye goes from sophisticate to sophomore and back episode by episode; Margaret is alternately a wise counselor and a shrewish prude. By the end of the series, B. J. is essentially a cipher; he’s supposed to be Hawkeye’s best friend, but by the end of the show, they occupy the same space without ever seeming to connect. Klinger and Potter have much better chemistry.
—The first three seasons of M*A*S*H remain laugh-out-loud funny to me, even after having watched some episodes literally dozens of times. As comedy, the later seasons suffer dreadfully in comparison. The jokes are mostly either tired or toothless, and in that context, wacky hijinx seem forced. But as drama, the late seasons far outclass the early ones. The show’s ongoing commentary on the insanity of war works better at the end than at the beginning. Late in its run, M*A*S*H was a dramedy before the word had been coined; the laugh track, which is remarkably obtrusive during the first half-dozen seasons, is entirely gone by the end.
—MeTV did not include the final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” in its repeat cycle, so the series ended with “As Time Goes By,” an episode in which Margaret and Hawkeye clash over what should be in a 4077th time capsule. Although the episode contains a couple of satisfying fan-service callbacks to Radar and Henry Blake, it sputters to a close on a weak joke from the B-plot, which is a fine metaphor for the last couple of seasons.
—Today is the 34th anniversary of the original broadcast of “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”: a grave disappointment, with all of the show’s late-season faults blown up to quintuple length. The plotline involving Hawkeye’s nervous breakdown had me fulminating at the TV that night in 1983, and I still hate it passionately, as a betrayal of the character we spent 11 years getting to know. Much of the episode is spent on dead ends (Winchester and his Korean musicians, Klinger and his Korean wife) before we finally get to what everyone wants to see—these people saying goodbye to one another. There’s a brilliant 60-minute episode in there somewhere, but it was buried by a creative team that worked too hard to blow people’s minds and not hard enough on making an entertaining episode. I haven’t seen “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” since the night it was broadcast, and I can’t imagine sitting through it again.
Despite all I’ve said here, the last half of M*A*S*H is generally better than I remembered. Although I’ll never love it as much as I do the first half, most episodes are worth watching; only a few are complete failures. The final verdict is that whenever you happen to happen upon it, any random episode of M*A*S*H is likely better than most ways you could spend a half-hour watching TV.