Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of the final episode of
"M*A*S*H" - a legendary moment in TV history that will probably
continue for decades to come to be cited as the most watched
American television program ever, even though it was actually
surpassed in total viewership, finally, by Super Bowl XLIV in 2010
(which, however, commanded a smaller percentage of the American TV
"M*A*S*H," if you've never seen it, was a sitcom that people who
were alive in the 1970s liked. It concerned the high jinks (and -
in its later, more serious seasons - low jinks) that took place in
and around a U.S. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean
War. Yet, for all its slapstick antics, it was by all accounts a
self-consciously "high-quality" program: not lowbrow but proudly
middlebrow, with an emphasis on realism - or what passed for it on
1970s TV - and politics.
Until a few hours ago, I had never watched an episode of
"M*A*S*H." I'd seen the Robert Altman movie upon which it was based
years earlier, but the show, despite its iconic status, seemed
skippable. In fact, I'd guess that most Americans born after 1985
have never watched it.
TV tends to be generationally specific that way: there are
probably 10 films from the 1970s ("The Godfather," "Jaws," "Rocky,"
"Star Wars," etc.) that virtually every American, no matter his
age, has seen, but no young person I know watches reruns of "All in
the Family" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" - even though, to those
who were alive during their original runs, these probably seemed as
culturally essential as any big-screen blockbuster.
I happened to get my hands on a copy of the "M*A*S*H" finale
this evening, however, and gave it a look in an attempt to figure
out why, on Feb. 28, 1983, so many people - more than "Seinfeld"
ever got - tuned in for this particular program.
Almost needless to say, the episode - titled "Goodbye, Farewell
and Amen" - isn't very good. Series finales pretty much never are
(maybe it's better for shows to get cancelled unexpectedly,
mid-season), and therefore it's probably unfair to judge a series
by its ending (and maybe just downright stupid to view that ending
without first attaining some familiarity with the beginning and
middle), but this one seems particularly rambling and
It is, for one thing, two and a half hours long (two hours
without commercials) - a reflection of the producers' consciousness
of the show's import, and not a storytelling necessity - and is
comprised of several go-nowhere subplots that exist not to be funny
(presumably because a series finale is serious business) or even to
further character development (presumably because, after 11 years,
these characters are either fully developed already or never will
be); they're like last-day-of-school busy-work. Each storyline is
sufficiently heartrending to qualify as series-finale material but
not so complicated or important that it can't either be solved or
quietly dissipate by the conclusion.
In brief: Alan Alda is locked up in a mental hospital after
experiencing a traumatic episode among South Korean refugees, the
memory of which he has repressed. Back at the camp, as the war
winds down, some pompous surgeon is teaching a group of POWs to
play Mozart while artificial-looking bombs drop nearby - one of
which causes the hospital's chaplain to go deaf. Some other surgeon
is hoping to leave Korea early, in time for his daughter's second
birthday, and another guy is in love with an Asian-American actress
with a blatantly fake Korean accent whose family has gone missing
amid all the fighting. In the end, Alda is rather abruptly cured of
his mental distress, although the chaplain is still deaf, and the
one guy misses his daughter's birthday, but whatever: the war ends,
and there's a wedding (as there must be in every cheesy series
finale), and the various characters tearfully get to wish each
other farewell, which is probably what all the fans wanted to see
Two observations: 1) Alan Alda's character, Hawkeye, is really
annoying - smugly sarcastic, relentlessly smart-alecky and verbose,
incapable of giving an honest answer to an honest question,
possessed of a censor-approved "rebellious streak" that I guess is
just some corny, watered-down, post-counterculture articulation of
"Catch-22" wartime absurdism. 2) The color palette of "M*A*S*H" is
unbearable and likely the reason why, flipping past the reruns all
these years, I never stopped for more than a moment. Filmed, quite
obviously, in the Santa Monica Mountains just north of Los Angeles
(standing in for Korea), the show exists in a world composed solely
of muted greens and dusty browns. In short, "M*A*S*H" looks like
dirt. Its ugliness is less sophisticated than Robert Altman's
film's was, though the director of "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" did
apparently borrow Altman's outmoded zoom lens.
TV is probably better now than it was then, but it's hard to
imagine a television show today occupying such a large space within
the culture as to demand that, upon its conclusion, "everybody"
must watch. I think the most popular shows these days are programs
like "The Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS," and I've never even heard
anyone talk about watching those. The "M*A*S*H" numbers are
probably a relic from a time when mainstream culture was relatively
monolithic: they had fewer television channels and no internet, so
- rather than selecting from a limitless range of entertainment
choices, with options tailored to every subculture - everybody just
watched the same stuff.
I think this is why everyone over 40 seems to share the same
cultural memories, and the reason that bland mainstream
entertainments of the pre-Web era, like the Beatles and "Star
Wars," have achieved a stature that today's popular junk probably
will never match.
What is "M*A*S*H"? Probably just a boring sitcom with a
nonsensically rendered acronym (four letters and three asterisks?),
containing just enough literacy and liberalism to allow people who
remember the '70s fondly to believe that it was more "important"
than "Two and a Half Men." Of course, they're right: it was.