When you think about the “classic” TV shows, it’s puzzling how many of them didn’t air too long. The original Battlestar Galactica only ran for one season. So did The Honeymooners, even though it broadcast 39 episodes. The original Star Trek ran for just three seasons. According to Jim ran for eight seasons. Think about that. You can squeeze all three seasons into a bland family sitcom from the 2000s.
When M*A*S*H ended on this date, Feb. 28, 1983, some people thought it was about time. The show which would be considered a dramedy nowadays had ran for 11 seaons and 256 episodes. It was about doctors and healthcare workers during the Korean War, which only lasted for three years. So, even if you divide the episodes by the number of weeks in a year, it’s still longer. Many people have argued the show should’ve ended when MacLean Stevenson, Wayne Rogers and Larry Linville all left. Their characters of Lt. Col. Henry Blake, Capt. Trapper John McIntyre and Maj. Frank Burns, respectively had been in both the novel as well as the 1970 movie directed by Robert Altman.
Stevenson left after a fight with the CBS network and they ordered his character to be killed off-screen. Then, Rogers said he was getting upset with how the writers weren’t giving him good material. He didn’t think Trapper John should be a lackey sidekick to Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda). And I don’t blame him. The character from the movie was a very three-dimensional person but it seem Trapper John soon became mostly a background character.
Both Stevenson and Rogers left after season three and were replaced by Harry Morgan as Col. Sherman T. Potter and Mike Farrell as Capt. B.J. Hunnicut. Potter was a different character than Blake, but it was obvious Hunnicut was just a Trapper John replacement. Linville left after season five and was replaced by Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Odgen Stiers). Even though he was there just to be the butt of jokes by Hawkeye and B.J., Winchester was a more rounded character with his love for classical music as well as his refined nature. It seemed out of place in a war zone or at least a MASH camp where miles away people are being killed.
Some people have pointed the finger at Alda, who is well known for his liberal/leftist views and his desire to add more drama to the show. The original movie was supposed to be a metaphor for the Vietnam War. And Altman, writer Ring Lardner Jr., and the cast, who were allowed to widly improvise (must to Lardner’s chagrin), were showing that during a war zone sometimes you have to laugh and do crazy stuff to get through the madness. They weren’t fighting in the war, but their actions in the surgery rooms were literal “life and death.” For any doctor or nurse, that has to weigh on them. Imagine how worst it was for those in the military.
The final episode of M*A*S*H was aired as a two and a half hour TV movie, directed by Alda who co-wrote it with Burt Metcalfe, John Rappaport, Dan Wilcox, Thad Mumford, Elias Davis, David Pollock and Karen Hall. It begins with Hawkeye at a psychiatric hospital being treated by Dr. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) who had been a recurring character on the show. Hawkeye suffered a nervous breakdown recently but he’s not willing to tell anyone exactly what happened.
Back at the 4077 camp, they have received a large numer of refugees and prisoners of war. Winchester becomes friendly with five Chinese soldier prisoners who have musical talents and he bonds with them as they play music, such as Mozart. But an abandoned tank is nearby and bombarded with mortar artillery. B.J. learns he’s been ordered to return back home and prepares to leave. Sgt. Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) has fallen in love with one of the refugees and plans to marry her and help her search for her family as there’s talk of the end of the war.
Eventually, Hawkeye breaks through as Dr. Freedman keeps talking to him about what really happened. Hawkeye says he and MASH staff were enjoying a day at the beach when they were returning back to the camp, they picked up some wounded people and refugees. They had to to pull the bus they were in off the road to avoid an enemy patrol reported in the area. A young woman had a chicken that was clucking wildly and crowing that was making everyone nervous.
In a fit of rage and aggravation, Hawkeye walked back and bluntly told the woman to keep the chicken quiet. By the time he got back to his seat, it had eeriely stopped making any noise. So, he went back to check on the nervous woman only to find out why. It wasn’t a chicken the woman had, but a young baby that was crying loudly. In desperation, she smothered her child to quiet him. This caused Hawkeye to lose it knowing he forced a woman to kill her own child rather than trying something else.
It’s a bold statement on how the young and innocent are the unfortunate victims of war. And it delivers a punch, something the millions of voters tuning in probably weren’t intending. At the time, it was reported that nearly 106 million viewers tuned in. The show titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” had been heavily promoted and a 30-second commerical cost $450,000 (or $1.35 million in today’s dollar). An unanticipated wintry weather storm hit California and the San Francisco Bay area knocking out power leaving many people in that area unable to tune in.
But it’s also to remember there weren’t many network shows at the time, except ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. Fox hadn’t started yet. Most homes didn’t have access to cable TV and those that did were very limited in the channels. And VCRs were just coming on the main market so a lot of people didn’t have them. So, many, many probably tuned in just to see what was going to happen.
For what it’s worth, it’s a mediocre show. It’s too bloated at two and a half hours. The bond Winchester forms with the Chinese soldiers is touching especially when it’s later revealed they had all been killed when being transferred as part of a exchange. And seeing Klinger finally calm down and knowing he’s going to have a wife is a nice, ironic end to his arc considering he had tried so hard to leave Korea. But the movie is centered too much around Hawkeye. I don’t even think Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) does much except react.
Hawkeye comes back to the 4077 but discovers that B.J. has left to begin processing back to return home. He’s upset because this is the same thing that happened when Trapper John left earlier. It turns out that B.J. returns as he was sent to Guam but there was a clerical error and he was incorrectly sent notice he was supposed to return earlier than expected. There’s a subplot about a wildfire that destroys the camp that seems extraneous. It was added after a real life wildfire ravaged the set.
There’s a haunting moment when the doctors in the operating room stop briefly to hear the ceasefire as the guns stop firing and then silence as they return to their work. It’s an indication their jobs were far from over. And Hawkeye’s breakdown was meant to stand in for the Vietnam vets who didn’t receive the help they receive. But it just takes too long ending. It’s like being on a phone call with a older relative who just won’t get off and they keep bringing up stuff that they already told you.
There’s too many goodbyes spoken that it kinda feels like The Return of the King with its many different endings. Even though the iconic scene of rocks spelled out “Goodbye” is touching between Hawkeye and B.J., it would’ve been more effective if it hadn’t been dragged out. I think that’s why some other shows like Everybody Loves Raymond did with simpler series’ finales. And then, you have the infamously bad Seinfeld episode in which Larry David told everyone to go fuck themselves by having Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer thrown in prison in what is nothing more than a pseudo-clip show. Seinfeld‘s finale still drew in over 76 million viewers and reportedly people watched it in Times Square that they blocked traffic to an ambulance that had to take a different route.
Cheers which had about 90 million viewers watch its finale had a more easier and shorter way of saying goodbye, even though it received mixed reviews. Incidentally, both Cheers and M*A*S*H still filmed another show after filming their respective finales. It’s common in TV shows to broadcast shows out of order from how they’re filmed. Still, I don’t think any TV show will ever top what M*A*S*H did mainly because it’s a brave new world in TV.
The Big Networks are still struggling to find shows other than the formulaic shows of the past. Audiences are watching more shows on streaming services and cable/pay premium which are pulling in bigger names to their casts. Most award shows are looking at the bolder shows as they don’t have to adhere as much to FCC regulations. And people aren’t gathering around the boob tube at a certain hour to watch a show. They can record them on their DVRs or stream them anytime. This led to some outdated recording of ratings that TV producer/writer Dan Harmon noted in the cancellation of Community.
Also, we were seeing through Hawkeye’s point-of-view, the show’s cast and crew was telling us “Goodbye.” This clever note has been parodied ever since. In some ways, it was also telling us the way of doing TV in the 1980s was changing. Shows got grittier and changed their tone as their audiences changed. It was goodbye to an era that like the show had gone on longer than anticipated.
What do you think? Please comment.