Friday, August 7, 2009

Eras of M*A*S*H

If you were to take a random poll of M*A*S*H fans and ask them how they would divide the different seasons (as 'eras' of the show), you would get some different answers, but a lot of them would fall into one of the following:

1) By commanders and sidekicks - Seasons 1-3 (Blake/McIntyre), Seasons 4-11 (Potter/BJ).

2) With/Without Radar - Seasons 1-7 (With), Seasons 8-11 (Without)

3) Frank/Charles - Seasons 1-5 (Frank), Seasons 6-11 (Charles)

4) Common Casts - Seasons 1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-11.

There are merits to all of these, but there are problems with them as well. Scenarios 1-3 are all way too simplistic and are on the basis of one/two character changes. Obviously, M*A*S*H as a show did not go down the toilet with any kind of cast changes (despite what the acolytes of the Blake/McIntyre years would say).

Scenario 4 is getting warmer, in my view, but still the problem with the 'common cast' is that it doesn't necessarily take into account the style and movement of the plot within the seasons and even within the cast. For example, if we were to go by style, one could theoretically go with the following:

Seasons 1-2, 3-5, 6-7-8a, 8b-11. 8a representing the ones where Radar was 'on R and R' and leaving.

The above leaves us with the other problem - cast changes between Seasons 3 and 4, even though the style of writing and comedy were not much different. My 'eras' will probably cause quite a bit of argumentation amongst fans of the series, because, yes, I may be over-complicating the issue. But here goes nothing.

Era #1 - Season 1: The first season needs to be taken on its own for many reasons: trying to feel out the direction to go, character development, the move from a true ensemble to leading and supporting characters, and the eventual distancing from the 1970 film. The first season feels so much more like a slapstick Marx Brothers film. Who can forget all of the eventually jettisoned bit characters: Spearchucker Jones, Ugly John, Generals Hammond and Barker, Private Boone, and Nurse Cutler.

Era #2 - Seasons 2-3: These seasons are usually what people remember about the Henry Blake-Trapper McIntyre years and pined for when all the changes started happening. Usually, these were comedic in nature, even while using serious issues, like enemy airdrops and the like. This era does retain a lot from the first season in the way of the protagonist vs. antagonist duel (Hawkeye/Trapper vs. Burns/Houlihan). What we start seeing is the development of Radar into the sweet, naive Iowa farmboy that is much more remembered than the cool, slick, and sneaky Radar of the first season. Likewise, characters like Klinger and Father Mulcahy become more prominent.

Era #3 - Season 4: This is going to be strange for some, but it should make more sense, once I cover the next era. This is separate mostly because of the cast changes - McLean Stevenson (Blake) and Wayne Rogers (McIntyre) left and Harry Morgan (Potter) and Mike Farrell (Hunnicutt) came in. Hunnicutt came in almost seamlessly as Hawkeye's sidekick and Potter was a shift from the loose-running Blake; more G.I. and did not tolerate any kind of overstepping by his underlings. Otherwise, not a whole lot changed.

Era #4 - Season 5: This gets its own era because it brought a complete end to the Burns/Houlihan alliance against the other doctors. Margaret's engagement (and eventual marriage) to Donald Penobscott did more to change the dynamic of the show up to that time than any other character change or development. It essentially rendered Frank Burns useless as a villain and without Margaret as a 'sweetheart in crime' (save for the episode 'The Korean Surgeon'), he became a completely one-dimensional caricature. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but it ultimately forced the series to go in a different direction.

Era #5 - Seasons 6-7*: The last of the major character substitutions took place here as Larry Linville (Burns) left the show and David Ogden Stiers (Charles Emerson Winchester III) came in. In the cliché of the show's producers, Winchester was a 'more formidable adversary' for Hawkeye and B.J., which is undoubtedly true. Winchester was definitely a more fleshed out character and at least an equal surgeon. As stated above, the show was forced to go in a different direction and it started exploring more 'serious' topics such as betrayal, divorce, drug abuse, and the like. It still had a lot of comedic elements, but one could sense the shift. Finally, Gary Burghoff (Radar) left the series.

Era #6 - Seasons 8*-11: The last of the eras is definitely the one with the easiest explanations. It is denoted by three things: 1) it begins to stretch out the dramatic elements of the show; that is, you find not a lot of slapstick type of comedy involved here. 2) Klinger completely drops the Section 8 stunts and women's clothing when he becomes the company clerk after Radar leaves and even is promoted to Sergeant! 3) You see more of the 'staged' type of filming/acting - since they were doing less filming at the Fox Ranch and much more at Stage 9 in Hollywood. You kind of get my feelings in reading my thoughts about Season 8 and Season 9. Seasons 10 and 11 (when I get to them) will be similar in thought. They aren't my favorite seasons, but there are certainly some great episodes there.

*The episodes when Radar leaves ('Goodbye, Radar' - 2 parts), are technically in Season 8, but the purposes here, we are treating them as an extension of Season 7.

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