Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Goodbye, Farewell and Amen"

No, I am not shutting down the blog, but rather writing about the series finale of M*A*S*H. It's been some time since I wrote about the show, and since Super Bowl 44 allegedly broke the viewership record set by "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" back in 1983, now is as good a time as any to look back on it.

The M*A*S*H series finale, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen", was aired on February 28, 1983 to a record audience that would not be seen again for almost 27 years. It was the end of an era that begin during the early 1970's while America was still embroiled in Vietnam. By 1983, the country was fundamentally different; yet, M*A*S*H was still among the higher rated shows on television.

It was in its eleventh season and it had been decided after the tenth that the eleventh would be the last one. Ideas were starting to run a little dry and some of the actors felt it was time to move on. The ones that didn't (Harry Morgan, Jamie Farr, and William Christopher) would go on to make the short-lived spinoff/sequel series AfterMASH. Once it had been decided the eleventh season would be it, work on the grand finale began. It would be a two and a half hour long show (including ads) that attempted to resolve everything and finally end the Korean War.

There are several story lines, but the major ones are thus: a) Hawkeye Pierce's recovery from an extremely traumatic even experienced, including time spent in a mental institution, b) Charles Emerson Winchester training Chinese musicians to play music by Mozart, and c) Dealing with a stray tank at the 4077th that draws enemy fire. The first two story lines mentioned here are extremely heart-wrenching and fit very well into the mode that M*A*S*H used in the final four seasons.

There is a little bit of everything in the two and a half hours - humor, tragedy, satire, a bug out, romance, sadness, elation, bitterness, and bittersweetness. The Korean War ends, but the cost of everything is vast - money, sanity, missed time, and lives. The resolutions of the characters come about - Pierce returns to his father, Hunnicutt no longer has to be away from his family, Potter goes into semi-retirement (only to go back to work again on AfterMASH), Winchester gets the position he coveted: chief of thoracic surgery at Boston Mercy Hospital; Houlihan takes time off to decide; Father Mulcahy, who had been made deaf by an exploding shell due to the aforementioned tank, decided to minister to the deaf; Klinger, in a twist, would marry a local woman named Soon-Lee and remain in Korea. They tear down the camp and lots of goodbyes are said and tears are shed. The final scene has always been touching, at least in my view - as Hawkeye is the last to leave in a helicopter, he sees the word 'GOODBYE' spelled out rocks - a 'note' left by BJ, who had left the chopper pad on a motorcycle moments before that.

So what do I think about it? I like it, but a lot of the issues that plague the later seasons of the show rear their head here as well. A little too much moralizing, too much melodrama, and the constant forgetfulness that M*A*S*H was a comedy series. I enjoyed the working in of the real-life radio broadcasts and the fire storm that forced the 4077 to bug out. The Hawkeye mental collapse was handled very well and demonstrated a very real effect of war on the human psyche. That said, the character of Hawkeye was extremely annoying as that plot line unfolded.

All in all, my one regret as a M*A*S*H fan is that they never did a true reunion show. Not the 30th anniversary stuff or the Memories of M*A*S*H show, but a 10 year 'look ahead' kind of show - where did everyone end up. Did Hawkeye ever find a woman that would get him to put her ahead of medicine? How did BJ re-adjust to civilian life? Did Margaret ever find happiness? Did Charles find love? These are the sorts of questions I wanted to see answered. Unfortunately, I have to read fan-fiction to satisfy these kinds of issues. The fan-fiction is outstanding, but even the authors of those stories know that it is fantasy and will never carry the weight that a reunion show would have.

"Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" will forever be etched in memory as the biggest and perhaps most famous series finale in history. All television records are measured by it and all finales are measured against it. For a television show that spanned parts of two decades and an extremely sweeping time period in American history, it held its own very well. Most finales are utter trash (Full House, Roseanne), but M*A*S*H gets credit because it is ultimately the standard against which all are judged. It is a good finale for the greatest show in television history.

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