Thursday, January 6, 2011

M*A*S*H Season 1 Ramblings

The first season of M*A*S*H is by far the most different of all eleven seasons, for many different reasons:

1) It was the first, and thus had to deal with all sorts of experimentation and finding its way
2) It was the only season to have a true ‘ensemble’ cast
3) It had plot lines more in-tune with the 1970 film
4) Characters were undeveloped and underdeveloped, although this is more of a consequence of the first point

When you watch the pilot episode, and then watch episodes in the later seasons, especially eight through eleven, you may wonder if you are watching the same show. Certainly, the title was the same, and some of the characters are the same, but is it in substance the same program? The answer to that is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no. As with a lot of things, the truth lies somewhere in between...

The era in which the series began was a lot different than the one in which it ended. 1972 was still the Vietnam era and in a time of daily broadcasted body counts; the last thing viewers wanted was more blood and gore. Therefore, much of the early thought process was to provide more of a slapstick approach – sort of a halfway approach between the 1970 film and what was on television at the time. What we got initially was a series that was predicated on practical jokes and flagrant disregard for military authority, and had the feel of a Marx Brothers film; indeed, the episode “Yankee Doodle Doctor” spoofs a Marx Brothers film, so in a way, there is a bit of meta-humor involved.

The plot lines of the episodes were similar to the lines from the 1970 film, which was an explicitly anti-war, anti-Vietnam film directed by Robert Altman. In turn, the film was based on the 1968 novel of the same name by Richard Hooker. The pilot’s premise, for example, was actually based on a plot line from the novel that did not get into the film – raising money to send the houseboy Ho-Jon to Maine to go to college. Other plotlines and devices came from the film itself – the recording of Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan in her tent, the bacchanalian coronation of the chief surgeon (Trapper in the film, Hawkeye in the series), and the constant complaining to the generals.

The cast of the first season, at least in the billing, isn’t unrecognizable, but the one thing that everyone should notice is the presence of more periphery and minor characters, and the speaking by said characters. These include characters such as Spearchucker Jones, Ginger Ballis, Margie Cutler, Ugly John, and the parade of generals (Hammond, Clayton, and Barker). Even characters such as Klinger and Fr. Mulcahy were on the periphery rather than major characters at the time. M*A*S*H functioned more as an ensemble in the first season; lead and secondary characters weren’t really well-defined, despite the billing at the beginning of every episode.

Certain things can be noticed about the first season as well. Radar, for example, is a complete huckster. He was involved in every little scam that the Swampmen could come up with and even operated as a little minion. The little minion aspect didn’t change much later, but Radar was most decidedly not the sweet na├»ve Iowa farm boy that longtime fans of the series tend to identify. Father Mulcahy had red hair (William Christopher had a dye-job, as he was naturally blond), mostly to keep more in line with the “Dago Red” personality that was in the film. Margaret tends to be a lot more ‘slutty’ (for lack of a better term), which falls into her ‘Hot Lips’ persona, a distinction I talk about in this post.

The episodes themselves rank from extremely good to pretty awful. Fortunately, there is only one truly bad episode in the season – “Major Fred C. Dobbs”, in which Frank wants a transfer after getting picked on one too many times, and then Hawkeye and Trapper fool Frank into staying over his greed and love of money by hiding some fake gold in the ground around the 4077th. Other pretty weak episodes include “Cowboy”, in which a chopper pilot tries to kill Henry Blake as revenge for not sending him home and “Edwina”, in which a nurse wants to lose her virginity and Hawkeye ends up being the planned sacrificial lamb. But out of twenty-four episodes, having only three isn’t terrible and spoke to the good writing and acting that M*A*S*H would be known for through the 1970’s.

The two episodes I enjoy the most and I think are the best are “Chief Surgeon Who?” and “Tuttle”. “Chief Surgeon Who?” is the fourth episode and is the first to examine the actual conflict between Hawkeye and Frank in the operating room. Frank is jealous because everyone keeps asking Hawkeye for his advice when the going gets tough. Henry as the commander cannot take it anymore and decides to name Hawkeye the chief surgeon. It is an incredibly sharp episode in regard to dialogue and how it keeps moving. The scene in Henry’s office when he names Hawkeye chief surgeon is one of the best of the episode and in the first season, period.

“Tuttle” is my favorite episode of the season and is definitely on my list of top ten M*A*S*H episodes. It manages to be utterly ridiculous and completely realistic at the same time while providing some of the best commentary on humanity’s susceptibility to suggestion. The fact everyone believed that Tuttle existed even though he was a figment of Hawkeye’s imagination made for some very humorous plotlines through the episode.

The first season is, in a large way, its own era, as I suggest in another essay, but it certainly does its share to grease the skids so the series turns into the program that we all came to know and love.

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