Why M*A*S*H Didn’t Mesh In Later Years


by Herbie J Pilato

The classic TV series M*A*S*H, which gave the world Alan Alda and a band of brilliant actors (and which was based on the 1970 Korean War medical-military feature film dramedy of the same name), originally aired on CBS from 1972 to 1983.

But it was never really the same after its second season. In other words, it wasn’t funny anymore; and in some sectors, it wasn’t considered even likable. It was a good show beyond its sophomore year, but it wasn’t the same show. It was like some kind of bizarro version of original self (which see Superman mythology); kind of like the less-than-worthy spin-off series (AfterM*A*S*H) it spawned after it ended.

So, what happened? Why did the series change? When did the show change? What were the changes?

Firstly, the cast switched from the second to the third semester. Alda, as Captain/Dr. Hawkey Pierce, remained throughout the program’s entire 11-year run, but the extremely likable McLean Stevenson (Col. Henry Blake) and the so-so Wayne Rogers (Trapper John) left. In their stead, Mike Ferrell and Harry Morgan arrived – as all new characters: BJ Hunnicutt and Col. Potter (respectively).

After that, Gary Burgoff as Radar (the only carry-over actor/character from the original big-screen movie) exited, as did Larry Linville – who played Major Frank Burns who horn-dogged opposite Loretta Swit’s Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan. Jamie Farr’s cross-dressing Corporal Klinger replaced Burgoff’s Radar as Blake-turned-Potter’s right-hand assistant; and as the stuffy Major Charles Winchester David Odgen Stiers became for Alda and Ferrell the arrogant butt of jokes (instead of the lusty Linville’s Burns, who was first berated by Alda and Rogers).

Certainly, the comings and goings of actors and characters have transpired on hits and misses throughout television history; and shows the enjoy long runs usually have to mix things up a bit. But M*A*S* took this all to the extreme – and to its detriment.

The first Stevenson/Rogers years were pure joy; the pace was fast; the wit was prime; the clarity and focus was supreme. When the show started messing with its chemistry and cast and clarity, it became…well…a drag.

It’s not as though the series was bad…again – it just wasn’t the same show that the TV audience fell in love with. It’s like it was replaced by a “replicant” show (think Blade Runner); a “pod” series (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers); or as previously stated: a bizarro edition of the original show.

The series was never a sitcom, really but, like the original film, it was a comedy with serious overtones (with characters like William Christopher’s gentle portrayal of Father Mulcahy mixed in for “good” measure). It was still appealing, and the show didn’t self-destruct (as made clear by its lengthy run). But it simply wasn’t nearly as well-done. In fact, in perspective, it may be considered over-cooked.

Alda, with his Marx Brothers delivery – and charismatic smile and style, and multiple talents (writing and directing many episodes), became a significant creative and guiding force for the series (which ultimately contributed to Rogers’ departure in the first place). But it was all too much for M*A*S*H.

The tone was still relatively funny first, serious second. But then it became serious first; funny second. And then it ultimately became not funny at all, minus any fake laugh track, which was silly to have been inserted from the get-go.

The missing laugh-track was painfully obvious in the show’s later years especially because not only had the audience at least become used to “hearing” the gimmickry device, but the actors and directors on the show seemed to still be delivering their lines with a stop-and-pause fashion as if the laugh-track was still there. The result: additional awkwardness; uneven.

Moral of the story analysis for a hit TV show?

The success of any television show should not be measured as merely by-product of an investment of time and money. But its creative force (behind and in front of the camera) should be consistent.

In other words, don’t mess (or mesh!) with the chemistry that’s leveled the playing field for a given show’s potential win-win scenario.

Herbie J Pilato is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about him HERE.