Getting M*A*S*HED

Over the last month or so I’ve been watching through M*A*S*H on Netflix. This was a show my parents and grandparents used to watch constantly, both during it’s original run and when it hit syndication. Over the years I caught quite a few episodes myself, and I’m actually surprised at how much of it I remember. As I’ve been moving through the episodes I have come to an interesting conclusion, there is no way M*A*S*H would ever be put on the air in 2015.

M*A*S*H didn’t even follow the rules which were in place during it’s original run, much less the calculated and cynical world that is broadcast television in 2015. Taking a cue from it’s movie forerunner, the first several seasons of M*A*S*H were very much comedy. They were comedy with a chaser of biting social commentary, often better crafted than the over-the-top movie version, but comedy nonetheless. Slowly, however, M*A*S*H lost this sense of comedic identity. By it’s mid-point M*A*S*H had become a drama. It was a drama which followed people who did funny things, but their gags were turned to support the show’s dramatic underpinnings. In later seasons the plots often drove characters away from their zaniness, whereas in earlier seasons the plots lifted up the antics of the 4077 1.

Can you imagine a show in 2015 even attempting to make a complete shift in philosophy in the middle of its run? M*A*S*H not only attempted it, the show actually improved the more it moved away from it’s comedic roots. Episodes like “Death Takes a Holiday” and “Dreams” tackle some of the more psychologically disturbing aspects of war. “A War for All Seasons” follows several storylines throughout one year of the war, and is one of the finest pieces of television I’ve ever seen.

M*A*S*H also dared to show the “enemy” as genuine human beings, another taboo in the post-traumatic stress addled world that is the United States after 9/11. Chinese and North Korean characters, when they appear, are typically depicted as people of depth, integrity, and even compassion 2. Even when a North Korean guerrilla was revealed to be as bad as one episode’s antagonist believes, the reveal is done in such a way that it’s the humanity of the 4077 which is called into question. We may have no more room for “heroes” in our culture, and even manage to pat ourselves on the back for seeing them torn down, but we have lost the ability to see humanity in our enemies – foreign or domestic. M*A*S*H dares us to be much more bold in our recognition of our enemies as people who are much like ourselves.

Then you have Father Mulcahy. Early on in the series, especially in the pilot, the good Father is portrayed as a rube totally out of his element among the bawdy and rambunctious soldiers of 4077. I think this early shallowness of character is unfairly remembered by people. As one of my friends recently pointed out, “And of all the people we Christians got to have portray the faith on TV, we got Father Mulcahy.”

The more I watch through M*A*S*H, the more glad I become that Father Mulcahy was the face of the faith on TV for several years. He never loses his innocence, but William Christopher wonderfully expressed an inner strength of both personality and conviction in the character. While this inner strength is more clearly presented in the later seasons, it also surfaces in earlier episodes as well. One memorable exchange had the good Father pulling Major Burns out of the O.R. while he spouted his typical litany of unthinking racism. Father Mulcahy clearly had enough and forcibly drug the Major from the room. With his rage barely contained, Father Mulcahy then served a man he clearly regarded as despicable by scrubbing his hands to prep the Major for surgery. Not only was this a fine piece of acting, it was also one of the most Christian acts I’ve ever witnessed in dramatic television.

The more I watch through the show, the more I find myself tearing up. I am struck with the depth of the subject material, and the forwardness M*A*S*H employs to wrestle with its subjects. Yet I also weep in appreciation for something eloquently presented. M*A*S*H was a comedy which dared to dream of becoming a drama, but never took itself too seriously. It was the drama of the everyday, forced into hostile confines. M*A*S*H was, and is, art.

And it would never see the the light of the screen today.

  1. The nature of the earlier shows can be summed up with one sentence, “Nope, it’s oak.” 
  2. Traits which folks nowadays can’t seem to even conceive their enemies might possess.