Friday, February 26, 2010

It Took Twenty-Seven Years to Beat M*A*S*H

On the last day in February, 1983, a reported 105.97 million people sat down in front of their television sets to be a part of history. The TV series that had become a phenomenon, M*A*S*H, was coming to a close after an amazing eleven season run on CBS. The finale broke almost every television record at the time, and has held the records for nearly twenty- seven years. It's rumored they even set the record for largest water use by the NY Sanitation/Public Works during the Commercials caused by so many people running to the restroom during the break. M*A*S*H was finally beat out for the total number of viewers this year by Super Bowl XLIV just twenty-six days before the anniversary of their achievement. Although the record for most viewers was finally beaten, M*A*S*H has yet to turn over the record Nielsen ratings for percentage of Americans watching. So what made M*A*S*H so great?

M*A*S*H is an acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The show was a look into the 4077th unit during the Korean War. The war lasted from 1950 until 1953 and is historic as being a proxy war that was part of the larger Cold War. The Russians were backing the Northern part of the country and the US and UN supported the South, each really fighting each other with the Korean people stuck in the middle of the larger conflict. A number of the main characters stationed at the 4077th were drafted and had to deal with the feeling of being a cog in the much larger wheel that was the Cold War. They frequently received injured soldiers and Korean civilians, resulting in the doctors becoming much more objected to the horrors of the conflict than others involved, and creating a rift between the drafted doctors and the soldiering types stationed with them.

Hawkeye and Trapper John

The main story followed a pair of surgeons, bunkmates Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John, Trapper later was sent home and replaced by B.J. Hunnicutt. They were supported by the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Blake and later Col. Potter, and the head nurse Major “Hot-Lips” Houlihan. Other memorable characters included the bumbling company clerk Radar, the prissy executive surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III, and the desperate Medic, Corporal Klinger, who wore a dress among other schemes to get discharged.

The show had a unique take on war and is an especially brave and bold series in the history of television. The M*A*S*H franchise already had a strong following with a book series and feature film behind it. When the inevitable move to TV occurred the creators were given a half-hour sit-com platform to launch from. Showrunner Larry Gelbart defied the limitations of the genre by subtly working out the enforced laugh track and presenting deeply moving and dark images of war to the American Public during prime time. Although the series kept a light tone overall, it was due to the characters attempts to forget where they were and what they were doing. Ultimately the characters would be unable to forget each week when Hawkeye and Trapper would discuss the young lieutenant who died in the infirmity that afternoon on his way home to his wife.

In the shows fifth season in 1977, producers Larry Gelbert and Gene Reynolds both departed from the series and took the comedic base with them. When Burt Metcalfe came on as the new executive producer, along with star Alan Alda, they created a new tone for the second half of the series. The show would now dramatically shift between comedy beats and hard drama, contrary to the seamless back and forth of the series' beginning.

Generally, even people who aren't in the business somehow catch wind that a showrunner turn over is a bad thing. Frequently a series will loose it's entire audience in a situation where that occurs. On M*A*S*H, not only the executive producer, but the developer, and the writers were completely replaced at the start of the sixth season. Last years Sci-Fi remake V had a similar problem. In just the first four episode trial run ordered by ABC, the showrunner turned over not once, but twice. The series started out decently at the number two spot for the night with a rating of 8.5 and about 14 million viewers tuning in. The next week they lost four million viewers and dropped to the fourth spot, loosing another million and another place the next week. This change in leadership was entirely evident in the quick tonal changes between episodes. The show is due to return at the end of March, but will they hold over an audience who doesn't know what to expect and has been left waiting for four months? Luckily for M*A*S*H the series had the most devout following in television history and they were ready when the new boss stepped off the copter. Along with Alda they were able to bridge the gap between the two halves of the series by basing the changes around the core Hawkeye character who remained constant. If anything, the series moved to incorporate the views that were already present with that character before the switch.

The later seasons also featured an entirely new team of writers who had more authority than any in the business to date and were able to completely defy the conventions of seventies television. In a number of highly popular episodes, the series was able to tell absolutely unique stories that would not be paralleled for decades to come.

The episode “Point of View” began with the admittance of a wounded soldier and featured the main cast moving in and out of his bedside area from the point of view of the soldier. Years later this type of narration would again become popular as the device used in many modern video games. Cut scenes would feature the main characters running in and out of view in front of the eyes of the player character. Other TV series would tell stories with this method as well. One notable example was on the series Scrubs. In “My Intern's Eyes”, a new intern arrives at the hospital who is set to become a main character for the rest of the series. To introduce him to the show he is first unseen and unheard as the camera, until the end when he is finally revealed.

Another major milestone episode was “Life Time”. This episode took place in real time as the characters had to race against the clock to save a life. During the episode a literal 'ticking clock' appeared in the corner of the screen counting down to the end of the episode. This device ended up being an inspiration for the hugely popular 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland. In that later series, The twenty-four episode season was made up of hour long real-time episodes that translated into one really crazy day for terrorist hunter Jack Bauer. Each season is then another day in the life of the character. The series is known for it's impossible to resist tension caused by the continuous beeping of the timer that appears at commercial breaks and at the end of an episode, clueing the audience in that only seconds are left to resolve what's happening on screen.

Other episodes were more lyrical and transcendentalist, attempting to tell stories never before seen on television that are still hard to come by. The episode “Dreams” was told moving from dream to dream of the sleeping personal of the 4077th. While the dreams were at first fun and bizarre, they eventually turned darker and darker as the horrors of war permeated their subconsciousness. Later science fiction series would make use of similar situations, but very rarely is it seen in shows set in a 'real' world.

The episode “A War for all Seasons” was another alternative precedent that showed an entire year on the battlefield. Scenes jumped from month to month and showed how monotonous the grind of war felt to the enlistees. While not obvious immediately, whole months would break up scenes where characters would be doing much the same thing they were doing before.

Another famous trend was the series “Letter Episodes”. These episodes would feature one main character instead of many in the spotlight as they composed a letter to someone back home. Usually the episode would show them learning a lesson or coming to an understanding with the absent person they were writing to, like a parent or spouse. These episodes appeared throughout the series and followed multiple letter-writers.

The series began to run out of steam at the end of the ninth season. Actors were getting tired, stoylines were becoming trite. The cast and crew discussed their positions and went to CBS with a request to call season ten their last. CBS was not at all excited to hear this news, but were respectful of the writers positions. The network had no interest in taking their number one show off the air. On the other hand, they didn't want to ruin the name of the series by driving it directly into the ground.

In the end the network and the writers came to an agreement to end the show another season and a half, meaning a complete season ten, then a short run season eleven. The producers agreed and the series started driving toward a resolved end date. When a series is able to end on their own terms the writers are able to develop with a goal in mind of where they need their characters to reach by the end of the series. As has proven true over the years on many successful shows, a second wind effect can over come the production, leading to some of the best work of the series. M*A*S*H set the precedent by keeping their top ratings over television for the next two years leading to the massive finally.

The last episode of M*A*S*H entitled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired on February 28th, 1983; thirty years after the Korean War ended and outlasting the real conflict by eight years. The episode was the length of five regular season episodes at two and a half hours. The show still holds the record for most watched episode of a television series and holds a higher share than the recent viewership record holder at 77 over the Super Bowl's 46.4. The episode chronicles the last days of the war. The main characters get word that the war is drawing to a close and begin to close-up shop. Many conflicts are resolved between the characters as they realize they are about to be going their separate ways. At the very end they physically tear down the camp that has been home for so many years. Finally, in a tear- filled iconic moment, they climb aboard a helicopter and fly away.

M*A*S*H was one of the most beloved television programs in history. The cultural impact they created lasts to this day, as many of the amazing television firsts they invented have yet to be recycled until very recently if at all. The story wove comedy and drama in a very unique way that excited the world. Throughout the rest of the eighties, the entire nineties and two-thousands, no other show came close to the number of viewers M*A*S*H accrued. In order to create good television today, writers and producers must understand and respect M*A*S*H for remaining the most watched show for twenty-seven years.
View from the helicopter as it leaves in the finale


Alda, Alan, Karen Hall, Burt Metcalfe, John Rappaport, Thad Mumford, Dan Wilcox, David Pollock, and Elias Davis. "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen." M*A*S*H. CBS. 22 Feb. 1983. Television.

Freedman, Carl. "History, Fiction, Film, Television, Myth: The Ideology of M*A*S*H." The Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Winter 1990.

"M*A*S*H -." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. .

Alda, Alan. Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: and Other Things I've Learned. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.

Lawrence, Bill. "My Intern's Eyes." Scrubs. NBC. 3 Jan. 2006. Television.

Surnow, Joel, and Robert Cochran. "12:00 A.m.-1:00 A.m." 24. FOX. 6 Nov. 2001. Television.

"V (2009 TV Series) -." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. .

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