Saturday, June 23, 2018

M*A*S*H (Revisited)

"Heal Thyself"
Summer is here. Theater camp has concluded, my show has opened, and it is time for a little vacation with the family. A two-day drive, with four teenagers in the car, and guess what? We still all love each other.

Hotel life can -- if you can tear yourself away from your computer or phone -- provide the opportunity to take in some old fashioned television. We watched two episodes of M*A*S*H, back-to-back, just like I could on any single weekday during my childhood from seven to eight on Channel 43.

The vast majority of episodes from eleven seasons feature a cast of characters who were created for the television series, and not taken from any of Hooker's novels -- Potter, Winchester, Hunnicutt -- and the characters of Hawkeye and Houlihan grew to bear little resemblance to those from the books or from Altman’s 1970 film version, upon which the TV series is based.

Last night we saw the one where Edward Herrmann plays a relief surgeon who cracks under the pressure of “meatball surgery” (S08E17 "Heal Thyself") followed by the one where Col. Potter receives word that he’s the last survivor of his World War One buddies (S08E18 "Old Soldiers").

I have avoided re-watching the show for my entire adult life. When I was a kid I must have seen every episode several times over. I have probably watched M*A*S*H more than any other television program ever made. But whenever I happened upon a broadcast, revisiting just a few moments, I was appalled at the stupid jokes, the laugh track, and the general “niceness” that all the aforementioned characters fell into once they had jettisoned the difficult Trapper John and the impossible to make sympathetic Frank Burns.

Watching an episode play out in real time, from beginning to end, I was reminded of what made the show truly good. Yes, it was sanctimonious, I knew that as an adolescent. But take for example the way they took their time to play out the young surgeon’s disconnection from reality under pressure was truly affecting. I was surprised to learn they even borrowed from Shakespeare. I didn't read Macbeth until eighth grade. Herrmann’s doctor bemoans his inability to get imaginary (but also very real) blood off his hands.
The blood won't come off.
No matter what I do, it just stays there.
Just take it easy.
See what I mean? Look at that.
Never gonna go away.
No matter how hard I scrub or -- how much I wash it's gonna stay there.
Where do they come from? What do they -- What do they expect me to do? I can't.
I can't.
Well-written and well-played. When we moved into the next episode, and Col. Potter announced a sudden visit to Tokyo General, I knew exactly which episode this was. From somewhere in my head I heard the words tontine and pledge and the phrase, “give that man a cheroot.”

I may have been the only eleven year-old who knew what a cheroot was.

"Old Soldiers"
There were so any elements of the episode that I had no life experience to comprehend. The team of characters do not at first understand the colonel’s behavior, and one suggests he may have received a dire diagnosis himself in Tokyo. They never use the word cancer, not once, but when the gang is summoned to Potter’s tent, they have already braced themselves for the worst. “You have our total support,” says one, before learning the truth about the colonel’s recently deceased comrade.

You have our support? That struck my eleven year-old ear as odd, what kind of support do you provide someone who is ill? “I support you,” like he was being persecuted. Didn’t make sense. Now it makes sense.

Also, Colonel Potter’s entire war record was something I was unable to fathom. What I didn’t know about World War One was a lot. The final act of the episode features Henry Morgan speaking, taking his time, without interruption, describing the provenance of the bottle he has just received, the night in question, the fate of his comrades, an extended toast to lost youth … it is remarkably affecting.

The motion picture M*A*S*H is something I have also not watched in a long time. I saw it very young, and it had a poor effect on the way I saw the world. Indeed, it gave me an education in the madness of combat, and the joys of bucking the system. But it is cynical in the extreme, far too passive in its criticism of institutional racism, and downright condemnable in its treatment of women, especially women in positions of authority.

It is easy to tear down corrupt institutions, easier still to merely ridicule them from a distance. It is far more challenging to build up institutions based on basic human decency and understanding.

See also: Cleveland Centennial, M*A*S*H (TV show), January 20, 2012

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