Thursday, May 8, 2014
Seasons of Love: "M*A*S*H," Season Five (1976-77)
For my latest TV essay, I chose a classic sitcom that I've been watching since grade school. Picking a favorite season of M*A*S*H, however proved difficult. I had almost settled on Season Two, when the original cast was in peak form. I'll even argue that as a straight comedy with occasional dramatic undertones, some of my favorite episodes strike the balance. In a perfect world, the show would have skipped from Radar's departure midway through Season Eight to the epic (albeit overrated) finale, erasing three-plus years of maudlin "dramedy." Give me the early, funnier years please.
To me, the focal point of Season Five is Major Frank Burns. On the surface, his character steadily grew more cartoonish; Burns was the heel, the show's go-to villain and wet blanket. The subtext was that Burns was isolated; a major plot point in Season Five was Major Houlihan's engagement to Major Donald Penobscott. With his former mistress and only ally at the 4077th now betrothed to someone else, Burns was an island of growing denial and despair. Penobscott only appears on the show twice in the entire series, so he's mostly an intangible nemesis for Burns to shadowbox. (The fact that Frank and Hot Lips never formally broke up, adding on the sudden emergence of Penobscott, must have been quite jarring.) In "Margaret's Engagement," Burns struggles to find solace as he goes out drinking with his "friends" Hawkeye and BJ. By "Movie Tonight," Burns is threatening to kill both men.
The next season begins with Burns finally losing his mind --off-screen, of course-- going AWOL and sent home once and for all. It was a convenient introduction for David Ogden Stiers, and the beginning of a new, much more seriocomic era of M*A*S*H. Not so coincidentally, this was the last year of Larry Linville's contract; he signed a three-year deal with CBS after the second season, and maintained his desire to move on citing fear of typecasting. The writers and producers were clearly intent on making Burns and Linville go out with a bang.
"Bug Out" (episodes 1 and 2, 98th and 99th overall). M*A*S*H was famous for blending situation comedy with pathos, but with the one-hour season premiere they intentionally split the two and had them play off each other. Heavy shelling gives the 4077th no other option than to the evacuate the camp, but an unstable patient forces Hawkeye, Margaret, and Radar to stay behind. Where the "bug out" turns into a raucous caravan, the deserted base and impeding doom provide great character moments for the chief surgeon, head nurse, and company clerk.
"The Nurses" (episode 6, 103rd overall). The 5th season was arguably a greater revelation for Loretta Swit, whose Major Houlihan was relegated to playing a manipulative shrew in the show's early going. Not only was she "liberated" of Major Burns, she blossomed into a character of dimension. This episode was the tipping point: standing in front of a bunch of over-glorified extras that never appeared on the show again, Houlihan admits that it's very lonely being the only female officer in the unit. It was hard to call her "Hot Lips" after that.
"Dear Sigmund" (episode 8, 105th overall). Arguably the show's most memorable recurring character was Major Sidney Freedman, played with dry, disarming charm by Allan Arbus. An imaginary letter to his psychoanalytical hero, written during a rut, strings together a series of otherwise random happenings at the 4077th camp.
"Mulcahy's War" (episode 9, 106th overall). After four years as a recurring guest star, William Christopher was finally promoted to series regular in 1976. Though most episodes with Father Mulcahy at front and center were a sanctimonious bore --especially in the later seasons of the show-- this was one of the Padre's better outings. After a GI shoots himself to get out of combat, Mulcahy realizes he's too aloof to what is at stake and sneaks out to the front.
"Movie Tonight" (episode 22, 119th overall). Outside of the Burns example, this is a fun romp of an episode that uses the entire cast to its benefit. Movie night at the 4077th is hindered by technical difficulties, so the officers find clever ways to entertain the unit. The impromptu Father Mulcahy impression contest is a hoot.