For those who didn’t see it the first time around, the sheer unlikeliness of M*A*S*H might be hard to understand. Greenlighted by 20th Century Fox because the studio already owned the set made for the movie, M*A*S*H the television series was never expected to last. Eleven seasons later, its finale roped in so many viewers that it still ranks as one of the highest rated television episodes of all time. And it is arguably one of TV’s best closers (especially since Seinfeld, one of the few shows since M*A*S*H whose cessation seemed like a historical event, disgraced itself by ending with a clip show).
But before we get too dewy-eyed, let us remember that M*A*S*H didn’t always succeed. This is understandable. What other sitcom had soldiered on for so long, had lost so many important cast members, lasted longer than the historical event—the Korean War—on which it was based? By Season Seven, now released on DVD, the weight of these challenges was making the mighty show sag a bit. B.J. (Mike Farrell), Charles (David Ogden Stiers), and Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) had all pulled off the remarkable feat of improving on the characters they replaced. The trade-off was that M*A*S*H lost some of its comic energy: if Frank’s (Larry Linville) one-note whining wasn’t missed when it was replaced by Charles’ nuanced nuisance, B.J. was never as funny as Trapper (Wayne Rogers). Margaret’s (Loretta Swit) transition from uptight bitch to something semi-human via Season Six’s liaison with Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Season Seven’s divorce was sensible in theory, but bumpy in practice.
The slack that all of this created could only have been picked up by Alda, but he, too, looked fatigued. Hawkeye’s increasingly strident anti-war speeches (exemplified here by Episode Two, “Peace on Us”) were unconvincing and even quaint, coming as they did during the Carter administration. Still, Alda’s attempts at writing and directing episodes never feel like ego trips. By this point in the series, even when the actors and writers aren’t sure where to go next, they all have a firm sense of how the show as a whole functions. What the original cast lacked was the final lineup’s assurance of what variations were possible within the general formula. Not everything worked, but more than enough did to keep the show lively even this far along into its run. It was a rare achievement, accomplished only through a willingness to risk the missteps that occasionally mar these late-period episodes such as “Our Finest Hour,” which steals from Season Four’s “The Interview.”
Despite being billed as the “Collector’s Edition,” this DVD set contains no bonus features, so the reasons for actually buying it are few. Sure, if you’ve bought Seasons One through Six, you’ll want to pick this one up, too, or run the risk of giving your M*A*S*H collection all the charm of a smile with a missing tooth. But as long as Baby Boomers still roam the earth, M*A*S*H will probably always be showing somewhere on cable. Fans might want to hold out until 20th Century Fox feels like going to the trouble of rounding up at least some of the surviving cast for a commentary track. I mean, really, is Gary Burghoff that busy?