[25 July 2006]
M*A*S*H was notable, and sometimes criticized, for the way it daringly balanced sitcom jokes with serious wartime issues. Its setting was the Korean War; even though the program’s political criticism was always a thinly disguised attack on the fresher-in-the-memory Vietnam War. This season 10, three-DVD set finds the program toward the end of its esteemed run. And while the earlier cast, which prominently featured McLean Stevenson and Larry Linville, was much funnier, the veteran TV show still had plenty of strong humor—right up to the end.
One feels a little guilty, now, for ever finding fault with the series, especially with the conspicuous absence of quality programming on network television these days. In retrospect, M*A*S*H‘s only true competition at the time was with itself, and it merely started to lose steam after a while. Shows like Seinfeld, which came along after the demise of M*A*S*H, no doubt advanced the sitcom formula; but no other comedy has come close to the social relevance this program beautifully exhibited. To call it unique is a severe understatement.
A sitcom’s number one goal is always to get laughs, and M*A*S*H consistently accomplished this primary task. But it also had the nerve to mix witty dialogue into gritty dilemmas, too. One of these episodes, “Identity Crisis”, finds the character Father Mulcahy in the uncomfortable position of counseling a soldier who has swapped dog tags with a friend killed in battle. He ultimately convinces the boy that such a ploy to get sent home early is morally wrong. Everybody in the unit kids Mulcahy about his spiritual calling, but this episode proves that God, or at least, the Director, made a good choice with this fine man.
The key characters in this program are Hawkeye, and pretty much anybody else he interacts with. In most cases, these encounters involve his dear and trusted “Swamp” mate, B.J. Hunnicutt. These two men are on the same moral wavelength most of the time. But an episode titled “Picture This” imagines what it might be like if this close friendship became strained. Hawkeye and Hunnicutt are at their funniest whenever they’re given a dupe to spar with.
This 10th season also prominently showcases the third Swamp resident, Charles Winchester, who is a prime target for Hawkeye and Hunnicutt’s barbs. In many instances, this prideful windbag must be humbled, as happens during “That’s Showbiz”. Within this story, he’s forced to admit that an accordion-playing traveling musician is actually quite talented. But he humbles himself only after he hears her play a “more legitimate instrument and style”; a classical piano.
Along the way, there are also inventive television moments that just make your jaw drop, at times. One of these stunners is “Follies of the Living – Concerns of the Dead”, where a soldier dies in the unit, yet remains visual to the viewer as a commentator on the goings-on. An equally sobering episode, “Pressure Points”, is built around Col. Potter. In it, this talented surgeon is convinced his skills have dangerously diminished, and he wonders if it’s time to hang up the old scalpel.
M*A*S*H also separated itself from the usual sitcom pack by being filmed on location, rather than inside a comparably stale studio. This gave it a distinctive, cinematic look. With this DVD release of the program, one has the option to watch with or without a laugh track. As funny as this series was, with or without the laugh track, it was impossible for any lone episode to remain entirely humorous from start to finish. After all, the setting is during the Korean war. Nevertheless, some of these lighter moments are priceless, such as the episode where the crew beats a bunch of visiting Marines at bowling. There is another instance where Hawkeye is asked to distribute duty pay to the unit, only to have these dollar bills eaten by a goat Corporal Clinger foolishly adopts.
Shamefully, there are no bonus features included with the package. It’s criminal to give a re-release the teasing title of “Collector’s Edition” yet not also include perks to make it worth collecting, such as interviews with the actors, writers, or producers. Fortunately, the quality level is so high you can almost forgive Fox for such exclusions.
Unlike Hogan’s Heroes, which unbelievably made light of WW II P.O.W. camps, M*A*S*H succeeded at the high wire act of finding humor in this oftentimes dire military conflict. War is hell, it’s true, but good people—even some funny people—fight these hellish battles. Season number 10 is not the suggested starting point for those newly exploring M*A*S*H, or even for those who desire to re-live it again. But any M*A*S*H is better than most other television comedy programs.
M*A*S*H Season Ten: Collector’s Edition - Under Arrest