Monday, April 5, 2021

The Best TV Series of My Life: M*A*S*H (1972 - 1983)

In 1972, I was ten years old and in love. The world was a bright, bright day rapidly dimming. The dysfunction of my home life was so profound, so damning, that today, forty-eight years later, I'm still coming to grips with it. It was within that toxicity that M*A*S*H came into my life.

As I recall, at first I wasn't allowed to watch it, because, I was told, the themes in it were far too "grown up." It wasn't that, looking back, but my hateful father imposing more of his dictatorial and often nonsensical rules upon his children and crumbling household. I recall seeing the movie the series was based on and understanding none of it. Indeed, the themes were too adult. But that asshole took us, his kids, with his wife, my mother, to see it, so why the capriciousness? But capriciousness in the end defined much of his existence, raised to the foulest exponent one can imagine.

He, as it turned out, was spending more and more time away from home, involved, as he was, with multiple affairs, his masonry business, dodging taxes, taking exotic trips, and so on. Mom, left to herself and dying of a terminal illness, let us, her kids, watch it.

The series was much easier to understand than the film. More hijinks. Slapstick comedy. Easily defined characters--the good guys: Hawkeye, Trapper, Radar, and Henry; and the bad guys: "Hot Lips" Houlihan, Frank Burns, and the various clowns who showed up to support them--Colonel Flagg and others, including a suffocating avalanche of Army bureaucrats. ("Just write 'pizza oven' instead of 'machine gun.' ")

What made M*A*S*H remarkable was that, after the first few seasons, it evolved, something no series had really done before then; and it allowed its characters to evolve, especially after the fourth season, which was also unprecedented. It took an unrepentant anti-war stance during a time of crippling ignorance and an American culture drowning in selfishness, consumption, greed, and apathy towards anything authentic and life-affirming. I know you won't see that said many other places, if anywhere else; but believe me, that's what the 70s were. Being involved--giving a damn--was castigated viciously. Is it any wonder that disco music was the result? Disco was (and is still) the Who gives a shit, just dance! rhythm of that entire filthy decade. Polyester, Tupperware, cocaine, Me Firstism, Saturday Night Fever, and abjectly ignoring the veterans who had given their arms and legs and lives to another useless war waged by useless capitalists upon a distant nation no one knew about or gave a shit about.

The Korean War was a prologue to Vietnam, and presaged our defeat there. We didn't "win" the Korean War, and it quickly became the war nobody wanted to remember--as though war is ever something good to remember, something to celebrate. It has since been named the Forgotten War, and those who fought it are rarely if ever recognized for their sacrifice.

The Vietnam War was still being fought in 1972, and for the next three years after that. That also made M*A*S*H remarkable. My dickhead father didn't get the anti-war message of the film, which was subdued but still there; but he did get the series' message--and it pissed him off no end. Lou thought Hawkeye a "fag," and loudly yelled that whenever the show was on. Lou was, in truth, a real, living, breathing Frank Burns--a rah-rah "patriot" who loved war, loved killing "them Commies," loved the idea of invading and brutalizing and destroying. I recall him banning us from watching; but then he'd leave again, sometimes for days at a time, and Mom would turn it on in his absence.

We can talk about its influence all the live-long day, I suppose; but what more needs to be said? It's an iconic series, perhaps the most influential ever made. You can see its fingerprints everywhere, even today. Ensemble casting, evolving plotlines, evolving characters, comedy that dives straight into drama, top-flight directing, acting, story writing ... it's all there. I find it astounding that its entire run was a top ten-rated one, especially given the grotesque times. I remember Jerry Falwell and other fundie Christians coming out against it; I remember Ronald Reagan, the architect of this country's eventual destruction (February 5, 2020, for those of you living in a cave, either actually or metaphorically), speaking out against it; and I remember being called a fag in high school because I stood up once in class and speechified about its greatness.

Hawkeye Pierce was, for all his faults, a burgeoning feminist, which drove various idiots crazy. As Alan Alda's creative control over the writing and production increased, we get to see Margaret Houlihan, once a bully and villain, grow into something better and deeper, a character evolution arc that I rate as one of the best in television history. Alda also steadily de-caricaturized the villainy, allowing Houlihan to grow out of the role of the heavy, something he also did with Charles Emerson Winchester, who replaced a true caricature, Frank Burns.

Burns, though ridiculous, is by no means unreal. Witness Donald Trump and his slobbering followers. All true villains; all caricatures; all very real.

As was my father. Blunt. Violent. Narcissistic. Selfish. Greedy. Authoritarian. Fascist. They are quite real, the Frank Burnses of the world, and right now they are its biggest threat. I wonder what Alda and his fellow cast members think of people like Trump, et al. He and Mike Farrell (especially) must be constantly shaking their heads in disbelief.

One of the best episodes features Colonel Flagg, who, prior to it, shows up as little more than comedic relief. In this one however he is portrayed as true villainy should be portrayed. There are few laughs; Hawkeye and the rest are trying to stop him from taking an injured North Korean spy away in order to execute her. Flagg succeeds; and we see the true shadow of American imperialism and capitalism at its vile core. I remember the first time watching it, and having nightmares for days afterward. The Frank Burns and Colonel Flaggs of the world are very real, very goddamned real, and if we want our kids and their kids to live to see the next century, we'd better get fucking serious about confronting them and defeating them and their toxic worldview once and for all. Else we as a species are done, kaput, over.

I grew up with M*A*S*H. When the series finale aired in 1983, I was twenty-one. My mom was just a year from dying of the disease that she, and we, had lived with for fourteen years. Lou was long gone; and I was dating a girl, Ann, who ended up being yet another Frank Burns: an intolerant, hyper-conservative sow who, after I dumped her, got engaged five months later to an Air Force cadet. The disease marches merrily on, as BJ Hunnicutt tells Hawkeye; and it marches merrily on today. Her concern was money and status and things, just like Burns; she was a bigot, just like Burns; and she hated liberals and Democrats, just like Burns. In fact, privately, I'd named her "Frankie Burns" after we broke up, a name that sticks to this day.

M*A*S*H foresaw the threat of authoritarianism that is today destroying our democracy one outrage at a time. It foresaw the threat of runaway patriotism and capitalism. It commented boldly about racism, homosexuality, wealth inequality, resource extraction, slavery, even gender identity. Max Klinger dresses like a woman to get a Section 8 and sent home, and is seen as such as a clown in drag, but watch closer, especially as the series progresses, and you'll see a casual acceptance come into play over his clothing, one that speaks, ever so delicately and tentatively, about what it means to call oneself a "man" or a "woman."

We are living in an age when shows like M*A*S*H are needed more than ever. Our lives are lived as stories, and we search for those that we believe will bolster our own or provide comfort to them. Carl Sagan said that humanity would pass through a "bottleneck," when our very survival was threatened, and we would have to make a binary choice: either change radically and survive, or continue on as before and die. M*A*S*H is a canary in the coal mine for that bottleneck, one we are now in the middle of. War, nationalism, consumption, authoritarianism ... they will, most assuredly, destroy us. The healing ways of Hawkeye Pierce, BJ Hunnicutt, Margaret Houlihan, Charles Emerson Winchester, Colonel Potter (my favorite character of all), Father Mulcahy, Klinger, and Radar O'Reilly ... their collective vision, message, compassion, and wisdom is the way out, the way that will see us into the changes necessary to save ourselves.

The Frank Burnses of the world have no place there, and are not welcome there.