Remembering TV Shows of the 70’s: M*A*S*H

When we think back on the shows, movies and books that we liked as kids, very often they don’t hold up terribly well to a second viewing as an adult. Things that were funny or exciting are often much less so to modern eyes. In many cases, the best we can hope for is a pleasant sense of nostalgia, but far too often, we end up cringing and wondering what had appealed to us in the first place. Occasionally, though, we can look back on something we enjoyed and find that it is pretty much as we remembered.

For me, M*A*S*H falls into that latter category.

Not too long ago, my elder son and I sat down and started watching  M*A*S*H. I’m not sure how we decided to watch it, but I know I had mentioned it to him a couple of times and when we found it online (on the now-defunct Shomi), we put on the first episode and then the second, then the third… It quickly became something that we could both enjoy and then discuss with each other.

I am not going to claim M*A*S*H was a prefect show. In fact, I know a number of people who vilify it for two things in particular: the way so many characters are cheating on their spouses back home, and for the character of Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones.

In terms of the cheating, well, as a kid, I din’t really catch all the implications of that. As an adult, I recognise that these characters were far from home, lonely and afraid, living a pretty hellish existence. I can accept that they would seek comfort with one another much easier than I accept so many characters in modern TV and cinema cheating, primarily out of boredom or dissatisfaction with their lives.

The topic of Spearchucker is a bit trickier. Again, as a kid, I din’t understand the racist overtones of the name. As an adult, I cringe a bit at it, even knowing as I do that he earned the nickname by being proficient as a javelin-thrower (and also football). I see it as a bit of an ironic name, especially given that there is no over racism directed at him within the series. Viewers, however, will point out that he only appeared in 6 episodes and take that as being racially-motivated. Larry Gelbart, who was a writer-producer, stated that the decision to remove him was related to the fact that they couldn’t provide enough substantial material for the number of characters they had, and the fact that they didn’t want to engage in “empty tokenism,” as is was widely believed at the time that there had, in fact, been no black surgeons serving in MASH units in the Korean War. Jones was also not the only recurring character to be dropped from the show.

More troubling to me was the use of certain actors (Mako, Soon Tek Oh) to play multiple characters, as though we might not notice. I’m not sure I’d believe that there was a shortage of Asian actors at the time… Then again, they also famously re-used Harry Morgan, who first appeared as Major General Bartford Hamilton Steele before being cast as Col Potter.

There is occasionally some criticism of Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, but her character grew and developed over the series, possibly more than any other. She went from being defined by her affair with Frank Burns to being an integral part of both the show and the MASH unit, as a strong, independent and very capable character.

There are so many great episodes of this show and countless scenes that I can still picture perfectly, decades after seeing them. The show was funny and serious at turns, often giving my young mind a great deal to think about and it often provoked discussion in my home. Was it right for Father Mulcahy to ask God to let one soldier die quickly to save another? Was Hawkeye cowardly for his steadfast refusal to use a gun? Was BJ Hunnicutt a boring stick-in-the-mud, or was he an important moral centre of the show who helped with Hawkeye’s growth as a character?

Something that I miss about TV was growing up is that there were limited channels and only two TVs in the house. We had to come to an agreement on what to watch and then we watched it as a family. As a result, we had a shared experience with these shows and could discuss them as a family. When the final episode of M*A*S*H played, it was a family event. Fortunately, I am now able to have a similar experience with my son as we make our way through the series.

Now I just have to get him to watch the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman….

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