Hands down MASH is my favourite tv show. I don’t even remember how I started watching it or when I became a fan, it just happened. And there is a reason why it still stands head-and-shoulders above every other tv show/tv drama and even today nobody has beaten the ratings it received for its final ever episode.
There are multiple reasons why it is as good as it is. MASH is not a story about the Korean War, it’s not a medical drama, though it plays into that genre and its not soapie though some of the storylines run that way. Its all of these things rolled into one but mostly it’s a story about people thrown into a horrific situation and how they cope and the whole story hinges on the strength of the human character.
As for that last episode ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’ it’s sublime writing meets brilliant acting. Everyone has that moment where they just loose it. For me its when Colonel Potter says goodbye to his horse Sophie. I can handle every other character leaving but that moment when Potter pats Sophie goodbye just knifes me emotionally, mostly because I have had to do the exact same thing.
And its these characters that make the story what they are and are an excellent case-study for writers and how they can improve the craft that is creating strong characters.
Walter “Radar” O’Rielly
Radar is one of the first characters we are introduced to, a green barely of legal age Corporal who basically runs the 4077. At the beginning of the story he is awkward, gawky and wouldn’t know what a woman was if it bit him. By his final episode he is still awkward but we are left with the impression that when he went home he was now a man. The way the writers developed him over the course of the series wasn’t as obvious as some of the other characters, there were subtle little developments that ranged from him being accepted by the other men in the camp, to the fact he no longer came to Hawkeye for ‘girl advice’ to the final and most poignant moment when Hawkeye found his teddy on his bunk. That was the moment that we all knew Radar had grown up. Radar is a perfect example in the sense that characters in a story don’t always need to undergo radical, 180-degree changes. It can be subtle but at the same time you should reach the end of the story and realize how the character has changed.
Margret ‘Hot lips’ Houlihan stands well up on my list of favourite female characters ever, be it in books or movies. When she enters the story she is a stuck up, stand to attention army brat that uses her feminine charms to scale up the ladder of the army. Admittedly a lot of her actions are moulded by ‘Ferret Face’ which is why I cheered when she got engaged only to be majorly disappointed by Donald. Then there is the ensuing divorce and for awhile there I though the writers would start shipping Charles and Margret but it never happened. Other than Hawkeye, Klinger, Igor, Rizzo and Nurse Kelly no one last the 11 seasons of the series but other than Hawkeye no one develops like Margret. By the end of the series she has softened dramatically and turned into a lovely character though still very strong willed and adamant about her position on things.
I remember the first time Klinger wandered onto my screen dressed in a nurse’s uniform and thinking ‘What the actual…’ I often wonder how controversial he must have been as a character for them to write into the story and how many nasty letters they received a week for his behaviour. But that was the beauty of Klinger because not only was accurate (there were men who pulled section 8 stunts all the time to get out of the army) but he must have been so much fun to write about. And the wardrobe department must have loved the writers too because while everyone else wore the same drab olive green they got to create fabulous outfits for him. We wont even discuss when he got married either.
Klinger, like Margret and Hawkeye had the entire 11 seasons to develop from a useless soldier whose sole purpose was to get out of the army to a good friend who everyone valued and was an asset to the outfit to the character who married a local and never left (that plot twist was a shocker for me). Like Margret he too suffered a War-divorce and we got to see him go on from there. What used to confuse me though was the amount of dates he would have. If I got asked out by a hairy legged dude in a cocktail dress who had a nose that could put California in the shade I don’t care how long I have been at war it wouldn’t happen.
Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce.
Despite watching every episode of MASH at least twice I still cant definitively say I like Hawkeye. I certainly don’t hate him like I did Frank Burns or Margret’s husband Donald but I have issues with him. If I were to meet Hawkeye in real life he would certainly rub me up the wrong way due to his womanizing ways. The writers must have then sensed this because they then wrote the episode where his old flame who he seemingly would have married turns up and we find out she dumped him. And then as he began to develop later on he became, in my opinion, attention grabbing and melodramatic. I mean his wise-cracks left me breathless but yeah…The jury is still out how I feel about him.
But he too we see develop through out the story line. Sure he never settles down, or really stops womanizing but I think towards the end of the series he stops treating women just as his subordinates. Through Margaret and a few other women he does come to realize that women can be just as good as him, in some cases better.
But I hear you ask ‘Who was your favourite character?”
That belongs to a certain Charles Emerson-Winchester the third.
Why? Oddly I adore him because he didn’t change. Sure we see his gentler side come out and he stops treating everyone like the bane of his existence, but in essence Charles never changes. He still remains the refined, smug, somewhat pompous, talented surgeon who appeared on our screens beating a General at cribbage. And that vocabulary! The writers must have run their thesaurus threadbare writing up his little soliloquies in the same way the costume department did with Klinger. Its marvellous.
As a writer though this show provides a perfect example of how to have the storylines of a multitude of very different people, all weaving and intertwining without being confusing or pathetic. And as a writer I know I strive to even partially capture this.
Simply put there will never be another M*A*S*H