Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Colonel Potter and the Evolution of M.A.S.H.

When Harry Morgan joined the cast of M.A.S.H.  for the start of its fourth season in 1975, the show still largely followed the slapstick formula of the 1970 film.  Morgan himself had played a minor role in this regard, with a guest appearance as a crazy general in a third season episode.  Such portrayals were typical of the show, which often portrayed the military leadership as inept and out-of-touch.  These representations grew out of the cynical spirit of the anti- Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and early 1970s.  As the program continued throughout the late 70s and early 80s, however, the show took on a more serious tone as the respectable Colonel Potter replaced the hapless Colonel Blake, who had run the 4077th for the first three years of the program.
The film depicted the Korean War of the early 1950s, but M.A.S.H. was clearly intended to serve as an allegory for the Vietnam War, which was still underway in 1970. In fact, the studio asked the filmmakers to add references to Korea to the movie, because director Robert Altman and others had tried to make the backdrop look as much like Vietnam as possible. The television show continued to follow this formula.   It is ironic that the most famous pop culture representation of the Korean War, often called the “Forgotten War,” is thought of as the portrayal of another conflict.
In its early years, M.A.S.H.  was a traditional comedy, as the irreverent Captain Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and Captain “Trapper John” MacIntyre (Wayne Rogers) played practical jokes on Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit), who represented traditional military values as well as the conventional American patriotism that had come under attack in some circles during the 1960s.  The unit’s commanding officer, Colonel Henry Blake, was a well-meaning but bumbling leader who was manipulated by Pierce and MacIntyre with some assistance from Blake’s right-hand man, Corporal Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff).
With the departure of Blake and Macintyre and the arrival of Potter and B.J. Hunicutt (Mike Farrell), the show began to take on a more dramatic tone.  This change accelerated when the arrogant, competent Major Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) replaced the incompetent Burns.  Furthermore, the Margaret Houlihan character evolved from being the butt of jokes to a Mary Richards-like character mirroring the prominence of the women’s movement during the time.  Even Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr) stopped trying to get thrown out of the military, put away his dresses and became an effective company clerk.
The evolution of the program came about not only from cast changes, but from the growing role of Alan Alda in the writing and producing of the show.  Alda was increasingly involved in liberal causes, becoming a leading advocate for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  As some scholars have noted, male roles changed due to the emergence of 1970s feminism, moving away from the machismo of John Wayne to the sensitivity of Alda.  Reflecting this sensibility, Pierce, Alda’s on-screen alter ego, grew from an inveterate womanizer to a character who was frequently seen crying in episodes during the later years of M.A.S.H.  This culminated when Hawkeye has a nervous breakdown during the series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.”
Fans of M.A.S.H., like fans of Woody Allen, frequently debate: which was better, the early, funny years or the later, dramatic period?  M.A.S.H. was one of my favorite shows as a kid and I use to prefer the dramatic era, but I’m no longer sure.  The antiwar message becomes a little tired and I don’t need a TV show to repeatedly tell me that “war is bad.”  It also saddens me to say the funny period isn’t as funny as I remember it being.  Still, whichever time frame you like most, the shift began when Colonel Potter arrived at the 4077th.  Cue the theme music.

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