August 5, 2018 2:02 AM   Subscribe

What “M*A*S*H” Taught Us
Lost among this year’s observances of the paradigm-shifting cultural events of 1968 is the fiftieth anniversary of the book “MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors,” a little-remembered shaggy-dog volume by Richard Hooker that engendered fourteen more novels; a feature-film adaptation (directed by the then up-and-coming Robert Altman); and one of the highest-rated television series of all time.
posted by infini (53 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Honest question to people who I respect for their opinions: Are the books good if you liked the TV series? Or are they good in other ways?
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:53 AM on August 5, 2018

I've only read the first book, but while very problematic, it's an interesting quick read. The movie follows it pretty closely.
posted by drezdn at 5:10 AM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I grew up watching the TV series, and have to say in looking back, it was a somewhat formative experience for me. This article brought back a lot of good memories of the TV show (250 episodes? Wow.) and is a reminder to tune in when I see it on syndication. As the writer says, a lot of the episodes were bad, but many more of them were really good, and some were quite innovative for their time. I saw the movie and have to say that each stands on its own and have their own merits (sorry, never read the books).

Those episodes where Hawkeye lost his shine as Radar's idol and the last two with Hawkeye's final struggle, those were some of the best (and at the same time, hardest to watch).
posted by docjohn at 5:11 AM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't know if the book - the first book - is good at all, but it is an interesting document, and mildly diverting. The article catches it well, essentially it's a thinly-veiled war memoir by a fratboy. As I remember it, the characterisation is a bit better than that suggests. Definitely not an essential read, but it wouldn't take more than an afternoon, I'd have thought.

I can't imagine that the quality improves from there, though.

The movie is one of those things where the many good things about it tend, understandably, to be overshadowed by the well-known bad things.

One thing that doesn't seem to get discussed as much as it should is the way that the central theme - free-spirit disruptive guys cutting through hide-bound bureaucracy and pompous authority - has been turned around and weaponised by the right, and in some ways is the reason we are where we are today. Not just MASH - the ur-text of the current mess is more likely to be National Lampoon's Animal House - but it's striking the way that the right have reframed themselves as the revolutionaries and the left as the establishment, even though the actual reality is completely the opposite.
posted by Grangousier at 5:12 AM on August 5, 2018 [24 favorites]

I enjoyed Hooker's first novel quite a bit; I've read it several times. It is, as TFA noted, "a light, pithy read" and it taught me the word "micturition." I read the next one or two novels, but they weren't nearly as interesting to me.

Ken Levine wrote for the TV series; his blog contains all sorts of interesting stories about making the show.
posted by bryon at 5:14 AM on August 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

I kept the dogeared first book for a few decades as an indulgence read. It’s of an era, funny, non ironic, paints a good picture. Read it once, I suggest.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:31 AM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The entire run of MASH (the TV show) hit Hulu a few weeks ago.
posted by COD at 5:49 AM on August 5, 2018

The entire run of MASH (the TV show) hit Hulu a few weeks ago.
posted by COD at 5:49 AM on August 5 [+] [!]

Can you watch it in the European style? (without the laugh track?)
posted by gc at 5:54 AM on August 5, 2018

Can you watch it in the European style? (without the laugh track?)
posted by gc at 8:54 AM on August 5 [+] [!]

I just checked and the only audio track available is the default track.
posted by COD at 5:58 AM on August 5, 2018

Alda’s Hawkeye is flamboyant, intellectual, and manic—almost always the center of attention. New York-y, even. Where Sutherland’s charisma is sneaky, Alda’s is all out front. It stretched the limits of plausibility to imagine him back home in Maine, building lobster traps with his dad, but, as Alda told me, “We weren’t doing the book, and we weren’t doing the movie. I don’t think that the somewhat depressed character portrayed in the film would have worked for very long in the show.”

I love Alda (and his Hawkeye) but he was never even slightly believable as a Mainer. I mean he sounded just like my Bronx-raised mother; like her he would often drop Yidishisms into conversation, something that I'm guessing few natives of a real Crabapple Cove would do.
posted by octothorpe at 6:02 AM on August 5, 2018 [17 favorites]

I dunno, Seth Meyers, Sarah Silverman and Adam Sandler all grew up in the same town in neighboring New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders is one of thousands of "immigrant" Vermonters, so a few New Yorkers probably have found their way that bit farther north after WWII.

You certainly don't need to be religious to pick up Yiddishisms growing up.
posted by goinWhereTheClimateSuitsMyClothes at 6:52 AM on August 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

Can you watch it in the European style? (without the laugh track?)

It was originally conceived without a laugh track but CBS insisted on one; they did, however refrain from using canned laughter during the OR scenes.

Apparently the book's author much preferred the movie over the TV series, feeling the movie was truer to the book and disliking the TV show's liberal leanings. NYT obit here.

I first saw the movie while in college, perhaps after the TV show ended, and they are definitely very different. Both good, but in different ways.
posted by TedW at 7:09 AM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I appreciate the movie as one of the films that really started "New Hollywood" and am somewhat amazed that the studio let Altman experiment with narrative and sound design so much but it really doesn't hold up well.
posted by octothorpe at 7:13 AM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

All of this so infuriated [writer Ring Lardner Jr.] that he ultimately told the director, “You’ve ruined my film,” and announced at the movie’s first screening that there was not one word of his that remained in it. (Lardner went on to win an Academy Award for best screenplay.)
posted by doctornemo at 7:19 AM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Read many of the follow-up books. Seriously embarrassing pap aimed entirely at adolescent males (as I was at the time). Don't waste your money or time on them.

The original is the only one worth reading.

The movie is good, but I prefer the book.
posted by Pouteria at 8:13 AM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm going to have to watch some M*A*S*H. I realize I've avoided it all my life because of the theme song. When I was around preschool age, it came on TV right after the block of morning kid shows ended. The muted trumpets and flutes of the opening theme sounded so distinctly sad to me against those dreary helicopter establishing shots and those bold yellow letters. It still feels like pure depression in AV form.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:13 AM on August 5, 2018 [11 favorites]

es_de_bah, that was exactly the case for me too. I avoided MASH like the plague for that, even being in a hurry to snap off the TV.

I watched the movie a couple of weeks ago. Not only did I hate it, but it wedged the theme song firmly into my head for an extended period of time. Ugh.
posted by ejs at 8:21 AM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I adored MASH as a kid growing up, it was one of the few shows I was allowed to stay up late for. I remember crying at the last episode, it was like saying goodbye to family. At its heart, I think it was about normal people trying their best in an awful situation.
posted by arcticseal at 8:50 AM on August 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

I read the book and have zero memory of it, which means it probably wasn't horrendously bad and, as suggested up thread, the movie probably didn't stray much in terms of overall plot.

As for the whole MASH phenomena, as I put it in a previous thread, I find it hard not to view the whole thing as a rather sobering evocation of just how badly the culture got it wrong between the end of the 1960s and the rise and rise of Ronald Reagan's America ...

You might say I grew up with MASH. Turned thirteen in 1972 ... and so on to being well into my twenty-fourth year when it finally wrapped up.

At first, I loved it. It was a much needed weekly dose of "question authority and have fun while you're doing it". But something happened as the years went by. It started taking itself way too seriously such that by the time it was over, Klinger was no longer a crossdresser, Hot Lips was "one of the boys", the smartest guy in the outfit was the commanding officer ... and it just wasn't that funny anymore.

But this had taken a long time to come about. A friend of mine pins it all to Trapper. When he left, the anarchy left. His replacement, BJ, was okay and certainly no warmonger, but he utterly lacked Trapper's danger, the kind of guy who had a predictable liberal position on everything ... and would never cheat on his wife.

Blame the times if you must. 1972, in spite of Richard Nixon's re-election (or maybe because of it), was still very much a "hippie" year. Vietnam wasn't over, kids wanted their hair long and their jeans torn, all the old rules were still being very much questioned. Jump ahead eleven years and you had Reagan in the White House and a nation that was "waking up to a new morning".

Or as a film prof put it to me in around 1979, MASH was the most pro-war show on TV.

"How so?" I said.
"Because regardless of how hideously they depict war, the heroes are still there, honoring their draft notices, doing their bit for the great and evil machine."

posted by philip-random at 8:58 AM on August 5, 2018 [10 favorites]

I have a fair amount I could say about M*A*S*H the TV series, but I'll keep it short -- as the series wore on, it became much, much less like the book and the movie. It became, for the most part, considerably less funny, and for both of those things, it became much better for it.

And put me on record for disagreeing vehemently with philip-random's film prof. If his prof saw M*A*S*H as a hagiography for the unenthusiastic but willing cogs in an evil machine, we must have been watching very, very different shows.
posted by tclark at 9:59 AM on August 5, 2018 [9 favorites]

tclark: I can understand *both* the Prof's comment *and* yours. Was enlisted in the Marines once.
posted by aleph at 11:17 AM on August 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

This discussion of Hawkeye not being very Maine-ish is funny bc I thought the same thing. When I was in college I was writing my final big paper and I had holed myself up in my room with MASH dvds from Netflix (pre-streaming) which was nice bc I could watch them in French and this helped me write for whatever reason. They’re really good to watch in French if you can. Anyway I did a lot of thinking about Hawkeye’s strange background and I decided that Crabapple Cove was his childhood fantasy land. He talked about it bc it made him too sad to talk about his real home. Later when they revealed that he actually had a dad who actually lived there I decided that it was an old family enclave that his dad moved back to after Hawkeye grew up but it was still Hawkeye’s childhood idealized wonderland that he fantasized about as a kid growing up in the ghetto. He always had a penchant for never quite living in the moment.
posted by bleep at 11:24 AM on August 5, 2018 [10 favorites]

The muted trumpets and flutes of the opening theme sounded so distinctly sad to me against those dreary helicopter establishing shots and those bold yellow letters. It still feels like pure depression in AV form.

The original version, written by Robert Altman's 14 year old son, has overtly depressing lyrics.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:28 AM on August 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

holy shit, shapes that haunt the dusk. When the harmony kicks in for the second chorus it sounds like the Emo Beach Boys. Really a beautiful song, but Christ, it's rough. Elliot Smith could have murdered that song.
posted by es_de_bah at 11:40 AM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The original version, written by Robert Altman's 14 year old son

Fun fact: To direct M*A*S*H, Robert Altman was paid a flat fee of around $70,000. For writing the deliberately terrible lyrics to a song that was used, instrumentally, as the theme to one of the most popular sitcoms in history, Mike Altman made far more than that.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:12 PM on August 5, 2018 [8 favorites]

Gene Roddenberry got half the royalty checks for the Star Trek original series theme by writing lyrics that were never used (thankfully, as they're very bad)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:25 PM on August 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

M*A*S*H? Finestkind.
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:58 PM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Goddamn Army.
posted by zooropa at 3:38 PM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Alda was not remotely recognizable as a Mainer, but neither was Sutherland. I always loved Sutherland's short whistle. The book was funny, sexist, is very dated.
posted by theora55 at 3:54 PM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Frank Burns eats worms" is what MASH taught me...
posted by Windopaene at 5:42 PM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

deliberately terrible lyrics
I kind of like them, is it just me? I mean they're not subtle at all but kind of relatable if you're depressed.
posted by floomp at 6:00 PM on August 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

aleph: "tclark: I can understand *both* the Prof's comment *and* yours. Was enlisted in the Marines once."

Yeah, I hear where the professor is coming from. But on the other hand:
Three hours ago, this man was in a battle. Two hours ago, we operated on him. He's got a 50–50 chance. We win some, we lose some. That's what it's all about. No promises. No guaranteed survival. No saints in surgical garb. Our willingness, our experience, our technique are not enough. Guns and bombs and antipersonnel mines have more power to take life than we have to preserve it. Not a very happy ending for a movie. But then, no war is a movie.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:51 PM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

floomp, you’re describing elliot smith lyrics...
posted by es_de_bah at 9:00 PM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

M*A*S*H is always going to be of primarily historical interest to me but I love the theme song.
posted by atoxyl at 9:42 PM on August 5, 2018

MASH the movie is a terrible film about some assholes sexually assaulting women and driving a dude crazy for fun. The MASH TV show can be summed up by this Futurama gag. I have not read the books.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:42 PM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

A big thing about M*A*S*H (the TV show) is that it's a product of its times. The book is largely shenanigans, har har. The movie brings forth some of the horror of war, but it's the TV show that really hammered in that war is awful. It is true that in some ways it's like a toy version of Catch-22, but it'd be impossible to turn Catch-22 into a TV show, and TV shows, especially those that last 11 seasons, can have a profound way of affecting the culture that movies and books can't quite match. If MASH seems like it flips suddenly between maudlin and funny, it's because the funny's necessary to keep people watching a show about the horrors of war, and the maudlin is the honest reaction to those horrors.
posted by JHarris at 11:19 PM on August 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

It gave us Col. Flagg, for which I for one will be forever grateful. (RIP Edward Winter.)

It also gave us Dr. Sidney Freedman, ditto.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:13 AM on August 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

It was definitely a mind_blown.gif moment when I found out that Allan Arbus, who played Sidney Freedman, was the photographer Diane Arbus's ex-husband.
posted by octothorpe at 5:47 AM on August 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

As Burt Metcalfe, a producer who was with the show from beginning to end, told me, “When you do that many episodes (ed. 256), some are going to be really great, and some are going to be really bad.”
I too fondly remember watching this when I was growing up. Some very good and moving episodes, and some, nearer the end, where I felt it went a little 'preachy'. It's probably time to watch it again with mature eyes.
posted by achrise at 6:20 AM on August 6, 2018

I was seven when M*A*S*H started and 18 when it ended. I've always felt that the show should've ended when Colonel Blake died at the end of Season 3. The first three seasons had a cynical edge and complexity that gradually wore off as the show went on. The show evolved into a liberal mushpot. I hated the finale.

Claim to fame: William Christopher (Father Mulcahy) was in my friends' play in college in the late '80s and apparently was pretty handsy with the women in the cast. We stole his cake at the wrap party.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:26 AM on August 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

I had the total opposite opinion which is that the facile slapstick of the first 3 seasons evolved into something interesting. Haha we r smarter than frank haha
posted by bleep at 2:18 PM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

The constant sexism of the earliest seasons wasn't good at the time and aged dreadfully. When the nurses started being something other than rotating girlfriends or jokes to the writers, and when Margaret was allowed to turn into a real person instead of Frank Burns' prop, the show drastically improved. It's at its best from the time Potter arrived to when Radar left or a bit after.
posted by tavella at 3:12 PM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Personally, I think that the show peaked during first three years or so of Col. Potter and Hunnicut. Before that it still seemed too indebted to the structure and tropes from the movie and later on, it just got too soft and everyone was too chummy.
posted by octothorpe at 7:08 PM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I had not idea until today that there was a spinoff called AfterMash.
posted by craniac at 8:54 PM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Trapper John, MD
posted by infini at 11:28 PM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

The first three seasons years had a cynical edge and complexity that gradually wore off as the show war went on.

Does it make more sense that way?
posted by Miko at 11:36 PM on August 6, 2018

craniac: "I had not idea until today that there was a spinoff called AfterMash."

Then I guess that you didn't know about W*A*L*T*E*R.
posted by octothorpe at 4:12 AM on August 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I grew up with M*A*S*H because my dad watched it almost every day in syndication. He still does. He was never in the military, but I read somewhere that it was popular with veterans for the nostalgia or even to manage PTSD. I can see that, despite taking place in a war, M*A*S*H never showed blood or bullets or anything that could be triggering.

WGN aired the first few episodes last night. I watched episode 1 and 2 with my dad after Better Call Saul. The first episode was way more like the movie than the TV series would become. The second was quite Catch-22ish, Hawkeye and Trapper had to turn to the black market to get medical supplies.

And man, Gary Burghoff was too old to be Radar. The articles says he left because he was nearing middle age, but from the start he had thinning hair and 5o'clock shadow. If you saw a man like that clutching a teddy bear, you'd think he had an intellectual disability.
posted by riruro at 9:05 AM on August 8, 2018

Wait Radar wasn't supposed to be someone with an intellectual disability?
posted by bleep at 9:18 AM on August 8, 2018

I never got that from his character, he was just uncannily perceptive.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:30 AM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

He had grown up pretty sheltered, I think, but he wasn't "slow."
posted by Chrysostom at 11:22 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

He was teh innocent baby of the tribe, until he stopped looking babyfaced.
posted by infini at 11:39 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another thing: in the second episode, Hawkeye says Korea is in southeast Asia, which is not at all accurate, but tells you that everyone had Vietnam on their mind.
posted by riruro at 8:54 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

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