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AfterMASH tried everything to bring back that M*A*S*H feeling

The episode “Yours Truly, Max Klinger” proves how hard it is for TV to repeat itself

A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

It’s hard to say goodbye—even to a television show. The downside to getting emotionally invested in a story that takes days, weeks, or even years to play out (depending on whether you binge-watch or go “linear”), is that the final chapter or even just the summer hiatus brings a kind of “last day of camp” melancholy. It’s satisfying to be done with something, and either to start a new project or to enjoy some do-nothing time. Yet fictional or not, the people and places we’ve spent so much time with have a pull, if only because they’re so comfortingly familiar. Watching them? Enjoying their company? It’s something we know how to do.

That’s why there’s such a crushing weight of expectation on one particular kind of television series: the post-finale spinoff. Whatever we got out of a show—be it a particular narrative rhythm, an atmosphere, a sense of humor, or even just an actor’s performance—we almost need it to carry over. The challenge for those who make TV is in deciding whether to give the fans what they think they want. During the development phase of Better Call Saul, co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould talked about doing their Breaking Bad prequel as a sitcom, but they ended up with a serialized drama with a similar mood and style of storytelling—and one that has done very well. Frasier, on the other hand, succeeded by taking an underused Cheers character and transplanting him into an entirely new scenario, with its own vibe and style. The Friends spinoff Joey tried to juggle the “same as it ever was” and “same star, new digs” models, and flopped.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes a good spinoff. But one goal unites their creators: Trying to avoid becoming the next AfterMASH.

When M*A*S*H went off the air in February 1983, it was riper for a sequel than most departing hits. The M*A*S*H finale was a huge event—still the highest-rated non-sports telecast in the United States—and left fans wanting to find out what happened next for the doctors, nurses, and enlisted personnel of the 4077th, after the Korean War. AfterMASH answered that question for three characters. The series follows retired Colonel Sherman T. Potter (Harry Morgan) as he takes a job at a VA hospital in his Missouri hometown, and invites the 4077th’s company clerk Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) and Catholic chaplain Father John Mulcahy (William Christopher) to join him, after he hears that they’ve had a hard time back on the homefront. The show’s a proto-Joey, in that it keeps a lot of what worked before—a hospital setting, an ensemble cast, comedy derived from clashes with authority—and adds elements of broadness, nostalgia, and serialized storytelling that feel like clumsy retrofits. It was M*A*S*H reimagined for the television landscape of the early 1980s, rather than something born in the era of All In The Family.

The failure of AfterMASH has been overstated a bit. Looking at it in retrospect, the show suffers from unflattering comparisons to M*A*S*H and from the sour feelings of its creators, who fought with CBS executives over how best to “fix” a show that wasn’t terrible, just mediocre. (That’s another way that AfterMASH was like Joey, which also wasn’t as bad as its reputation now suggests.) The sitcom’s first season finished in the Top 15 in the year-end Nielsen ratings, and the episode “Fallout”—about cancer patients who’d been harmed by atomic testing—was nominated for an Emmy. “Fallout”’s writer-director-producer Larry Gelbart was singled-out by the Peabody Awards for grappling with a relevant social issue, as M*A*S*H so often did.

Nevertheless, one of AfterMASH’s executive producers, Ken Levine, has called the show one of his worst efforts, sarcastically writing on his blog, “Take the three weakest characters of M*A*S*H, put them in the hilarious confines of a Veteran’s Hospital and you have a recipe for classic comedy.” Ed Solomonson and Mark O’Neill’s M*A*S*H: Ultimate Guide Book quotes Gelbart as saying:

The show was far less than brilliant. I take full responsibility for its failure. If I hadn’t been so in love with the title, I might have thought out the show to go with it in a more objective way. I knew the series would inherit Potter, Mulcahy, and Klinger. I knew, too, that good as these people are, a leading player was going to be necessary. There was an attempt to build up a central character, a doctor who had lost his leg in Korea, and played wonderfully by David Ackroyd, but other attempts at making a show with its own tone, style and intent were not as successful. Probably, an hour show would have been a better format… Oh, well, you win some and you lose some (except on TV you lose in front of a whole lot of people).

The first-season episode “Yours Truly, Max Klinger” introduces that new character Gelbart mentions: Dr. Mark Boyer, a genius surgeon and Korean War vet with a nasty disposition, who stitched up wounded on the front lines, and thinks Potter had it soft at his M*A*S*H unit. This is also the last episode for the doctor who was supposed to be AfterMASH’s breakout star: Dr. Gene Pfeiffer, played by Jay O. Sanders. The relatively colorless Pfeiffer was given an unceremonious boot halfway through season one, replaced by the grimmer, more compelling Boyer. (Here’s how cold Sanders’ dismissal was: He only has about a minute of screen-time in “Yours Truly, Max Klinger,” most of it in a scene where his character gets told off by Boyer for being too soft.) Later the show would make even more radical changes, but this was the first major recognition by the producers that something wasn’t working.

Levine co-wrote this episode with his partner David Isaacs; longtime M*A*S*H writer-producer Burt Metcalfe directed. “Yours Truly, Max Klinger” brings back a tried-and-true trope from the earlier series: the epistolatory structure, used in M*A*S*H favorites like “Dear Dad,” “Dear Sigmund,” and “Dear Comrade.” Here, Klinger writes a letter to an old buddy about what’s been going on at General Pershing Veteran’s Hospital (a.k.a. “General General”). Besides the arrival of Dr. Boyer—who rubs everybody the wrong way but then wins Potter’s approval when he improvises a brilliant new technique in the OR—this week also sees Mulcahy having a patient-care conflict with a Baptist preacher played by M. Emmet Walsh, and Klinger moonlighting to make extra money because his wife Soon-Lee (Rosalind Chao) is pregnant.

In the long term, the Klingers’ money troubles prove important to the arc of the series. Few sitcoms circa 1984 bothered with much more than a basic level of serialization—letting characters change jobs, move to a new home, or find a new love interest—but AfterMASH pushed that kind of storytelling further, with Klinger suffering one indignity after another while waiting for Soon-Lee to give birth. This culminates in a season-finale cliffhanger that sees Klinger getting arrested for assaulting a con man. In season two, Klinger gets back into women’s clothes (as he did on M*A*S*H) as he first hides out from the cops and then feigns mental illness. Season two brought further cast changes and premise tweaks, designed to increase the conflict and the craziness as AfterMASH changed time slots to compete against the more youth-oriented The A-Team.

In the short term, “Yours Truly, Max Klinger” mattered because of the buddy that Klinger’s writing to: Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), another M*A*S*H favorite who actually appears in the episode’s last scene, as a tease for his longer appearance a week later. Had AfterMASH lasted longer, the producers undoubtedly would’ve brought back as many characters from the old show as wanted to do a guest-shot, but in season one Radar was the only friend who dropped by, in an episode that leans heavy on what the series did best: reminding fans of how much they used to love watching these people.

“Yours Truly, Max Klinger” doesn’t do a lot with Max’s letter to Radar, only using it for an occasional piece of narration, none of which is as creative as M*A*S*H’s best “Dear ___”s. But Levine and Isaacs do ape classic M*A*S*H in their dialogue, which is crammed with colloquialisms and loaded with alliteration. Bumbling hospital administrator Mike D’Angelo (John Chappell) gets off the lion’s share of these lines. When he tells a reluctant Potter about Boyer’s arrival, he’s dismayed that Potter gives him “complaints instead of kudos.” When D’Angelo decides to fire Boyer, he boasts, “I intercepted his processing-in papers and processed him out before he was ever in. So he’s out. I’ve apprised him of same and won’t repeat his response in mixed company.”

Meanwhile, Klinger’s side-businesses are all run by someone named “Big Mel.” Big Mel’s meat-wholesaling company (“Buy beef in bulk, buddy,” Klinger pitches) becomes an auto-upholstery outlet, which then becomes toupee sales… all drawn from the same unsold stock. Like a lot of the comedy in AfterMASH, the Klinger shtick perches uneasily between corny and knowingly corny, and clashes with the parts of the show that try to deal with social change in the Middle America of the ’50s. The same was true of M*A*S*H to an extent, but that show grew into its comedy/drama disconnects naturally—making them more like quirks. AfterMASH started out broken, and never healed.

For the AfterMASH actors who weren’t Morgan, Farr, or Christopher, this must’ve been a strange experience. They were working with people responsible for one of the most popular sitcoms of all time—and not the minor players, but big M*A*S*H honchos Gelbart, Metcalfe, Levine, and Isaacs. But as smart as they were, these men couldn’t nail the tone of their new show; they could only tell that they hadn’t nailed it. So “Yours Truly, Max Klinger” limps through scenes like the one where Mrs. Potter fills the trunk of her husband’s car with potatoes, and then suggests that they get a radio to cover the thumping noises. The laugh-track barely appears—almost as though the post-production crew weren’t sure if what they were watcing was supposed to be funny.

The people who watched AfterMASH every week weren’t ill-served, exactly. Yes, there was a fan-fiction quality to the way the series kept coming up with scenarios where Potter, Klinger, and Mulcahy could do more of what they did in Korea; and no, AfterMASH doesn’t even come close to measuring up to something like the last season of Angel (which gave heartsick Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans a well-appointed place to decompress for the year after Buffy’s finale). But for those who weren’t ready to let M*A*S*H go, the new show offered enough of a sense of what came next for these characters to satisfy some curiosity.

The problem is that it’s hard to throw the same great party twice, even with the same guest list. That’s because people change, times change, and creative momentum stalls. It’s less useful to compare AfterMASH to M*A*S*H than to compare it to some other CBS shows from the same era: like House Calls (a sitcom with M*A*S*H’s Wayne Rogers, which effectively transports his Trapper John persona to the modern day), or Trapper John, M.D. (which ditches the sitcom format to spin M*A*S*H off into a hospital drama), or Newhart (which was AfterMASH’s timeslot companion for a time, and did a much better job at bringing a 70s TV comedy star into a new decade without losing what made him funny). All of these series felt contemporary when they aired. Even if AfterMASH hadn’t been set in the ’50s, it still would’ve seemed out of date, if only by virtue of featuring Farr, the kind of offbeat, old-school character-actor who dominated TV and movies in the ’70s but fell out of favor a decade later. The 1980s belonged to pretty people and improv vets—as in Cheers, which had been on the air for a year when AfterMASH debuted and would go to become “the next M*A*S*H,” in terms of viewership and cultural prominence.

The best part of AfterMASH was its opening credits, which actually resemble Cheers’ in its montage of vintage photos. Beginning with images of the Korean War, set to a new arrangement of M*A*S*H’s “Suicide Is Painless” theme, the credits get jazzier as they moves into pictures of suburbia, atomic testing, and 3-D movies… y’know, 50s stuff. They end on an artificially aged shot of our stars, framing them as another artifact of a fondly remembered past. Everything that AfterMASH wants to be—poignant, warm, reflective, reassuring—is contained in its first minute. Why’d they have to mess that up by making a show to go with it?


Next time… on A Very Special Episode: American Gladiators, season-one mid-season wrap-up