Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In 1967, The San Francisco Chronicle and CBS television commissioned a documentary called Inside North Vietnam, made by British journalist Felix Greene, which showed the North Vietnamese as bloody but unbowed, and depicted them in a far more human light than any report coming out of the U.S. state department at the time. CBS declined to air the film, but licensed it to the National Educational Television network, the forerunner of PBS. When news leaked out that Inside North Vietnam was going to be broadcast, a group of congressmen drafted a letter of protest to NET president John White, suggesting that his decision to air “communist propaganda” made him unfit to serve in a post funded by tax dollars.
We hold the ideal of the free press as sacrosanct in this country (or should, anyway), but the First Amendment sometimes gets a little foggy when it comes to television. Music, movies, fine art, and printed material can be produced and distributed independently by anyone who has the means, but there are only so many notches on a television dial and so much space on the broadcasting spectrum, so the major broadcasting conglomerates are licensed by the government, which has the authority via the FCC to squelch programming they find offensive or seditious—or at least to apply enough pressure that the networks make changes “voluntarily.”
Yet even with congressmen threatening legislation, television still began to challenge the United States’ involvement in Vietnam in the late ’60s and early ’70s—first with detached skepticism, then with outright hostility. By the time U.S. troops drew down in 1975, it would’ve been hard to find anyone on primetime TV who openly supported the war, outside of maybe Bob Hope.
The TV sitcom M*A*S*H wasn’t explicitly about Vietnam, though like the movie that inspired the show (and the novel that inspired the movie), it debuted while the war was in full swing. Instead, M*A*S*H used the Korean War as a stage for commentary on the futility of all war, and the inherent madness of military life, no matter the era. Case in point: this scene from the M*A*S*H episode “The Interview,” which aired on February 24, 1976, at the tail end of the series’ fourth season:
A few things to note about that scene, and this episode:
1. Though “The Interview” is based on an episode of See It Now in which Edward R. Murrow interviewed Marines in Korea at Christmastime, it has more in common with the cinéma vérité documentaries that emerged in the ’60s and ’70s. The jump cuts, the relaxed tone of the interviewees, the frankness… these all convey 1976 a lot more than they convey the early ’50s. (And these days, “The Interview” would feel right at home on television, in the age of the mockumentary format. Note the old colonel’s awkward glance at the camera when he slips and says “damn.” It’s like something out of The Office.)
2. “The Interview” is an atypical M*A*S*H episode, yet it’s still very M*A*S*H-y. After the opening credits, a voice informs us that the show will be in black-and-white. (And isn’t it odd that barely 15 years after color became commonplace on television, an episode in black-and-white is considered an event?) Then Clete Roberts—a veteran broadcaster who was an actual war correspondent in the early ’50s—introduces the concept of the mobile surgical hospital and explains that he’s going to share with us his conversations with some of the personnel, while warning that their saltier language might be bleeped. That’s a curious warning on a meta level, given that in nearly every other episode of M*A*S*H, viewers have seen these people in much more stressful situations than a television interview, yet they’ve never said anything that had to be bleeped. Even more meta: While the interviewees’ answers are meant to be off-the-cuff, many of their replies sound unusually quippy, as though they were scripted by a comedy writer.
3. The kinds of questions Clete Roberts asks in “The Interview” aren’t so much the kinds of questions a Korean War correspondent would ask a M*A*S*H unit as they are the kinds of questions that a fan of M*A*S*H would ask the characters on M*A*S*H. Writer-director Larry Gelbart, who helped develop the series and worked on it for the final time with “The Interview,” built the episode through a combination of improvisation and scripting, letting the actors answer questions based on what they thought their characters would say. There’s a distinction between what Harry Morgan would say as Colonel Sherman T. Potter on the TV sitcom M*A*S*H in 1976 and what an actual commanding officer of a field hospital in Korea in 1951 would’ve said during the actual war—especially to a TV reporter. The Korean War was a fascinating conflict: a foreign-policy overreach on the part of an America so confident after the triumphs of World War II that its leaders failed to take into account how much they’d drained the military’s resources in the years that immediately followed. But outside of the occasional regional or historical reference, M*A*S*H was never all that concerned with telling true-to-life stories about fighting and doctoring in Korea. After all, this was a show that took 11 years to depict a war that ended in three. After a while, “The Korean War” on M*A*S*H became something existential and metaphorical, not actual.
None of the above is meant to denigrate M*A*S*H, “The Interview,” or the work of Larry Gelbart, all of which I hold in high esteem. It’s only to note that M*A*S*H had an agenda aside from historical accuracy. It was about skewering authoritarianism, advocating simple human decency, and exploring the changing roles of women and men, all as seen from the perspective of its own time, not the ’50s.
What also made M*A*S*H special was that it had a look and feel unlike any of the other mature sitcoms that became popular in the early ’70s. It wasn’t as warm and wry as The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Bob Newhart Show, and it wasn’t as intense as the Norman Lear family of sitcoms. M*A*S*H was shot on film on a lot, with no studio audience. It had a laugh track that the producers often fought to diminish or eliminate. (There’s no laugh track in “The Interview,” for example.) And while Robert Altman’s movie featured naturalistic, overlapping dialogue, Gelbart—who honed his chops working for Sid Caesar during TV’s first Golden Age—was more classically showbiz, favoring gags and punchlines.
The cast of M*A*S*H was a mix of old Hollywood types and actors who fit more with the ’70s “New Hollywood.” Loretta Swit was off doing a play when this episode was shot, but “The Interview” features the rest of the show’s core players. Alan Alda as surgeon Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce became known as the quintessential “sensitive man” in the touchy-feely ’70s, even though his most famous character is a womanizer, and a bit of an asshole. (When I watched M*A*S*H as a kid, I admired Hawkeye; when I got older, I realized how obnoxious and self-righteous the character could be, and started to hate him; now, I think the show was fairly gutsy to let Alda play Hawkeye as borderline unlikeable.) Mike Farrell out-sensitives Alda as the soft-hearted surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt, self-described in “The Interview” as “a temporarily mis-assigned civilian.” Harry Morgan had been playing grizzled characters in Hollywood genre movies since the ’40s before he took on Colonel Potter, and he positioned the C.O. as a jaded paternal type, as though he’d wandered in from some old war movie. Larry Linville as Major Frank Burns spoofed paternalistic arrogance in ways that are familiar even now. William Christopher and Jamie Farr were both steadily employed character actors in the ’60s on television and in movies, and they didn’t venture too far from their types as Father Mulcahy and Corporal Klinger—the former meek and kind, the latter brash and earthy. And Gary Burghoff as company clerk Radar O’Reilly was the lone M*A*S*H regular who also appeared in the movie, and had the kind of low-key, quirky presence that Altman loved.
Here are Linville, Alda, Farrell, and Burghoff at work, answering on behalf of their characters the question, “What do you miss most from home?”
Note how Burghoff delivers the punchline of his story (“That sounds like Eleanor Roosevelt!”) vs. how Linville delivers his (“I’m one of those that feels that marriage is the headstone of American society.”). One sounds like a punchline; the other sounds more natural and whimsical. Neither is preferable, necessarily; just different. But Burghoff’s performance—or maybe just the way his character was written—gives him the flexibility to make a joke elsewhere in “The Interview” about how whenever the wooden latrines give him slivers, “you really find out who your friends are,” and still later to deliver a heartbreaking monologue about turning away Korean orphans who need medicine and food. (In that monologue, Burghoff as Radar says, “That’s where it’s really at, y’know?”—a bit of slang which adds to the feeling that M*A*S*H has its head more in the ’70s than the ’50s.)
“The Interview” offers a mix of those poignant monologues and quickie one-liners, all allowing Gelbart to deliver his last M*A*S*H thoughts on war in general and these characters in particular. Klinger gets to give one more shout-out to Tony Packo’s in Toledo, home of “the greatest Hungarian hot dogs.” Hunnicutt gets to express his admiration for the nurses for doing “man’s work,” and to describe how on his first day at the 4077th, he performed three amputations before breakfast. Potter gets to say that his heroes are Abe Lincoln and Harry Truman, and that he won’t take advantage of the opportunity to say hello to his wife and family because “it’s not dignified.” And Father Mulcahy gets to say that he’s looking forward to going home someday to “run the CYO.” He also gets to deliver one of the most memorable speeches in M*A*S*H history.
When Mulcahy talks about doctors warming themselves over open wounds, it complicates some of the main questions often asked about M*A*S*H, then and now: Is the show harsh enough when it comes to the realities of war? Is it too harsh? Robert Altman used to complain that the TV series had sanitized and cutesyed-up his more anarchic film. (Though to be fair, Altman was also pissed that his son made more money for writing the show’s theme song, “Suicide Is Painless” than Altman ever made for directing the movie.) Sam Fuller, meanwhile, used to say that it was impossible to make any movie or TV show that was truly anti-war, because even the most raw-looking production would be “another goddamn recruitment film” to young men who wanted to prove they could handle the mayhem. And yet Mulcahy’s speech defies the conventional wisdom about anti-war statements. It’s so matter-of-fact, and melancholy, and not in the least bit attractive or soft.
At one point in “The Interview,” Roberts asks the people of the 4077th if war was ever glamorous to them, and Hawkeye responds that his experiences have shaken him so much that he can’t read Hemingway any more. But Hawkeye also gives a reason why war might have some lasting value when he describes his colleagues as “finest kind” (a Hawkeye-ism held over from Richard Hooker’s original novel, as well as the movie). And when B.J. is asked whether he’s planning to maintain any of his 4077th friendships once he leaves Korea, he says he’s torn between honoring those relationships and forgetting this whole chapter of his life. Regular M*A*S*H viewers, though, felt at home at the 4077th, no matter how miserable the characters were. Fans knew every character’s hometown, and may have pined right along with them when they waxed rhapsodic about Ottumwa or Crabapple Cove, even though those same fans were perfectly happy to hang out in Uijeongbu week after week (or night after night, once the show was sold into syndication).
So did M*A*S*H make military life look both glorious and familial, or was the series so irreverent that it bordered on the unpatriotic? It’s worth comparing “The Interview” to the See It Now episode that inspired it, in which Murrow tries once or twice to get the troops to say that their work in Korea is wasteful and pointless, though he never pushes too hard, and the Marines never stray off-message. In “The Interview,” by contrast, Hawkeye talks about writing a suggestive letter to Bess Truman, and complains that in the Army, “the clothes are green, the food is green… except the vegetables,” and says that in a war, to stay sane, “One thing you can do is to get out in the road when the jeeps are coming by, and everybody sticks their foot out in front of the jeeps, and the last one to pull his foot in is the sane one.” His contempt is palpable.
After Gelbart left M*A*S*H, the show maintained its excellence by and large, though there were times when the writers couldn’t tell the difference between sophisticated storytelling and smug preachiness, and Alda’s alternately sullen and snappish portrayal of Hawkeye did become distractingly rooted in Me Decade pop-psychology. And every time the show lost a character and added a new one, it tended to move further from the farcical elements and broad comedy that Gelbart and his co-producer Gene Reynolds used in the early seasons to balance the earnestness. (Though the quips remained. The show was practically a punchline factory in its later years.)
Though M*A*S*H became a huge hit and an enduring favorite of TV fans and scholars alike, there were times when its continued existence was as threatened as Inside North Vietnam. In 1974, FCC chairman Richard Wiley, in collaboration with the heads of the major networks, decided to forestall threatened action against the increasing maturity of TV content by drafting an industry-wide policy creating a “family hour” from 7 to 9 p.m. eastern time. The Writers Guild Of America filed a lawsuit, and at trial, Larry Gelbart testified that the “family hour” policy had produced a chilling effect on TV series with adult themes, and that he’d already had four previously approved M*A*S*H story proposals sent back for retooling by CBS. (And this on an award-winning show that was so popular with audiences that it could hardly be said to violate any community standards.) The judge on the case ultimately ruled that the “family hour” was a violation of the First Amendment, and was especially appalled when a network executive explained that the policy wasn’t so much designed to safeguard children as it was to protect parents from being embarrassed when they watched these shows with their kids.
So the major TV creators of the ’70s, like Gelbart and Lear, were free to keep exploring mature themes, and to express a political point of view that was unapologetically leftist, or at least flippant about traditional conservative American values. Their sensibility dominated television in the ’70s, and on into the decades that followed in syndication, and was so pervasive that an entire generation of right-leaning folks grew up feeling marginalized, even after subsequent Republican administrations fought back via the market, by allowing individuals and corporations to increase their media holdings (thus making rocking the boat less of a priority). The anti-authoritarian propagandists won key battles in the ’60s and ’70s. But once the Vietnam War was over, the Culture War intensified.
Note: For more details on Inside North Vietnam and the government’s tangled history with broadcast television over political and/or “adult” content, I refer again to Erik Barnouw’s indispensable TV history Tube Of Plenty. I also recommend this M*A*S*H* fan-blog, from which the images above were taken.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Arrested Development, “Good Grief”