Chuck Ross

Treat Yourself on This Veterans Day By Watching One of the Most Poignant Programs Ever Broadcast on TV. In Fact, It’s Already the Most-Watched Scripted Program in TV History

Nov 11, 2015

War is Hell. Or, more accurately, to quote William Tecumseh Sherman, speaking about the Civil War, “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is Hell.”

Hawkeye thought Sherman was wrong, as I once found quoted somewhere on the Internet:

Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.

Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?

Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?

Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.

Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chalk full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.

Hawkeye is Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, B.S., M.D. In the movie version of “M*A*S*H*” he was played by Donald Sutherland. In the TV version he was played by Alan Alda.

“M*A*S*H” is about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit during the Korean War. The movie came out in 1970. On TV originally from 1972 to 1983, “M*A*S*H” was a smash top-10 hit for CBS.

On Feb. 28th, 1983 the series finale ran. Titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” it was about 2 hours long (not counting commercials), and an audience bigger than watches most Super Bowls watched and was mesmerized.

Tonight, your local MeTV affiliate – which airs “M*A*S*H” reruns regularly — presents the rarely seen ‘M*A*S*H’ finale, along with exclusive interviews with the cast and creative team, starting at 7 p.m. Eastern/Pacific | 6 C. With the interviews and spots, the entire package tonight on MeTV runs 3 hours. Watch it live or DVR it. (Netflix these days also has the entire run of “M*A*S*H,” including the finale, but I find it’s a lot more fun just to watch the series nightly (or when you can catch it) on MeTV. Also, only on MeTV’s showing of the finale can you see all the interviews, which, again, for me, is half the fun.)

Like most episodes of this terrific series, the finale was funny and sad, sometimes, oddly enough, almost simultaneously. Call it raucous pathos. Faced with having to cope with death daily, if not hourly, the men and women of the 4077th turned regularly to sarcasm.

The great Larry Gelbart, who developed the TV version of “M*A*S*H,” once wrote about the show that he had tried “to give pain a certain style. Maybe that’s what the series was all about.”

That comes from Gelbart’s delightful and perceptive 1998 book “Laughing Matters.” He added that as he was writing the pilot for “M*A*S*H” the song from the movie, “Suicide is Painless” kept playing in his head: “[I]t was composer Johnny Mandel’s work that kept going round and round in whatever part of [my] psyche creative juices mix and marinate…The flavor of the music had a great deal to do with the final work being unlike anything I had ever done before—comedy written in a minor key.” Gelbart left the series after its fourth season, saying he had written all he could for the show.

Some stats about the finale of the show “Goodbye, Amen and Farewell,” from Wikipedia:

“Written by a large number of collaborators, including series star Alan Alda, who also directed, ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’ surpassed the single-episode ratings record that had been set by the ‘Dallas’ episode that resolved the ‘Who shot J.R?’ cliffhanger. From 1983 until 2010, ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’ remained the most watched television broadcast in American history, passed only in total viewership (but not in ratings or share) in February 2010 by [the] Super Bowl.”

“The episode drew 105.97 million total viewers…more than both that year’s Super Bowl and the ‘Roots’ miniseries. It still stands as the most watched finale of any television series.”

Let’s close with an excerpt from a piece Gelbart – who died in 2009 at age 81 – wrote for The New York Times the day before the finale first aired back in 1983. (After Gelbart left the show it ran for another 7 seasons.):

“Over the course of its run, ‘M*A*S*H’ was undoubtedly for some viewers simply a traditional service comedy with the usual mixture of gripes about army housing, clothing, food, and life by the numbers; all the red tape generated by the green machine….”

“But on a more serious level, ‘M*A*S*H’ always tried to get the viewer involved….We always wanted the viewer to care as much as those nurses did. Indeed, whether any particular episode, scene, or line took the high road or the low, or tried sometimes to combine both, the show always adhered, without any conscious reference, to the words of the director Rouben Mamoulian, ‘We must affirm and insist that the ultimate goal of a film, no matter what subject matter it deals with, is to add to the beauty and goodness of life, to the dignity of human beings and our faith in a better future.’”

Come to think of it, on this Veterans Day, that’s not a bad reason our men and women in uniform fight today as well.


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