Noel Murray's A Very Special Episode series at The AV Club has been indispensable from the get-go, but the latest installment, on the history and influence of MASH, is less interesting for the article itself than the response of its readers.
Murray's article has generated over 400 comments as I write this, and the big surprise is how obviously familiar with the show the readership of The AV Club appears to be. Though it is popular with people of all ages (hey, I'm a regular!), the site is geared largely to people in the early twenties to late thirties demographic. Many of its readers would not even have been born when MASH was in production. They would have to come to it through syndication, or DVD. And evidently it struck a chord in many people. Which is a surprise to me, because this show is a prime example of a once-revered program that simply doesn't hold up..
When it originally aired, MASH was regarded as an example of "Quality Television", one of the few bastions of quality writing and acting to be found in the vast Wasteland of primetime TV. But it was always a bit of a mongrel, aspiring to innovation while remaining thoroughly conventional, straining for pathos while relying on punchlines.
Early in its run, it tried for a looser, more free-form vibe, somewhat akin to the Robert Altman film that inspired it. But the show's developer, Larry Gelbart, while a certified comedy genius (and I'd like to take this moment to heap mountains of praise on his script for Stanley Donen's Movie Movie, one of the greatest comedies of the seventies), had the instincts of a Catskills tummler, always ready with a snappy quip or pun. Thus the show always felt self-consciously written, which tended to clash with its more serious war-is-hell attitude. The best early episodes have the feel of a more acerbic Sgt. Bilko, only not as good.
Because Bilko, after all, had no particular pretense to realism--it was shot in front of a studio audience. MASH was shot one camera-style, on locations or on relatively detailed sets, and seemed to be striving for...what? Authenticity? No, that can't be right--the very seventies hairstyles of most of the actors undermine any such notions. And the performances were anything but subtle, with the actors braying the dialogue as if trying to project to the back rows.
In a way, MASH most closely resembled the work of Gelbart's old writer's room cohort from the Sid Caesar days, Neil Simon. His plays--wildly popular in the seventies, almost completely forgotten now--were similarly machine-tooled for laughs and pathos, with the comedic and dramatic beats arriving at exactly the expected times. It could be effective, but it was inorganic by nature. Gelbart's jokes were funnier than Simon's, but his show felt similarly forced--characters were constantly having dramatic revelations that would be completely forgotten about by the next episode.
Of course, that was the convention of the time. TV shows in the seventies lacked the continuity of even the least distinguished shows today. There were no continuing storylines or callbacks to previous incidents. Every episode was self-contained. Or at least, that's what many TV historians claim. But it's not entirely true.
For instance, there was episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where perpetually wisecracking loser Murray risks everything--his marriage, his job, his happiness--by openly declaring his crush on Mary, his co-worker. She's flattered and embarrassed, doesn't know how to deal with it, and the whole episode is kind of squirmy and uncomfortable. And, in true seventies sitcom fashion, after that installment, it's never spoken of again. BUT...if you saw that episode, you could never look at Murray and Mary, sitting side-by-side at their work desks, the same way again. It was a character revelation that continued to resonate and didn't need to be stressed.
On the other hand, MASH would have its characters have some sort of epiphany just because it made for a nice dramatic storyline. They'd remember a childhood trauma, or become obsessed with death, or have a crisis of faith--the type of thing that, in anything resembling the real world, would pretty much define your very existence--then have a little speech at the end of the episode (perfect for an Emmy highlight reel) and be ready for next week's episode. Nothing ever resonated, nothing ever mattered.
After Gelbart's departure, MASH became much, much worse, limping along year after year in a neverending loop of static camera set-ups, mechanical wisecracks and high school play-level dramatics. The last three or four seasons--with the actors visibly much older, and situations often repeated from earlier episodes--were and are actually painful to watch. Yet the show's acclaim seemed to grow exponentially. Why?
Seventies TV was much maligned at the time, and still is now, sometimes unfairly. The best shows of the era--just off the top of my head, Mary Tyler Moore, Columbo, The Rockford Files, WKRP In Cincinnati--stand up to even the very best of what's being done now. But yeah, there was a lot of crap, and in particular, there were a lot of shows essentially designed to be nothing but time-killers. And as sometimes happens, in a sea of mediocrity, something that aspires to better things stands out. In concept and execution, MASH wasn't really significantly better than anything else, but it claimed to be, and once upon a time, good intentions really were enough.