While he wasn't overly impressed by this revisit to one of television's seminal series moments, Judge Bill Gibron was inspired to show off a little. So he killed a gopher with a stick before screening his private copy of Yvonne, Renee, and Loretta in What the Parrot Saw.
Our reviews of M*A*S*H: Season Six (published July 28th, 2004), M*A*S*H: Season Seven (published January 19th, 2005), M*A*S*H: Season Nine (published January 11th, 2006), M*A*S*H: Season Ten (published May 15th, 2006), M*A*S*H: Season Eleven (published January 31st, 2007), M*A*S*H (Blu-Ray) (published October 5th, 2009), and M*A*S*H: Five Star Collection (published January 22nd, 2002) are also available.
Event TV Finds its Starting Point
Today, it's almost impossible to gauge the pop culture impact of the final episode of M*A*S*H. When it left the airwaves on that fateful night—February 28, 1983—more than 77 percent of the viewing public tuned in to see what would happen to the remaining members of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Unit. All year, the hype had announced an episode of epic proportions—almost three hours of farewells, wrap-ups, and surprises. The obsession for information on how the nation's favorite sitcom would end was so fierce, the tabloid truncheon National Enquirer even tried to "scoop" the broadcast with a supposed script reveal. In their sensationalized story, they mentioned that one character goes crazy, another leaves early, and one suffers a "debilitating" injury, while another remains in Korea after all. There were hints at possible plot resolutions (would a one-time couple get back together?) and arguments that the humor that was the series' signature had been replaced by a well-meaning, if rather overdone, sense of melancholy resolve. The devoted, frantic for any piece of information they could get, drank it all in. They weren't sure if what they were reading was correct, but with the loss of an 11-season entertainment security blanket on the horizon, they needed a kind of preemptive peek.
Of course, the scandal sheet was "mostly" accurate—in the end, Hawkeye (Alan Alda, The Four Seasons) had the nervous breakdown (only to get better by the end of the episode), B.J. (Mike Farrell, Providence) headed for home when a set of mistaken orders came through (he was back before the narrative's halfway point), Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) suffered a mild concussion and lost some of his hearing, and Section 8 screwball Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) fell in love with a local gal and decided to stay in the country to help her look for her parents. In between, Major Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers, Beauty and the Beast) found solace in a group of P.O.W. musicians, Colonel Potter contemplated retirement, and Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit, S.O.B.) tried to figure out her next professional move. As the two-hour extravaganza unfolded, fans ate up every amazingly maudlin moment. They teared up as habitual living room residents packed up their tents, held on to their dour, dramatic beats, and vanished into the sunset, ready to become part of assured broadcast history. Indeed, even today, M*A*S*H maintains the benchmark for final episodes. It's hard to imagine another series (with the exception of The Simpsons, perhaps) that would demand such universal attention with its finale, as well as get away with being so completely devoid of what once made it great.
It's time to step back now, some 24 years after the fact, and remove the Kool-Aid IV from our collective veins. While definitely an intriguing and dramatic installment of the seminal show, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" is not the entertainment epiphany everyone thought it was. It's a draggy, self-important exercise in everything that the original series tried to avoid. One has to remember that comedy giant Larry Gelbart, best known for working with Sid Caesar on the classic Your Show of Shows, adapted the Robert Altman movie as a kind of cynical rewind of America's involvement in Vietnam. Through the Korean conflict, he and his staff could hash out the arguments between the Establishment and the Counterculture with sly, even subversive, wit. But by 1983, with Gelbart long gone and a new creative regime eager to push the dramatic elements even further, M*A*S*H suddenly seemed like a shadow of its former comedic self. Watching this finale, you'd never guess this was the same program that offered up the classic installment centering on a fictional mystery novel (The Rooster Crowed at Midnight) with a missing last chapter or the various paranoid pratfalls of intelligence officer Colonel Flagg. Instead, a sense of purpose had infused the one-time sitcom with an almost arrogant seriousness that, even in the final moments, it really could not shake.
Alan Alda is often cited as the reason behind the revamp. It's said he was unhappy with the frivolous tone of past seasons and wanted to explore the more introspective nature of the characters. So naturally he gets the big overreaching arc here, his Hawkeye going nutburger over a horrible event during a bus ride back to base. Second only to this syrupy, slack bit of story is David Ogden Stiers' situation as Major Winchester. Thinking it would be funny to see this upper-crust twit in distress, the narrative has him driven by diarrhea (he is nervous about his job prospects come a declaration of peace), only to find the latrine unavailable for use. Naturally, this leads to a trip into the brush, a meet up with some North Korean musicians, and a last-act denouement that's both forced and rather touching (thanks solely to the actors' amazing reactions). Harry Morgan never ever hits a wrong note as Col. Sherman Potter, and his sequences of solemn resolve are just brilliant. He really is the glue that holds this entire final episode together. Sadly, the rest of the cast is underserved. Loretta Swit's "Hot Lips" Houlihan is an afterthought, her send-off shockingly anti-climactic and stained by some incredibly off-character acting choices. And while they're going through the motions magnificently, Mike Farrell (B.J.), Jamie Farr (Klinger), and William Christopher (Father Mulcahy) are reduced to exaggerated bit parts.
Granted, it's hard to watch this bloated expression of self-importance some two decades removed from the fact and still feel the initial impact. Gone are the years of anticipation, the endless hours spent in memorizing the reruns (remember, M*A*S*H's success came before the advent of affordable VHS/Beta technology), the amount of personal goodwill built up, and the always important lack of familiarity. When it was new, it seemed novel, almost sacrilegious, for a comedy series to tackle serious subjects. But M*A*S*H had eclipsed that categorization, instead settling in nicely to a habit of mixing the goofy with the graceful. The war was never far away, and neither was the gruesome triage and surgical theaters, but the humor helped cut through that gloom. Yet "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" (credits to almost every writer who was on the series staff at the time) wrenches too far over into onerous territory. In fact, the series as a whole does a decent job of reflecting the massive mood swing America went through during the '70s. From carefree cluelessness to a sour sense of overcompensation, the show maneuvered the changing cultural waters with a unique blend of talent and timelessness. Sadly, it ended on a note completely contained within its own era.
So the question becomes, is there a reason to own this three-disc set of the final episode of M*A*S*H? Oddly enough, the answer is yes. As with most TV on DVD, Fox has fudged around with this series, offering entire season configurations as well as a massive, all-encompassing box set. What we have here, apparently, are many of the extras provided on The Martinis & Medicine Collection. The following intriguing bonus features are spread out over two supplemental discs. First up is a "Just the FAQs" interactive trivia game. It's fun, if kind of frivolous. Next, there's an A&E Biography Special entitled M*A*S*H—Television's Serious Sitcom. The title speaks for itself. In addition, there's promo spots, a set of bloopers, some backstage video of the final day of filming (including cast interviews), and a series of PSAs—Public Service Announcements. Toss in an unproduced script ("Hawkeye on the Double"), a "Fan Base" featurette, an odd compilation labeled "Jocularity," and a Memories of M*A*S*H documentary, and you've got quite a selection. But what longtime fanatics will really enjoy is the 2003 30th Anniversary Reunion Special hosted by Mike Farrell. Most everyone is here, and their recollections and anecdotes about the show are priceless. So as long as you don't mind standard broadcast Dolby Digital Mono and an unimpressive 1.33:1 full-screen transfer, you're getting a great deal of quality, especially considering the bare-bones nature of the previous releases.
Still, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" can't help but feel like a letdown. It feels like something constructed by committee, an attempt to give every star his or her own moment in the memorable sun. Some of it works, and by the end, your collective recall of the series will send your eyes into mist mode. But don't be surprised if some of this famous last episode causes you to squirm a little bit. Not in dramatic discomfort, mind you, but out of a sense of subtle boredom.
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Scales of Justice
• "Just the FAQs" Interactive Trivia Game
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