Ah, Charles. Will you ever overcome your Winchester snobbishness? Judge Sandra Dozier hopes not, since it makes for good comedy.
Our reviews of 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), M*A*S*H: Five Star Collection (published January 22nd, 2002), and M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell And Amen (published May 23rd, 2007) are also available.
Welcome back to the 4077!
M*A*S*H is one of the most influential shows in television history. It ran far longer than anyone ever dreamed it would (11 seasons), thanks mostly to the strong comedic and dramatic timing of star Alan Alda and the consistently sharp writing. Although cast members came and went, each lead made their mark on the show and helped park the butts of the American television audience in front of their sets every week. For thirty minutes, America got to forget their troubles and laugh a little.
Facts of the Case
In the Korean War, M*A*S*H unit 4077 was the best Mobile Army Surgical Hospital around, located just a few miles from the front. The doctors and nurses stationed there were responsible for patching up soldiers who either returned to frontline duty or went on to a larger hospital for further treatment if their wounds were severe enough. It was a high-pressure job that often required a dozen or more hours on their feet performing operation after operation. All-day surgery sessions were not uncommon.
Throw into this mix a group of mostly drafted medical professionals who are far away from the comforts of home and dropped in the middle of Hell on earth, and you have the makings for a screwball dramedy, if there is such a thing. For every minute they spend sweating over someone whose life hangs in the balance, they spend two minutes trying to forget about it, through drinking or some other sort of tomfoolery, especially if the tomfoolery involves hanky-panky.
Their best doctor, Captain Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda) is a cut-up both in the Operating Room (OR) and out—if he isn't making a joke, he's cooking up a scheme, or maybe just some of his best rotgut in a homemade still. Bunkmate Captain B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) keeps him company and helps him carry out his schemes. They frequently gang up on their other roomie, the snobby Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers), a blue-blood from Boston who is sent to the 4077 at the beginning of Season Six when the previous major, Frank Burns, goes AWOL. And the reason for Frank's defection? Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit), the tough-as-nails head nurse who is completely gung-ho for the army and has no tolerance for tomfoolery. When she gets married, poor besotted Frank comes a little unglued, and Charles picks that moment to offend a general, who promptly ships him off to join the 4077 for an extended stay.
All of this happens under the watchful eye of Colonel Sherman T. Potter (Harry Morgan), a career army man in his '60s with a fondness for horses, a soft spot for his crew, and a tendency to bark sayings such as "Horse apples!" from time to time. Col. Potter leans on his trusty aide, company clerk Corporal Walter "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff), a shy and naïve lad from Idaho who has an uncanny ability to predict the every whim of his commanding officer. Finally, rounding out the crew are Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger (Jamie Farr), the company loony who never gives up hope that a Section 8 will be granted to him if he can just come up with the right women's ensemble, and kindly Catholic priest Lieutenant Father Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher), a character that single-handedly removed the fear of Catholic priests for many people who had grown up with strict religious training.
There are 24 Season Six episodes on three dual-layer DVDs, arranged in "broadcast order," the way the season was originally shown on television, which preserves the story continuity from one episode to another. (For some reason, many of the episodes are shown in production order during syndication, and since production is often out of synch with the actual story line, that can get confusing.)
The season starts off with the one-hour "Fade Out, Fade In," which introduces the character of Charles Emerson Winchester III. It's a very strong opening, expertly showcasing Winchester's character as a more than able foil for Hunnicutt and Pierce—he can return their barbs as quickly as they deliver them. He's also a surgeon of at least as much competence, with some updated techniques that he can show off to the others. This sets up a running joke that will play itself through the rest of the season, as Charles constantly tops the others with his stories of his prowess in several endeavors, the least of which is surgery.
This episode also explains the disappearance of Frank Burns, played in previous seasons by Larry Linville. He felt that the character of Frank was too one-dimensional and decided to leave the show. As annoying as Frank could be, he was much beloved by fans, but it didn't take long for the audience to warm to Winchester, who was so gleefully brought to life by Stiers. Just listening to him say "Margaret" or refuse something by saying, "Thank you, nooooo" is enough to make me teary-eyed with laughter.
Season Six had a majority of fine shows, with such landmarks as "Fallen Idol," an intense and touching episode featuring a falling out between Radar and his hero Hawkeye; "In Love and War," in which Hawkeye falls in love with a Korean who was schooled abroad; "Comrades in Arms," a two-parter in which Hot Lips discovers that Donald is cheating on her, and when she and Hawkeye get trapped behind enemy lines, they turn to each other for comfort; "Dr. Winchester and Mr. Hyde," a look at the darker side of Winchester's personality when he drives himself forward with the aide of uppers; and "Major Topper," in which Winchester has a story for every situation, and (sometimes) the evidence to prove it.
All in all, there were only a few stinkers in this lineup, making it one of the best seasons to date. The seemingly endless well of jokes to be made at the expense of Winchester's snobbish upbringing and money-driven sensibilities adds some new spice to the brew, and Hot Lips is humanized a little during the arc of the season, as she continues to wade through marital troubles and becomes increasingly isolated from everyone around her. Only toward the end does she begin to bounce back a little. It's interesting to see her character evolve during this season, and Swit handles it with grace and subtlety. How many people have we known who run their lives with ruthless efficiency but break down completely when it comes to matters of the heart? Margaret is fighting the same battle.
For some fans, this was the beginning of the end of their appreciation for the show. Season Six marks several changes in direction that fundamentally changed the characters. One season previous, who would have imagined that Margaret would be so devoted to the bonds of matrimony, or that she would feel so incensed by her husband's subsequent betrayal? And the character of Hawkeye becomes much more morose this season, delivering more dark humor than his typical Groucho Marx brand of silliness. Plots turned more serious, and the continuing presence of the chaste and faithful B.J. Hunnicutt and the single and morally even-keel Winchester seemed to turn things even further away from the slapstick, drunken, party-time atmosphere of previous seasons.
Visual transfer for Season Six is pretty good, considering the age of the source material. Although there is some darkness to parts of the print, most of the colors come through well, and the image is bright and clear, though it does show some fading and age-related wear. The mono soundtrack also comes across well, filling the front channels with robust sound. There is only some minor fuzzing at higher volume or during certain sequences. Of course, the best part of the DVD is being able to turn off the laugh track, an option that comes as a welcome relief for fans of the show. I read somewhere that the producers originally did not want to use the laugh track at all but had to cave in to studio demand. This may explain the prominent options for separation on the DVD. Unfortunately, "laugh track on" is the default setting, but at least it is one of the language options, in addition to a Spanish and French mono track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As usual for the M*A*S*H season releases, there are no extras. This is really kind of criminal, especially considering the staggering popularity of this show. The final episode aired at a time when VCRs still weren't being used by the general population, and people stayed glued to their sets, generating the highest viewership ratings in television history. Doesn't this rate some extras, for the love of Pete?
I won't argue that the package price (on average, around $25.00) is a good deal for what you get. However, I would happily pay ten dollars more to get some interviews, production featurettes, cast bios, and commentaries. In other words, give me an unchallengeable reason to add every box set to my library collection as soon as it goes on sale. I'm not even asking for a restoration effort, just some goodies.
Unfortunately, the complete lack of extras will drag down the value of this set for about half of the potential audience, but this set is still a good bet. If you are a fan who bought the VHS versions of these episodes, it's time to replace them with shiny new DVDs that will allow you to kill the dreaded laugh track. The overall quality of these episodes (both visual and story) also warrants a purchase for fans and those with a general interest in the show, but if you are at all on the fence or like to collect complete sets that include retrospective extras, keep the dearth of such material in mind when making your purchase.
Although we can bring no formal charges due to the exemplary conduct of the show to date, this court strongly advises, but has no expectation to ever see in our lifetime, some dad-blamed extras already.
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Scales of Justice
• Laugh Track on/off
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