Original Airdate: October 25th, 1982 on CBS
If the rock you’re living under doesn’t get syndication, M*A*S*H is a sitcom about the Korean War based on the popular Robert Altman movie of the same name, and it’s frequently included in lists of the best TV shows of all time. More than anything else I’ve discussed here, M*A*S*H has a central place in television history. It was one of the most widely watched series of the 1970s and its series finale in 1983 drew over 100 million viewers, making it the single episode of television viewed by the most people on broadcast in the history of scripted TV. In comparison, the much-ballyhooed Seinfeld finale drew only 76 million viewers.
However, it’s also widely acknowledged that by Season 11, M*A*S*H had well and truly run out of gas. Harry Morgan, who played Col. Sherman Potter, had acknowledged that “the cracks were starting to show” by Season 9, and by season 10 CBS was begging star Alan Alda to hang on for one more year. So we come to “Hey, Look Me Over,” the Season 11 premiere of M*A*S*H.
- A sense of humor well matched to its tone. The issue of M*A*S*H’s laugh track was apparently a long-running source of contention. As Mental Floss explains, M*A*S*H’s single-camera style and mixture of war drama with sitcom didn’t seem like a great fit for a laugh track to the creators of the show, but CBS couldn’t countenance the idea of people enjoying a sitcom without being told when to laugh. The producers did manage to get the network to agree to keep the laugh track out of surgery scenes and certain key episodes, and after season six they toned it down immensely. The DVDs also feature an option to turn it off altogether, and I’m wondering if the episode I watched was ripped from a DVD with that option turned on or if by Season 11 the laugh track was so diminished as to be unnoticeable. In any case, a laugh track would have been painless suicide for this episode. You see, there are a handful of genuinely funny moments—without the supervision of the nurses, Hawkeye Pierce (Alda) manages to break the door off the autoclave—but there are also several rather weak attempts at jokes that would surely have had the laugh track rolling in the aisles. Axing the laugh track makes the show seem more realistic, and it’s certainly true to real life that people often say and do things that are nominally witty but not actually funny. Without the laugh track making like Jeb Bush and pitifully requesting a response, everything is more immersive and every lame joke is more forgivable.
- Engaging storytelling around female characters. Okay, I wasn’t expecting this. Is there any institution more traditionally masculine than the American military? Nevertheless, both storylines in this episode center around the nurses in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. One storyline is about Head Nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) scrambling to get the surgical unit up to snuff for an incoming inspection from the hardass Col. Bucholtz (Margaret Feury, The Witch Who Came From The Sea.) There’s not much going on there beyond Houlihan learning a valuable lesson about the balance between diligent discipline and pushing people too hard. I get the sense that the later seasons of M*A*S*H featured a lot of valuable lessons, because Hawkeye gets one too, but at least his is a bit more interesting. You see, the reason he got a chance to break the autoclave in the first place is because the nurses were evacuated out of an abundance of caution and the surgeons are left in charge. When the nurses return, they plan on celebrating by dancing to a bunch of hot new jukebox records from the likes of Nat King Cole and Hank Williams. Hawkeye sees this as a golden opportunity to get his dick wet and begins dispensing cookie-cutter pickup lines to every woman in sight—except the one woman who really wants to hear them, Kealani Kellye (Kellye Nakahara.) Eventually, she calls him on the fact that he’s only interested in sniffing the hair* of pretty white girls (well, she describes them as blonde with perfect noses, anyway) and that he hasn’t even bothered to get to know her. If he had, she says, he’d realize that she’s compassionate, intelligent, fascinating and “cute as hell.” This was pretty awesome, and it’s instructive to the world of television today that writers were coming up with substantial stories to tell about women of color in 1982, so TV writers today really have no excuse. Eventually, Hawkeye gets a glimpse into Kellye’s hidden depths when he sees her comforting a dying soldier by gamely pretending to be his sweetheart at home, so he shows up at her door later that night with a bouquet of flowers and a tux, but she’s not into his consolation bone—she’s already got a dude with her. Wamp wamp. Seriously, though, I’m glad the show took the opportunity to avoid having Kellye leap into Hawkeye’s arms the second he gets around to acknowledging her as a valid subject of sexual interest.
- Loretta Swit. Look, she must have been doing something right—her and Alda were the only actors to hang on for all 11 seasons in a show that was known for shaking up its cast. But she’s the only example of someone really being out of step with the tone of the show. She sells her cheesy one-liners like she was on a vaudeville stage and makes their humorlessness all the more conspicuous. I’m going to be charitable and chalk up this mugfest to the fact that this was episode two-hundred forty one and she was probably tired. No one is holding out for the idea that their best work is going to happen in year eleven of any given project.
*One amusing moment in this episode has Kellye telling Hawkeye a story from her childhood only to look over and find him literally sniffing the hair of one of those pretty white girls. Gross!
Motivation: Houlihan is motivated by work—she wants to impress Bucholtz—and Kellye is motivated by love. Not that she loves Hawkeye, per se, but she does have a crush.
Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. Not the worst M*A*S*H, not the best M*A*S*H, but it’s interesting that even an installment from what is widely acknowledged to be this show’s shittiest season is still better than half the crap I review on this blog.
NEXT TIME: I continue to review the juggernauts of the anime world by taking a look at Dragon Ball Z!