Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Night the Nation Watched

If, at the end of my life, I am asked to list the five days that I remember the most vividly, I have no doubt that list would include this day in 1983.

It was on that day that the final episode of M*A*S*H, titled "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," was broadcast. To this day, it remains the most–watched TV broadcast ever.

1983 was quite a year for historic TV events. Super Bowl XVII the previous month, The Thorn Birds miniseries the next month and The Day After TV movie in November are still among the Top 50 TV events of all time. But the M*A*S*H finale is the all–time champ.

Well, the last couple of Super Bowls might have surpassed the M*A*S*H finale. Those numbers aren't available yet. But even if they did, it seems to me that comparing an unscripted championship game to a scripted performance is sort of like comparing apples to oranges.

Frankly, there were many reasons why the M*A*S*H finale drew so many viewers — and why no comparable broadcast is ever likely to duplicate the achievement.

It was a popular series. Well, not at first. It got off to a rocky start in its first season, but it was a fixture in TV's Top 10 through most of its run. It lasted 11 years.

During that time, Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye Pierce, was recognized by the Golden Globes six times and by the Emmy Awards five times.

And any discussion of the quality of the M*A*S*H series and its record–setting finale must include the writing, which was always top notch. There were the regular writers, of course, but members of the cast often contributed to the writing — and the directing.

If you watch all the episodes that were broadcast, the inescapable conclusion is that never was there a more creative crew. M*A*S*H was truly an ensemble effort.

Even though cable did exist at the time of the M*A*S*H finale, it was still in something of a nascent phase. Many people were receiving it, but many more were not.

In my market, as I recall, cable subscribers could get maybe two dozen channels, not the hundreds that are available now. Thus, the potential audience was not as fragmented as it is today.

Because of the sheer number of the alternatives available, I'm inclined to think that nothing that is shown on a single channel today can attract the share of the TV market that the M*A*S*H finale did.

The overall audience for a major news event might exceed it, but many channels will show the same news event. And sports events are, as I say, unscripted. Among programming that is scripted (and, almost always, recorded in advance), the M*A*S*H finale's viewership has never really been challenged — and almost certainly never will be.

There were several memorable, poignant moments in that program, and many folks will mention the same ones.

But there's one scene that I always enjoy watching whenever the show is being repeated, even though it has rarely been mentioned in my presence. That's a scene in which Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) was taking a break between surgical cases and Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) came up to him to ask for some advice.

Potter told Klinger he only had a minute to spare.

"Do you understand women?" asked Klinger. The running joke about Klinger, of course, was that he had long been trying to get out of Korea by wearing dresses, but now, because he was in love with a South Korean girl who had been separated from her parents and would not leave the country until she found them, he was considering staying in South Korea after the impending end of the conflict.

That was the conundrum with which he had been wrestling. But no one else knew that.

"Oh," Potter replied, apparently relieved. "What I understand about women will take a lot less than a minute."

That, my friends, is great writing. That's just all there is to it. And Harry Morgan, old pro that he was, delivered it perfectly.

Equally fine writing was on display earlier in the program, when Hawkeye was coming to grips with his role in a tragic event. His attempts to repress that memory had landed him in a psychiatric hospital, and the scene in which he had his breakthrough remains one of the most emotionally devastating moments I have ever witnessed on television.

Each of the primary stars — Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit, David Ogden Stiers — had his/her opportunity to shine although perhaps not quite as brightly as the ones I have mentioned.

They were all great, but I think all would agree that they have never been affiliated with a project or a group of people as special as those who brought M*A*S*H into America's living rooms for 11 years.