Saturday, September 12, 2015

When It Really Did Feel Like the First Time

The episode of M*A*S*H that was shown 40 years ago tonight felt like the series' debut, even though the actual opening night was three years earlier.

Two of the charter members of the cast — McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers — had left the series, and the hour–long episode that aired 40 years ago tonight introduced Rogers' replacement — Mike Farrell as Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt — to the viewers. Harry Morgan was introduced as Stevenson's replacement, Col. Sherman Potter, a week later.

It wasn't the last time that the core cast would change, either. Before the series ended, Larry Linville (Frank Burns) and Gary Burghoff (Radar) would leave, bringing in David Ogden Stiers to replace Linville as a staff surgeon and elevating Jamie Farr as Burghoff's successor as company clerk. Linville's character was acting commanding officer by the time the '75 season began 40 years ago tonight, but Harry Morgan would soon be brought aboard as Col. Potter, the unit's duly appointed new commanding officer.

For most TV series, so many personnel changes would be too much to survive. But it worked for M*A*S*H — and I think it was kind of a perfect storm. Military units change personnel rather rapidly; ironically, that made Hawkeye (Alan Alda), who was the pivotal character in the program, the anomaly, the one who stayed the whole time, along with Hot Lips (Loretta Swit). So it was natural that people came and went, even those people to whom the audience felt an attachment. That, too, happens in war. It added an extra layer of realism to a series that so often walked a fine line between comedy and drama.

As the episode opened, Hawkeye was returning to camp after some R&R in Tokyo. He and the audience already knew that Stevenson had left — and been shot down over the Sea of Japan — but neither knew that Trapper John (Rogers) had received his orders to return to the States.

When Radar told him, Hawkeye hitched a ride with Radar to pick up Trapper's replacement. Hawkeye hoped to catch Trapper before his plane left so he could say goodbye, but they got there 10 minutes after Trapper's departure.

They met his replacement (Farrell) and took him to the Officers' Club after discovering that someone had taken their Jeep. Radar was uneasy about going into the Officers' Club, being an enlisted man, but Hawkeye took B.J.'s captain's bars and put them on Radar's cap. If anyone asked, Hawkeye said, they were field testing a new rank — corporal–captain.

I always liked the dialogue on "M*A*S*H," but I particularly liked the dialogue in this episode. For example, upon entering the club, a clearly nervous Radar ordered his trademark grape Nehi. When it was served to him, the bartender asked, "Does the 'captain' want a straw?"

Radar, trying to come across as if he belonged in officers' country, replied, "We don't use straws in combat, fellah!"

Then Radar noticed a colonel who was eyeing him. and he told Hawkeye. "What colonel?" Hawkeye asked. "There's enough brass in here to make a spittoon."

"Over there at eight o'clock," Radar replied. "He keeps staring at me."

"He's probably crazy about you," Hawkeye said.

Anyway, the three needed transportation back to the 4077th. Hawkeye saw a general's Jeep parked outside the club. He plucked the general's flag from the hood, and the three of them climbed in the Jeep and headed for the camp.

Things were going swimmingly for the travelers until they happened upon a Korean family who had sent two daughters into a field to use sticks to see if there were land mines there. If the girls survived, the field was safe for the family's ox — and for the family to plant crops.

They tried to stop the girls from their task, but a mine went off and one of the girls lay motionless on the field. Radar went running into the field in spite of his companions' protests, picked up the wounded girl, instructed the other to take hold of his sleeve, and they ran back to the Jeep.

The Jeep backtracked to a hospital where the three dropped off the girl and some other members of the family, then resumed their trip to the 4077th. That was when they had a flat tire — and, while they were changing it, they came under sniper fire. They got away with the lugs on the tire a bit loose, then stopped down the road to tighten them. B.J. observed that there was a bullet hole in the seat next to him. Radar remarked that the general who owned the Jeep would have a fit.

"Why should he?" Hawkeye asked. "We fixed his flat."

Shortly thereafter the Jeep came under mortar fire. The three abandoned the Jeep and sought cover, then had to tend to the wounded from a unit of soldiers that had been walking through the area. Once that was finished, they resumed their trip and made it to Rosie's Bar near the camp. They stopped for a drink, then proceeded to the camp, where a now inebriated B.J. checked in with Frank Burns by saluting and saying, as he had been instructed by Hawkeye, "What say you, Ferret Face?"

Frank, who had been fantasizing (along with Hot Lips) about training B.J. to be his kind of Army doctor, realized that he had another Trapper John on his hands.

But not for long. A new commanding officer was on his way to the 4077th.