Today I went to visit my parents for the Memorial Day holiday. We had a nice dinner with good conversation and plenty of laughs. I played with their dog and ate until I was swollen.
In the background, my dad had TV Land on as they were running a M*A*S*H* marathon. I am of the age of those that not only remember the show, but actually grew up on it. Trapper John, Colonel Potter, Hotlips Hoolihan, BJ Honeycutt, and of course, Hawkeye Pierce, were all household names in my home growing up, but I must confess, it had been years since I watched an episode–rerun or otherwise.
Over the course of the day, I took in each of the last three episodes of the long running show (so long that it actually lasted longer than the Korean War which it was based around), and found myself astounded by how revolutionary it was. M*A*S*H* premiered in 1972, two years after the Robert Altman film of the same name became a smash hit and a critical darling. The early seasons followed the Altman template, that of a satirical look at war seen through the eyes of the doctors who treated the wounded. But over time, the series developed into something more. Sure, there was still plenty of zany humor, but the pathos became deeper. Eventually the show even dropped the sitcom staple of using a laugh track. Driven largely by its star, Alan Alda, the show took on topics ranging from feminism, mental illness, alcoholism, and plain old despair.
More than anything though, what struck me watching the final episodes today was how fiercely liberal and anti-war it was. The characters regularly cursed the war and their conditions. They sympathized with soldiers on both sides of the conflict and treated them with equal concern. If M*A*S*H* were made today the only way it would be able to retain its perspective would be if it were picked up by HBO. I can’t imagine a major network coming anywhere near it.
As I viewed the classic last episode (still the most viewed program in the history of television), I was struck by what felt like a profound melancholy. As each character went through the sad, grueling process of saying goodbye to one another, it was almost as if I could feel it too. I started thinking of many of the people who I had worked with over the years that I had to bid farewell to. Sometimes people come into your life for a sizable but relatively short length of time, and when they leave you know things will never be the same. In the rare case, maybe you stay in touch. But most of us sort of slip away from each other after the bonds of shared work are broken. Now of course, most of us never work in a war zone. However, at least on a small level it is something that all of us can relate to.
M*A*S*H* ran from 1972-1983–nearly three times as long as the Korean War–and when it ended, 125 million people tuned in to see them off. Why did it last so long? Why did so many of us tune in? Because sometimes people come into your life for a sizable but relatively short length of time, and when they leave, you know things will never be the same.
So for at least one more time on this Memorial Day, Farewell, Goodbye, and Amen.