Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Goodbye, Radar. Farewell, M*A*S*H.

I stopped watching M*A*S*H sometime early in its 7th season when I noticed that I was spending a lot of time every episode wanting to say to Alan Alda, "Take a shave, why don't ya?"

I couldn't help thinking that as soon as Alda looked in the mirror and saw that his whiskers had turned white, Hawkeye should have started making regular dates with his razor.

Hawkeye was looking Alda's age, which was over 40, and a middle-aged Hawkeye did not make any sense, not just historically---no doctor in his 40s would have been drafted into the Korean War because he'd have already served in World War II---the show's connection to the actual Korean War was tenuous anyway. Hawkeye's whole character was based on the premise that he was a very young man and a rather inexperienced doctor.

Everything about him---his constant wisecracking, his frequent bouts of solipsism, his arrogance, his complusive skirt-chasing, his fetishizing of his martinis, his many neuroses, his rebelliousness for rebelliousness' sake, his occasional callousness and his too frequent lapses into sentimentality and over-sensitivity, and his anger, and Hawkeye was an angry young man before and apart from the war---marked him as a young man just coming out of a prolonged adolescence, which is what he was.

Hawkeye was not long out of medical school, dragged away from the last year of his residency or his first year as a practicing surgeon by the draft, which made him no more than 27 or 28. In many important ways he was still a student. The subtext of his character was that the war was making Hawkeye Pierce grow up by giving him 10 years of experience in a matter of months.

The war was making him face things he'd never thought about, one of which was just how awful life could be, for himself, and for other people.

Here was a young man who had missed the most defining event of his generation. He'd sat out World War II on a student deferement.

Korea was making him learn things he hadn't even known he didn't know. Most important, that he wasn't a good enough doctor to do all that he wanted to do.

Henry Blake had already learned that about himself. Henry was often a buffoon. Hawkeye often made Henry come across as even more a buffoon than Henry managed to be on his own. But Henry was the grown-up, and every now and then, the show would remind us, and Hawkeye, of that fact.

Int. Entrance to the OR. Hawkeye's standing looking out the doorway, crying. His boyhood chum has just died on the operating table, Hawkeye having been unable to even begin to save him. Henry comes out to comfort him.

HENRY: Pierce? Is there anything I can do to help?

HAWKEYE: It's the first time I've cried since I came to this crummy place. I don't understand that.

HENRY: Well, Gillis was your friend. It's only natural that you' know.

HAWKEYE: I know why I'm crying now. Tommy was my friend and I watched him die and now I'm crying. I've watched guys die almost every day. Why didn't I cry for them?

HENRY: Because you're a doctor.

HAWKEYE: What the hell does that mean?

HENRY: I don't know. If I had the answer I'd be at the Mayo Clinic. This place look like the Mayo Clinic? Look. All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war, and Rule Number One is Young men die. And Rule Number Two is...Doctor's can't change Rule Number One.

But Hawkeye strides back into the OR determined not to accept Rule Number Two. Much that happens in the course of the series is about Hawkeye being forced to face up to and learn Rule Number Two.

Which is to say that MASH was about a very smart, very talented, and very arrogant young man learning how to become a more humble, and more decent-hearted middle-aged man. When I was a kid, this was one of the things that was important to me about the show. How does a guy become a man? How do you do it and become a better, stronger person while you're at it?

If the series had been a novel---and forget Richard Hooker's novel the movie was based on. I mean a serious novel by a good writer---it would have ended at the moment Hawkeye realized he was now the grown-up in the room.

The series never reached this point, although the final episode dealt with Hawkeye's realizing that he wasn't invincible, which is a good first step towards becoming a grown-up.

But for me, the show was done when I couldn't look at Alan Alda and not see a man who was undeniably already a grown-up.

I didn't want to watch a man my father's age pretending to be as goofy and mixed up as I was.

Maybe it was just the case that I was entering the territory Hawkeye Pierce was on the brink of leaving. I didn't need to watch anymore what I was having to live through.

(I'm talking psychologically. I was never a draftee doctor performing meatball surgery in Korea or anyplace.)

I was reminded of all this recently when I watched the two-part episode from Season Eight, Goodbye, Radar, which was written by Emmy Award winner and blogger, Ken Levine, and his partner David Isaacs. After I read Ken's post about his experience working on that episode I wanted to see it again, and to see it I had to get the DVD from Netflix because Season Eight is not in my collection of MASH DVDs.

My collection so far ends with Season Four and that's probably where it's going to stay. I'm considering adding Season Five. But if I do, that will definitely be it. As I said, I stopped watching the series early in Season Seven and when I watched Goodbye, Radar I remembered not only why I stopped, but why my affection for the series became disengaged.

It wasn't just that Hawkeye looked old. Everybody looked old. The whole cast was by that point playing characters almost 20 years younger than themselves. And who let Mike Farrell grow that cheesy mustache anyway? It was that in this episode Radar goes through the catharsis that I'd been waiting for Hawkeye to go through.

In his post talking about the making of that episode, Ken Levine mentions that one of the things that bothered him at the time was the way Gary Burghoff played Radar as angry. I saw the episode when it it aired---I made a special point of it, having gotten out of the habit after a year of not watching---and I remembered Burghoff's strange affect. I'd have called it terminally irritable. But he was definitely playing Radar as more than a little grumpy.

Watching again, I decided that Burghoff had a good reason to play Radar that way. In fact, he was right to. Radar has been without sleep for over 24 hours, he's coming back from leave as the show starts and he has a long, rough trip back to the 4077th, he returns to find that Klinger, filling in for him while he's been gone, has made a disaster of the filing and let a thousand little but necessary jobs slide, and he's not back very long before he gets the news that back home in Iowa his beloved Uncle Ed has died.

Add to this that at the top of the show he meets, falls in love with, and is dragged away from the girl he's destined to marry.

No wonder he's pissed off.

And then it gets worse for him. With his Uncle Ed gone, Radar's mother is left all alone to tend the family farm. She needs help right away and Colonel Potter decides to give it to her. He puts Radar in for an immediate hardship discharge.

This should be great news. Radar's going home. But he doesn't take it that way. It makes him even madder. He's angry because he's now confronted with a very difficult choice that he is too tired, too sad, and too scared to think through rationally.

On the one hand, he knows he needs to go home and take over the farm.

On the other hand, he feels a responsibility to stay at the 4077th and keep the place running.

It should be relatively easy for him to decide. Why wouldn't he want to get out of Korea and the war as fast as he can?

Well, because at the 4077th he's the kid. Leaving there means leaving his big brother figure, Hawkeye, and his father figure, Colonel Potter.

When he goes home he will become the man of the house. Since he intends to find the girl he met at the beginning of the episode and knows in his heart that he'll marry her, going home means becoming a husband and, soon, a father.

In short, going home means growing up, almost overnight. No wonder he's in a lousy mood about it.

The problem isn't that Gary Burghoff decided to play this anger. The problem is that, while he was a very good actor, he didn't have the verbal chops to carry it off. His voice isn't up to it and he comes off sounding whiny and petulant, like a teenager who hasn't been able to con his dad out of the car keys and is facing a weekend at home doing the chores, instead of like a young man mad at the world for demanding too much of him all at once and mad at himself because he's not sure how to handle it.

But that changes once Radar makes up his mind to go home. From there on out, Burghoff hits the right notes. His voice is a man's voice, a man resigned to the consequences of a choice he'd rather not have had to make right now.

In his post Ken laments the fact that Burghoff didn't wear a hat for his final shot. He argued with Burgoff over it during filming. Ken thought that it revealed Burghoff's high hairline to lamentable effect.

"Our contention was that without the hat he no longer looked like a kid, he looked like a balding man rocketing into middle age."

But again I think Burghoff's instincts were correct. I think he wanted us to see in our last glimspe of Radar to be the man he was on his way home to become and not the kid we'd been used to watching.

It was the right choice because it stated visually that the Radar we knew and loved was gone and we should not look for him to be coming back.

The boy was now the man and the man didn't belong at the 4077th.

Of course, it's been too long for me to really remember, but I'm pretty sure that's what convinced me that I was right not to watch the show anymore.

Radar and I were close to the same age by then, and I guess I decided that I didn't belong at the 4077th anymore either.

Dennis Perrin of Red State Son lost interest in MASH after Season Five too. He's recently come to a new and richer appreciation for those first few seasons, though, thanks to his DVD collection which lets him watch the shows without the laughtracks.

And a while back, I wrote about how it was during the Fifth Season that MASH changed from a comedy with dramatic moments into a drama with comedic interludes, and the night I wrote that post I wasn't all that happy about that change.


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