Most scripted television shows end in cancellation, so there’s something special about the ones that get the chance to go out on their own terms. This year, Ken Lowe is revisiting some of the most influential TV shows that made it to an officially planned final episode.
That’s All, Folks
is a look back at television’s most unforgettable series finales.
America throws a lot of things down the ol’ memory hole, but almost nothing, to my mind, has been suppressed more than a full assessment of the Korean and Vietnam Wars—at least, not for the generation that grew up right after Vietnam, like me. My history courses in the ‘90s and ‘00s always, always found a way to run out of time in their American history segments right around 1949. It annoyed me—what were these wars nobody could shut up about actually about? Nobody wanted to explain.
As it turns out, everybody had spent the 11 years before I was born getting over them, and the show that helped them do so wrapped a few months before I came into the world. I just missed M*A*S*H, and in retrospect, an entire era of TV it represented.
Television’s changes in the last 20 or so years have been rapid and almost catastrophic: A generation of TV watchers have cut the cable cord, and because of online streaming, that generation’s children may never understand the concept of “appointment television,” that learned behavior of getting your butt on the sofa at the right time for your favorite show.
There are a lot of dividing lines that marked these gradual changes: Cable began the deluge of choices that ultimately has robbed every individual scripted show of the importance that old broadcast television used to have, with its claim to American monoculture. Optic disc technology, high definition TV, high speed internet, and even changing economic circumstances that have forced more adults (mostly women) out of the house and into grinding jobs during daytime television hours have all contributed to a change in what a popular TV show looks like and who any particular show is even for.
TV has changed so much now that fewer shows even get canceled in their first season anymore, due in part to the value networks see in having them around to pad out their streaming libraries. As such, this column is really about a bygone era of television.
In light of all that, M*A*S*H’s series finale marked the end of a lot more than just the show. “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” brought in 106 million viewers. The only things on TV that have come close to or topped that viewership—not scripted shows, but anything that has ever been on TV—have been a handful of major sporting events. No scripted television show before, and no episode of any show in the 40 years since, has ever had more eyeballs on it at the same time. There has not been a show since M*A*S*H that as many people have given as much of a shit about.
M*A*S*H is a phenomenon with an absurdly long backstory, all of it vestigial in comparison with the smash hit itself. Based on a 1970 theatrical film which was in turn based on a 1968 novel by Richard Hooker, the show follows members of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during their duty in the Korean War (now you know what the acronym stands for). The early conflict among the cast is a culture clash between the drafted members of the unit (most notably Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye” Pierce, the Yossarian of the bunch) and the career Army people. Plots are as much about the drama of saving wounded soldiers as they are about the absurdity of the war, and more than once the 4077th sabotages their own war efforts for the safety of their camp and patients: In the final episode, Hawkeye drives an abandoned tank into a bog just to stop enemy artillery from targeting their hospital. In another episode, they contrive to make an ammunition dump being stored on the base easier for a (very punctual) enemy pilot to hit just so he’ll leave them alone.
Is it a sitcom? Is it a dramedy? What kind of show it is really depends on when you’re watching it during its 11-season run—a run nearly four times longer than America’s involvement in the war it’s about. (Somebody did the math: At 256 episodes set during a war that lasted 1,128 days, each episode of M*A*S*H either represents about four days of real-world time or exists in some kind of purgatorial temporal loop.)
During the earlier seasons of the show, it’s pretty clear you’re watching a comedy, albeit one heavier in tone than, say, Hogan’s Heroes. By the final seasons, it’s the opposite: The show got weightier and more dramatic. It was a function of the writing staff and some prominent members of the cast changing, but also of the world changing around the show. The Vietnam War that was still going on when it first aired, and which inspired the early seasons, had long receded into the rearview mirror by the end. The show’s co-creators have said that surgeons who offered their personal experiences to inform the show were finding, by the final seasons, that their ideas had already been used.
But, tonal clashes were baked into the show’s DNA, really: The title theme is called, for real, “Suicide Is Painless.” The TV version stripped the lyrics out of the original song, and because it’s a sitcom, it suddenly becomes upbeat right at the end, kind of out of nowhere. It doesn’t feel right at all.
M*A*S*H also had a contentious relationship with its own laugh track. In a 1998 interview about the show, series co-creator Larry Gelbart expressed disappointment that he’d lost the fight with CBS over use of the “dishonest” canned laughter. One of the complete series DVD editions featured the ability to watch episodes without it on, and the effect is immediately jarring, watching Alan Alda mug for laughs from a canned track that isn’t there. Gelbart and co-creator Gene Reynolds got their wish in one compromise: No laugh tracks ever play during operating room scenes in the show. And the show’s finale notably didn’t have one.
“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”
The two-and-a-half hour series finale of M*A*S*H was shot as a feature-length movie, filmed before most of the rest of the show’s shortened eleventh season, and it’s as grim as anything the show ever aired. It opens with Alda’s Hawkeye in an Army mental hospital, staring down an assessment by a kindly but impassive psychiatrist. Hawkeye is clearly not well: A sunken-eyed Alda delivers the usual quips and motormouth jabs with an undercurrent of hostility. This is a man who is tired. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear Hawkeye is intentionally avoiding remembering the incident that landed him in the ward, and that he’s as impatient as everybody for the expected armistice that’s expected to be finalized any day now.
Hawkeye eventually faces up to his intentionally misremembered incident and the absurd and awful tragedy of it were in another work of literary fiction: While hiding on a bus just off the road with enemy patrols all around, Hawkeye yells at a woman to make her noisy chicken shut up. She shuts the chicken up permanently, only it wasn’t a chicken. I can’t recall the story, but a mother smothering her child to death to avoid detection was a detail in another war story I once read, and I’m unable to find a reference to it as inspiration for this. It was a shocking way to end the episode’s first act.
The action shifts back to the 4077th after that, and to B.J. (Mike Farrell), Hawkeye’s best friend on the base. B.J. is mistakenly issued discharge papers and makes a break for it, without saying goodbye to his hospitalized friend. The error is rectified before B.J. can make it back stateside, and Hawkeye is wounded by the whole ordeal. Why, he repeatedly demands, can’t B.J. ever just say goodbye to people?
There’s a lot of other stuff that happens, with major beats for every character: Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) “captures” a group of Chinese soldiers who enthusiastically become his own private orchestra, Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) is struck deaf by enemy artillery and decides to fake it through his duties with the help of B.J.’s silence, and Klinger (Jamie Farr) finally marries the Korean refugee he’s fallen in love with, Soon Lee (Rosalind Chao). Goodbyes are said, and an armistice is signed. A radio announcer gives the final grim assessment of the war as the surgeons sew up the last batch of wounded they’ll ever treat, each character in the O.R. giving their final word on it all.
But as the camp gets broken down, the principal characters leave one by one. Finally, it’s down to just Hawkeye and B.J. There is little to no chance they’ll ever see each other again, they both realize. Hawkeye boards a helicopter, and B.J. hops aboard an Indian motorcycle he’s painted non-regulation bright yellow in a fit of mania at the impending truce. As Hawkeye discovers upon lifting off, B.J. has finally learned to give a proper farewell.
There is no question that an 11-year-long show about a three-year war (that was really about a war longer even than this show) was probably overdue for its final curtain. M*A*S*H’s finale is exhaustive, long, and its plot sometimes feels as if it ambles. Despite that, it said a hell of a goodbye.
Tune in next month for the episode where the running finally stopped, as That’s All, Folks looks back at the finale of The Fugitive.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste TV. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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