Monday, August 4, 2014

Review of M*A*S*H by David Scott Diffrient

David Scott Diffrient, 2008
TV Milestones Series
Detroit, Wayne State University Press
pp. 156, index, bibliography, illustrations
$14.95 (paper)

M*A*S*H is one America’s most beloved television shows from the 1970s and 1980s. It ran from 1972 to 1983 on CBS and along with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (CBS, 1967-1970), All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), and Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-1987) changed the face of American television forever. During its run, M*A*S*H finished in the Nielsen top ten nine out of its eleven years. The final episode, “Goodbye, Amen” (11:16, 13 February 1983) was watched by some 105.9 million Americans, 60.2% million households. “Goodbye, Amen” remains today the most watched finale in American TV history. Both M*A*S*H’s cultural impact and its viewing numbers alone merit M*A*S*H’s inclusion in Wayne State University Press’s TV Milestones Series.

In an introduction, eight chapters, and a conclusion David Scott Diffrient traces the antecedents of M*A*S*H (the book by Richard Hooker a nom de plume of Dr. Richard Hornberger) and the film by noted director Robert Altman), the origins of the show and how it differed from its literary and cinematic cousins, M*A*S*H as ensemble TV, M*A*S*H as a Korean War show, how the character Margaret “Hot Lips” Hoolihan (Loretta Swit) was transformed over the years from a stereotype and caricature to a respected professional and how this transformation reflected the impact of the feminist movement on the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, M*A*S*H as a sexual hijinks comedy, the representation of Koreans in the show, and M*A*S*H as a TV show which reflects the contradictions of American liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s.

On the plus side Diffrient puts M*A*S*H into its broader social and cultural contexts. And he also goes where far too few film and TV analysts dare to go: Into the archives. The early chapters of the book which focus on the creation of M*A*S*H are helped immensely by Diffrient’s exploration of archival materials at UCLA’s Arts Library including the Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H’s leading writer, producer, and occasional director until he left the show in the fourth season), Burt Metcalfe (producer and occasional writer and director on the show), and Gene Reynolds, (a producer, and occasional writer, and occasional director on the show until he left after the fifth season) papers.

On the minus side there is the limited archival research Diffrient undertook some of which, I suspect, can be chalked up to inaccessibility of materials. But the real problem with the book lies in the books structure. The book would have probably been helped by a chapter focusing on M*A*S*H and genre. Diffrient calls it a screwball comedy, a Chaplinesque comedy, a dark comedy, a sexual hijinks show, a satire, a workplace comedy, and a war show in various places throughout the text but he doesn’t systematically explore M*A*S*H's genre mixing or genre hybridity, one of the things that connects M*A*S*H to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hill Street Blues, two other shows that were influential in the development of an important genre, dramedy, on American television. Additionally, while Diffrient does make a somewhat compelling case for taking the Korean setting of M*A*S*H seriously he gives far too limited attention to another important aspect of the show, Korea as metaphor for Vietnam. Finally, it sometimes seems that Diffrient, because he had such limited space to manoeuvre in, tries to weave as much into each chapter as possible, too much. In chapter three, “Ensemble TV” Diffrient weaves together a comparison of M*A*S*H to All in the Family, a discussion of Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970), a discussion of the traits of its leading characters, a discussion of M*A*S*H as a workplace show, a discussion of Corporal Klinger, Radar O’Reilly and the actor who played him, Gary Burghoff, a brief discussion of the famous episode “Abyssinia Henry” (3:24, 18 March 1975), and a brief discussion to alterations made in the show over its run. This kitchen sink quality of the book is probably a result of the fact that it is an impossible task to write a book on an important television series that ran for eleven seasons on American TV in around 150 pages.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form as “Review of M*A*S*H by David Scott Diffrient”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 30:1 (March 2010), pp. 151-152.

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