Never trust anything you see on television about television. I don't know if it's ignorance, laziness, a hopeless addiction to hype or a pathological inability to tell the truth about itself, but TV almost never gets it right when revisiting its past.
The A&E cable channel's popular show Biography, which typically features famous personalities, this week focuses instead on television. Part of a series called Cult TV Week, tomorrow night's program showcases M*A*S*H, the dark comedy about life in a medical unit during the Korean War. Biography's take on the landmark series gets too many things wrong to enumerate. I was screaming in frustration before the first commercial break.
But I also found moments of great delight in this video remembrance and recommend it as one of the most valuable hours I've spent with the tube this summer. That's due in part to happenstance: The series is airing just as television news seems to have done a 180-degree turn in its coverage of the war in Iraq - moving from a celebration of "shock and awe," to the "body-count" vocabulary that was used in the '60s and '70s to describe Vietnam. Dumb luck in scheduling or not, this sometimes silly M*A*S*H retrospective inadvertently provides a wise reminder of how war was regularly portrayed on prime-time TV before the gung-ho days of the first gulf war - and how we were better for it.
First, however, here is a bit of what's wrong with this A&E production:
Though the title alludes to Cult TV, there's nothing of the cult about M*A*S*H. Webster's lists the most common usage of the word as "a small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure." M*A*S*H was a Top 10 show in all but the first of its 11 seasons. Its finale in 1983 is still the most-watched episode in TV history with 125 million viewers. Hardly a "small circle" of devotees.
As for context and accuracy, Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O'Reilly in both the 1970 film by Robert Altman and the television series, appears at the start of the hour to describe the evolution of M*A*S*H from novel to film to TV series.
The film M*A*S*H was the first of its kind, Burghoff tells viewers. "The fact is that you had never seen a movie of a war genre before that was anything like M*A*S*H."
While his statement sounds impressive, it's dead wrong. Before M*A*S*H, there were: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Richard Lester's How I Won the War (1967). Both employed dark humor to satirize war, and neither was exactly what one might call "under the radar."
The program includes other such misinformation and unsubstantiated claims. Viewers are told, for example, that the primary reason M*A*S*H won renewal at the end of its poorly rated first season was that it was a personal favorite of Babe Paley, the wife of CBS Chairman William Paley
Not true. The series was not in danger of cancellation. Paley loved it and already planned to move it (during its second season) to Saturday nights where it would replace Bridget Loves Bernie, a highly rated sitcom about Jewish-Catholic intermarriage. Paley was about to cancel that show because of protests from Jewish groups. M*A*S*H thrived in its new time slot, during which it was sandwiched between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Biography includes no interviews with network executives knowledgeable about the program's history - such as Fred Silverman, then the head of CBS programming and now a Hollywood producer. Forget Silverman, what about Alan Alda, the star and executive producer of M*A*S*H? He's not even interviewed in this retrospective.
So why bother watching?
The show has moments of redemption - such as those featured in a 1976 clip from a M*A*S*H episode titled "The Interview." The show, which was filmed in black and white, centered on a visiting reporter who interviewed the characters about their experiences at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.
In that episode, M*A*S*H character Father Francis Mulcahy (played by William Christopher) describes life inside the operating room on especially cold nights: "When the doctors cut into a patient, and it's cold, you know, like with the snow today, steam rises from the body," Mulcahy says to the reporter. "And the doctor will warm himself over the open wound. Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?"
As I watched that scene, I was reminded how much television portrayals of war have changed since 1976 when, just after Vietnam, that kind of perfectly told story about the horrors of battle was a part of the national discourse - thanks in part to M*A*S*H. There is nothing like the series today on television.
And we are poorer for it.
What: M*A*S*H: Television's Serious Sitcom
When: Tomorrow at 8
Where: A&E cable channel
In brief: Flawed but ultimately moving look back at a landmark series.