Episode Spotlight: Life Time


Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“Life Time” (#180, 08×11)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, November 26th, 1979
Written by Alan Alda and Walter D. Dishell, M.D.
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: Hawkeye and B.J. only have 20 minutes to save a patient. They desperately need an aortic graft and must wait for another soldier to die so their patient can live.

Decades before FOX debuted 24, an action drama that unfolded in “real time,” M*A*S*H experimented with this unconventional episode. Like earlier experimental episodes “Hawkeye (Season 4) or “Point of View” (Season 7), “Life Time” is an episode most fans and even many casual viewers are familiar with, simply because it was so unusual. It also happens to be quite good.

The opening scene in which Hawkeye, B.J., Margaret, and Klinger play poker while waiting for a chopper to arrive is a little bizarre. Perhaps it was intended to set the tone for viewers, implying that this would be a light and funny rather than then dark and tense. It just makes no sense to be playing poker at the chopper pad. The cards and money are blown away the instant the chopper approaches.

Once the chopper lands, the episode takes a drastic turn away from light and funny. There’s a soldier with an open chest wound in such bad shape–his aorta has been lacerated–Hawkeye has to reach in and compress the aorta against the spinal column to stop the bleeding. It works but the doctors only have 20 minutes to operate before the soldier risks being paralyzed.

To increase the tension and remind viewers of the real time nature of the episode, a stopwatch graphic appears on the lower right. To be honest, I didn’t much attention to the stopwatch because I was too busy watching the episode. The ride from the chopper pad is incredibly well done, with Hawkeye yelling instructions and various people running off to gather blood and clamps and grafts. The stopwatch doesn’t pause for a commercial break; it jumps from 1439 to 1445. It dramatically lingers for a few seconds before the break and returns a few seconds before the episode resumes.

“Life Time” succeeds in large part because there’s only one storyline. Every character is connected to it. Some play much larger roles. Hawkeye and B.J. are the primary players here, working on opposite ends to keep the soldier–whose name we eventually learn is George–alive.

There are two moments in the episode where things get slightly too melodramatic for me, both of which involve B.J. The first comes when he steps outside the bus and talks to Roberts. The timing is too perfect. B.J. has just told Father Mulcahy how awful he feels waiting for the dying soldier to die and then the soldier’s friend convenient comes along to make B.J. feel even worse.

Timing is once again the blame later on. Klinger barges into the pre-op ward while B.J. is talking to Roberts and says the wrong thing about Hawkeye waiting for the aorta. What makes this scene even more melodramatic is Klinger pathetically apologizing to B.J. with the line, “I hope I didn’t say anything wrong.”

Some might argue that Father Mulcahy’s plea to God is likewise melodramatic. I disagree. It’s chilling and moving:

Dear God, I’ve never asked you for this before and I don’t know what you’re going to think of me for asking now. But if you’re going to take him anyway, please take him quickly so we can save the other boy.

(I do wonder where Father Mulcahy was going in the jeep, though. Was he just moving it back to the motor pool?)

Charles giving blood was a brilliant way to give him something to do other than stand around and make snide remarks. He may be a snob but he donates regularly and helpfully tries to talk Hawkeye through the aorta transplant.

The ending leaves me feeling conflicted on two levels. The freeze frame on the group hug is so cheesy. I hate it. More importantly, though, I wonder if the episode would have been even more powerful if viewers never found out whether George was paralyzed or not. It wouldn’t have been a very happy ending but it would fit with B.J. telling Hawkeye that saving his life is “more than something, it’s everything.”

I wonder if any other endings were ever considered.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode Life Time showing Hawkeye and B.J.
Hawkeye can’t believe they couldn’t beat the clock.

“Life Time” was written by Alan Alda and Walter D. Dishell, M.D. Dishell served as Medical Advisor on M*A*S*H.

I realize they were operating on a dead body but why weren’t B.J. and Nurse Jo Ann wearing gloves while they were removing part of Harold’s aorta?

Kevin Brophy, who played Roberts in this episode, later went on to guest star in three episodes of Trapper John, M.D. as well as an episode of AfterMASH.

Gary Burghoff receives an “Also Starring” credit during the opening credits.

19 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Life Time”

  1. Mulcahy was going to the chopper pad to check with the chopper pilot if he had any blood of the type they needed for George because Hawkeye did not want to give him too much type 0 blood. The conversation takes place in the OR.

  2. I also liked this episode and think it’s one of the better ones from when the show turned into “the Alan Alda show”. I do agree wit R.J. though that the opening scene of Hawkeye, B.J. & Margaret playing poker on the chopper pad was ridiculous.
    I remember when this episode first aired they kept the clock on the screen counting down the seconds during the commercials.
    I just have one complaint about the episode though. It would have been better if they didn’t have any commercials.

  3. A great episode with no bad parts to it.

    Klinger: (imitating Col. Potter) What in the name of sweet Fanny Adams is going on there? Can we expect casualties or not? Now, the next time you get a call from Cpl. Klinger, COOPERATE!!! When you’re talking to him, you’re talking to me.
    How true is that?
    Quite possibly, Klinger’s most hilarious line.

  4. BJ: We made a man that’s part Harold and part George.
    Charles: And part Winchester.
    Hawkeye: That’s right. When he wakes up, he won’t know whether to be brave, generous, or pompous.
    A fitting final salvo from the men of the Swamp.

  5. A small thing but I notice when BJ and Hawk say the instrument is in the Swamp,Margaret replies “What is it doing in A swamp?”(As opposed toTHE (bigS)wamp

  6. This is a very innovative and enjoyable episode. Not much else to add, except that I agree that playing poker at the chopper pad was pretty strange (it probably was done to throw the viewers off). And I hope that George didn’t develop an infection since no one scrubbed or had masks on!

  7. I am a fan of this episode immensely. Very fast paced and it managed to mix some humor in with the serious. I liked when Hawkeye was describing where he hid the clamps and Margaret’s “what the HELL are they doing in the Swamp” line before it. Great great episode in my opinion.

  8. “I realize they were operating on a dead body but why weren’t B.J. and Nurse Jo Ann wearing gloves while they were removing part of Harold’s aorta?”

    I noticed it too, so I asked a transplant surgeon that I used to work with about it. He said taking donations from an already deceased patient was not considered a particularly sterile procedure when grafting was first developed in the 1950s.

    Up until the mid-1980s, gloves weren’t used very effectively when they were used at all. I can remember nurses placing IVs, changing colostomy bags, etc. while not wearing gloves. The AIDS epidemic changed that dramatically.

    I really liked the ending, learning that the operation was a success. I realize M*A*S*H is fiction and that this would never be possible, but I wish M*A*S*H could have followed the patient after discharge to see how long the transplant lasted without anti-rejection drugs.

    1. Actually something similar was done apparently according to Dr Walter Dishell who advised on medical matters for the show. The episode was co-written by Dr Dishell and the episode was his idea so I’m thinking it’s as accurate as any TV show can hope to be. I’m always skeptical of things on the show too but apparently the later the season the more accurate.

  9. Father Mulcahy was headed to the chopper pad to see if the chopper had any extra units of a b negative for the patient. I’m watching the episode now.

  10. Who is the actor that played George? I think it is the blond corpsman that has a recurring role in Mash??

  11. Great episode and interesting concept. I recently heard Dr Dishell talk about how it came about and the writing of it with Alda. He talked about the medicine behind it and how some of his ideas didn’t work for the show.

    At any rate, in some ways I wish it was a longer episode. BJ walking into the truck and getting instantly attached to the dying soldier fell flat for me. I know it’s tough when anyone dies but I can’t imagine doctors getting emotional and attached to every person who rolls into a hospital that is unsavable. If anyone should be upset it should be Potter since he tried to save him. BJ getting all emotional was unlike a person who sees this type of thing for a living. On the other hand, I thought it was quick thinking on his part to suggest the transplant from the patient. Very realistic episode all in all.

    1. I also wonder why Klinger would barge in and shout insensitively in front of other wounded soldiers, “Hawkeye wants to know when he’s DEAD!” He behaved like he was at a ball game talking about hot dogs instead of discussing a dying American soldier. When he dramatically looked at BJ and said, “I hope I didn’t say anything wrong,” BJ should have turned to him and screamed, “you certainly did! Can’t you ever shut your fat mouth?” It was clearly a plot device to let the soldier’s friend know about the transplant but it was very obvious and forced.

  12. Love this episode – I always love the more ‘medical’ episodes (there aren’t that many ironically!), and this one is incredibly well done. It was very well communicated too – it was a pretty complex medical procedure, but it was well explained without it feeling like extraneous exposition.

    I like the appearance of the clock. I didn’t always watch it, but when time was tight, I could see it tick over the 20 minute mark quietly which meant that for me as a viewer, I knew more than the characters did in that moment in terms of the possible consequences.

    Everyone had a good part to play in it and it was nice to see the whole team working together for a good outcome (one of the hallmarks of the ‘Alan Alda’ era, contrary to popular belief, is that the spoils were equally shared in terms of both lines and A plots across the seasons).

  13. Literally my only complaint with this episode is that in my opinion they should have somehow made it a little more obvious that they’d gone over the time-limit with the clock in the corner; either having it stop ticking when the time was up or else have a marker somewhere on the clock to keep a reminder to the audience of what time they’re running to. As it is, no matter how many times I watch this episode I’m constantly forgetting that they’ve gone over until Kellye’s expression when she looks at her watch since I’m always getting drawn into the episode too much to keep a constant eye on the clock in the corner. But then that may just be me. Also, the best thing about this episode has to be Klinger’s Potter impersonation; he has the cadences down almost perfect!

    Generally speaking, I adore these more experimental episodes. Especially the ones in the later seasons when they were increasingly unafraid to just go all out. You get some hits and some misses (sometimes even within the same episode) but all of them are memorable in some way; at the end of the day, I’d much rather that than have the show just remain completely cookie-cutter safe but ultimately fairly unmemorable.

    1. One of the things I like about M*A*S*H is how they weren’t afraid to challenge themselves and try new ideas. It not only showed the brilliant talents of the writers, but of the cast members also; they did an amazing job rising to the challenges.

  14. The card game at the beginning serves several purposes:
    * Shows how they took every advantage of every second for fun (a ‘weapon’ against the ugliness of war).
    * Shows how quickly they can leave silliness behind and jump into action for wounded soldiers (and back to the ugliness).
    * Shows how the little things help them escape the horrors of war, even if only for a short time.
    * It’s a marvelous contrast to the seriousness of the situation.

    What a great job of blending in humor when the job at hand was so serious:
    * Yes, Klinger impersonating Potter!
    * But Hawkeye explaining to Margaret where to find the clamps was also great, “They’re in my footlocker under the Journal of Competitive Nudity between the shorts with the holes and the can of Norwegian kippers.” (He says matter-of-factly.) And then Charles’ “Those are my kippers, you animal.” (As if that’s what’s off about Hawkeye’s statement.)
    * And Kellye’s back and forth with Hawkeye about the size of the arterial graft is well done and fun. [Hawkeye] “That’s no bigger than spaghettini. We need rigatoni.” [Charles] “Spoken like a true meatball surgeon.” [Kelley] “Rigatoni? Doctor, I’m part Chinese and part Hawaiian. Can you put that in ethnic measurements I can understand?” [Hawkeye] “A small egg roll.” [Kelley] “That I understand.”

    Exceptional episode!

  15. MASH was a great program. One of the few programs made about The Korean War.
    My husband was drafted and was sent to The Korea Front Line…He was in Korea for
    3 years and was very happy to be finally sent home. He was 19 years old when he
    left the USA AND 21 when he returned. Following this he left his home in Cleveland and
    went to NYC and graduated from Columbia University thanks to the US Army.

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