Discuss: How Would M*A*S*H Be Viewed If It Hadn’t Run 11 Seasons?

Monday M*A*S*H Discussions offers fans the opportunity to offer their opinions on a wide variety of topics relating to M*A*S*H. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. My hope is these discussion posts will continue to elicit comments in the weeks and months after they’re initially published. Have a suggestion about something you think might be worth discussing? Let me know and maybe it will become my next Monday M*A*S*H Discussion topic.

Doug suggested today’s topic: How would M*A*S*H be viewed if it hadn’t run 11 seasons?

Mostly Forgotten? Fondly Remembered?

We’ve already discussed whether or not M*A*S*H should’ve ended before Season 11. Today, we’re tackling a related topic, one I’ll let Doug explain:

How would MASH be viewed had it not run its actual 11 seasons? It was much more of a screwball comedy with some dark moments for the first three seasons, then it was still comedic, but edging more toward the dramatic in seasons 4 and 5. Once Frank Burns left, the show took a far more serious turn. What if MASH had ended when McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers departed? Or, what if it ended when Larry Linville left? Compared to sitcoms of its era, like All In The Family or Mary Tyler Moore, or even later greats like Cheers or Seinfeld

M*A*S*H is widely considered a television classic, one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. How many of the iconic, critically acclaimed, or memorable moments and episodes took place after Season 1? After Season 3? After Season 5? This is an interesting topic that like so many can’t truly be answered. I think most fans will agree, however, that had CBS cancelled M*A*S*H after its first season, the show would likely be just another forgotten sitcom from the 1970s. Gone too soon, perhaps. Like most failed TV shows, there would be those viewers who loved M*A*S*H and remembered it fondly. But that’s about it.

But what if CBS decided to call it quits after Season 3, unwilling to give the producers the chance to replace two members of the cast? Three seasons is a decent run. Gilligan’s Island only ran three seasons. So did the original Star Trek. It’s possible 20th Century Fox would’ve had success selling those three seasons into local syndication, allowing new generations of fans to discover the show. As Doug points out, the first three seasons are the most sitcom-y. There were dramatic and somber moments, true, but nothing compared to the last three or four seasons. Would TV critics consider M*A*S*H a bold attempt to combine comedy and drama, one that ultimately failed?

Continue on down the line, asking yourself how history would remember M*A*S*H if it ended after Season 6, or Season 7, or Season 10. Or jump back to Season 2 or Season 4. End M*A*S*H at any point during its run and consider the consequences. What would M*A*S*H be without “Abyssinia, Henry” or “Hawkeye” or “The Interview” or “Movie Tonight” or “Old Soldiers” or “Death Takes a Holiday” or “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”? Without B.J. or Colonel Potter or Charles?

Hit the comments with your thoughts.

15 Comments

  • BDOR says:

    I’d say M*A*S*H probably wouldn’t be as much of a critical darling as it became. It’d probably be, “just another old sitcom,” as far as the public is concerned: something that you may occasionally see on a niche cable network like TV Land (back in the day) from time to time, but that would be about the extent of it. It’s presence in pop culture would probably be more of a joke than anything – “Hey, remember that kooky military sitcom with all those drunk doctors? Yeah, that sure held up well, didn’t it?”

    That’s certainly better than what happened to M*A*S*H’s sister show from 1973 – ROLL OUT!, which only lasted half a season, and with the exception of reruns airing on BET sometime in the late 80s, and the fact there’s only two episodes on YouTube, it’s pretty much all but forgotten.

    • Doug says:

      RE: Roll Out!

      The show was set during 1944 in France, with a company of African-American truck drivers of the Red Ball Express. A very unique view of a very underappreciated part of history. If not for the heroic efforts of drivers like that, the Allied offensive across France during the summer and autumn of 1944 would not have been as successful as it was. Too bad the sow failed, and has disappeared.

      • BDOR says:

        I think part of it too is whereas Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds drew on parallels of the Vietnam War for M*A*S*H’s anti-war satire, they didn’t do that with ROLL OUT!, and honestly, much of that show came off as an example of just another service comedy, much like the previously mentioned McHALE’S NAVY or HOGAN’S HEROES.

  • penguinphysics says:

    In my opinion, it would seriously depend on *WHEN* it was cancelled. If it was canned any time during the first three seasons (not including Abyssinia Henry), it would have gone down as a decent series but hardly worth remembering. Once Henry’s fate was sealed, the show moved from good to legend and it would have risen to that stature regardless of cancellation.

    This is not intended to demean the first three seasons, but they never had the massive impact that Col Blake’s death had on the public psyche. I (personally) prefer the interim seasons (4 and 5, Burns, Potter, and Hunnicutt) but those first three seasons can evoke belly laughs like few other shows can (think the gorilla suits in As You Were or the stove pipe scene in I Hate A Mystery…)

  • Doug says:

    Thanks for the opinions so far.

    Let me offer my positions on the subject. Had MASH ended after Season 1, it would have been a footnote to the movie. In 1972, it was still relatively rare for a show to come from a movie (a couple pop to mind–The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, and Please Don’t Eat The Daisies). I might be thought of today as Brilliant, But Cancelled. It might also be remembered for positive portrayals of African-American characters like Spearchucker and Ginger.

    Had it lasted three seasons and ended with the departure of stars McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers, it would probably be looked at as a great sitcom that ended before its time. Also, it would have been looked at as the first sitcom to mix comedy and drama on a regular basis, and as a precursor to modern shows like Scrubs., Also, some of MASH’s tropes carried forward as it was, so it could be seen as influential. Who can watch WKRP In Cincinnati, and not see Mr. Carlson and Jennifer as Henry and Radar?

    Had it ended with the departure of Larry Linville after season 5, I think it would be considered a great sitcom, much as it is today, and still considered very influential. “Wow, look how well they blended comedy and drama to produce a great show!!!!!” might be how it would be looked at.

    I went back and read the threads about the show jumping the shark, and if it had ended before season 11. I think that it is fair to say there is a definite belief among fans that with the arrival of Charles as a character, the nature of the show changed. Because Charles was a capable surgeon, much of the silliness and incompetence that surrounded Frank was gone. I think that the writers decided to move to emphasizing dramatic elements was based in this. And maybe they should have also emphasized character development earlier. But with the departure of Gary Burghoff in season 8, I feel that the show could still have been viewed as not jumping the shark and declining into a preachy, sanctamonious tone, which it did at times. So had the series ended with Radar’s going home, I think it might be viewed slightly differently than it is today. Seems to me that a whole lot of fans don’t really care for the show after this point, except for a few episodes.

    As far as comparisons to other shows and sitcoms, MASH would still be well regarded in comparison to shows like All In The Family (another series that probably went on too long, especially regarding Archie’s Place) or Mary Tyler Moore. All three of these series were aired on CBNS, and are products of the so-called Rural Purge–when, as one actor put it, “CBS cancelled every show with a tree!” And in my opinion, MASH holds up very well to most 1970s-era sitcoms, and even later classics like Cheers or Seinfeld (to pick two sitcoms that had long lives and well-regarded finales). And MASH easily blows away 90% of current broadcast network shows of any genre (of course, TV has changed a lot since MASH debuted in 1972!).

    Okay, continue discussion!!!! 🙂

    • BDOR says:

      What’s interesting is that because M*A*S*H was on the verge of cancelation after its first season, they wrote an alternate version of “Ceasefire” where the ceasefire is real and they do go home in the even they weren’t renewed for a second season.

    • UglyJohn says:

      Your last comment really resonated with me Doug. Because MASH had a very high standard with writing and production crew and they had good actors who could project that great writing.

      Very few of today’s ridiculous “toilet humor” single camera productions even dare to approach MASH standards. These are single cam jumpy-shot social media type nonsense.

      MASH filmed in outdoor and natural light. It used multi-cam and it put its cameras on tripods and it made sure you saw the scene.

      It’s characters were always moving around in a dynamic environment, but you never sensed that you were on a pogo stick or a selfie shot. You were essentially there.

      Even a great show like All in the Family was really a studio “living room” sitcom.

      MASH had great cinematographers and it is a sign of how much TV declined over the years. MASH’s big thing was that despite that, it ended up milking a formula that got tired.

      • Doug says:

        Nowadays, the better shows seem to be on cable (The Walking Dead on AMC, Vikings on History), premium cable (Game Of Thrones, of course), and pay services (Star Trek Discovery on CBS All Access and the various Amazon and Hulu series, such as The Man In The High Castle). Sitcoms are pretty much cut-and-paste. I agree with you, UglyJohn, the humor is little better that potty jokes and insults. This works with greats like Don Rickles, not so much with Ray Romano. Not everybody loves Raymond!!!!!!!!!!

  • 007 says:

    Like RJ said there is really no way to know, but we can speculate, and use the season ratings to help us determine how it would have turned out. Obviously, the later you get in the seasons, the more closely it would be remembered to how it is now. This is how I think it would end up if it had ended after each season:

    Season 1 – The show would have been almost completely forgotten. It may have had some fans, kind of like the show Firefly, but I don’t think it would have been remembered as well as FireFly, and certainly wouldn’t really be remembered now.

    Season 2 – The series established itself during this season and I think it would be remembered significantly more had it ended after this season. It would be remembered as Doug said as a show that ended before it’s time.

    Season 3 – This would be similar to season 2, but I think it would have left a lot more people angry having it end after the death of Henry like that. It would have been a strange series finale too.

    Seasons 4 – I don’t think the show would be viewed any different if ending this season than after 2 or 3, except that Harry and/or Mike would have been seen as killing the show.

    Season 5 – The show rebounded a bit in the ratings here, and I think had the show ended after this season it would have been around long enough to be fondly remembered by a lot of people. It would be remembered as the show that perfectly blended drama and comedy as Doug said.

    Season 6 – If the show ended here, I don’t think it would be much different than season 5, other than that people would probably think that DOS killed the show.

    Season 7 – I think this is the first season where had the show ended here, it would almost be remembered a bit better than it is now. The later seasons, especially 9-11 are kind of held in low regard, and 8 isn’t very good either. Season 7 was still solid though and “The Party” could have been a great Penultimate episode to GFA, which would have allowed us to have Radar until the end!

    Season 8 – Had the show ended here, I think people would have agreed with it. The show would have been just as fondly remembered as a show that had 7 great seasons and then kind of puttered out at the end. People would also feel that the show couldn’t survive without Radar. I think people would have recognize the shift from comedy to drama and thought that contributed heavily to the shows demise.

    Season 9 – I don’t think anyone would have been surprised had the show ended here. This season, except for No Sweat, Death Takes a Holiday, and a couple others that are decent, kind of sucks. Like season 8 people would just assume without Radar and the shift in focus was too much for it.

    Season 10 – I think most people would have been happy had the show ended here, and it’d be remembered basically exactly as it is now.

    Season 12+ – Had the show continued on past season 11, I think it would just have gotten worse and worse to the point the show would probably be a lot less fondly remembered than it is now. I think we would have probably lost a lot of cast members really quickly had it continued, and it was just too late to effectively bring anyone new in.

    • Doc Funnypants says:

      I agree completely, 007. If the show ended at any point short of reaching 100 episodes, my opinion of “M*A*S*H” would be drastically altered. Ending the way it did cemented its place in television history.

  • UglyJohn says:

    The later seasons catered to a growing trend in American TV. The use of drama to draw viewers. The 70s was a particularly corny issue-driven time on television.

    Everybody was doing movie-of-the-week societal consciousness raising TV shows. One week it was pills, the next it was alcoholism and the next it was divorce and infidelity. It’s what likely set up the night time soap operas of the day. Dallas etc.

    MASH had a problem. It started out as a comedy but a different comedy: this wasn’t McHale’s Navy or Hogan’s Heroes. It wasn’t even Gilligan’s Island or the Mary Tyler Moore show. That was the fight that the producers had with CBS executives. They wanted sitcom-central and Gelbart, Reynolds and co. wanted a hybrid.

    The first three seasons totally reflect this vision. Funny, timeless slapstick with a vaudville touch yet still able to bring some serious undertones about war and its effects.

    What happened to MASH? It turned into a soap opera about its characters because people wanted a lot of melodrama in their TV viewing. It could have gone in a different direction easily and still been a great show.

    Hollywood’s business model lives and breathes on money and quantity. You have to churn out 22-24 episodes a season. That’s a lot. Look at some of the great Britcoms and see how they spanned many, many years – yet in reality, they didn’t even produce more than the equivalent of about two or three MASH seasons.

    So yeah, MASH could have ended at 72 episodes or 96 episodes, or maybe after season five 120 episodes. It would have been just as well regarded because of its writers and its actors. The syndication benchmark is a 100.

    Personally seasons 1-3 are quintessential MASH. In the spirit of the novel and the movie. Season 4 is a transition season but still pretty good. After that you see a gradual decline into maudlin soap opera driven by the character’s lives.

    Radar becomes a total weanie, BJ is the blandest vanilla sidekick you could find. Hotlips moves from Major Houlihan to just plain Margaret – one of the gang. There’s a lot of crying, shouting and morality plays. A way to keep viewers but in retrospective terms a show that over reached.

    Regarding those other benchmark sitcoms: Cheers and Seinfeld. Their creators never waivered from th original vision. Cheers got a midcycle reboot thanks to Shelly Long’s departure but remained true to its origin. Seinfeld’s characters remained just as disfunctional as when they started.

    The worst card Hollywood plays is the soap card when originality and story go out the window. It’s part of the business. Seasons 1-3 for me, and 4 is ok. After that you have to cherry pick right up to season 11.

    • Doug says:

      UglyJohn, what a great take! I seem to remember that in the late 70s-early 80s (pretty much my junior high/high school years) there was much discussion of how the sitcom was dead. I believe even 60 Minutes did a story about it.

      And look at the sitcoms of the era–WKRP was moved around a lot, The Jeffersons and All In The Family were grinding on, Three’s Company had issues with actor and being seen as just a “jiggle show.” ABC tried to portray The Love Boat as a sitcom, but most of their story lines leaned toward the dramatic (some of them were pretty heavy, too). It really wasn’t until the arrival of The Cosby Show that the format had a real resurgence.

      I don’t mind character development in a show. My favorite Trek is Deep Space Nine, where many of the secondary characters evolved into key parts of the show (Rom, Nog, Garak, Ziyal, etc). Admittedly, DS9 is drama, but I don’t see why it cannot be done effectively in sitcoms. MASH may have been better with developing characters like Igor, Kelly, and Zale/Rizzo than tacking on to Hawkeye, BJ, and Margaret (although it was good that she moved of from the Hot Lips rep and her hardass stage to showing more humanity).

      And let’s not forget the fact that broadcast networks have always been reluctant to allow cash cows to end…witness all those seasons on NCIS, Law And Order, and the various “reality” shows the Big Four trot out season after season. No less so then. I remember coming home from school in those days and watching repeats of MASH on the local CBS affiliate (after watching StarBlazers, of course!!!!!).

      And a big thumbs-up for mentioning that Cheers and Seinfeld never had the staff upheavals that MASH suffered. Nowadays, that would probably kill a show, especially if it reached the magic 100 shows.

  • David G. says:

    If “M*A*S*H” had ended earlier, it would be known as “the show Loretta Swit did before winning a couple of Emmys in ‘Cagney & Lacey’.”

  • Teacher in Tejas says:

    Five or six years would put it in some interesting company in television history with shows like WKRP, Benson, Boy Meets World and Mork and Mindy among others. Shows that were loved (at most times) and even critical darlings (M&M only the first few seasons) but are barely remembered or talked about much.

    there are exceptions like Dick Van Dyke, who went out on top at five years, but those are rare among classics.

    A five to seven year long MASH would be looked at fondly by most knowledgeable TV fans, but not considered a classic.

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