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The greatest comedy show of all time
on 3 March 2010
Made in the 1970s and early 1980s, this series follows the adventures of a group of drafted medics in the Korean War who have the unenviable task of stitching back together soldiers who aren't old enough to shave. It's an obvious point that this situation and the issues it raises are as relevant today as they ever were. For the most part the show isn't laugh out loud funny, being more of a subtle character-based series in which the more you get to know the characters the more enjoyable the show becomes. And as the characters are perhaps the best ensemble cast ever assembled, that makes it very enjoyable indeed. This is an episodic show with only mild continuity and minimal arc stories, but nevertheless there are spoilers ahead...
The show changes over the years and its development can be broadly split into three sections. Each have their strengths and some weaknesses. The first section comprises the first three seasons and presents the show at its most anarchic and comedic, basing itself around three double acts. Henry Blake is in charge of the surgical unit and his performance is a comic master class. He's a man out of his depth, lacking all authority, usually drunk and his only interests are his girlfriend, fishing and golf. His clerical assistant, the mild-mannered Radar, at one stage jokes he really runs the unit, but he does and his double act with Blake in which Radar always knows what Blake is about to do has superb comic timing. The second double act is Hawkeye and Trapper John as the liberal minded, and usually drunk, surgeons who hate authority but do like chasing nurses. They provide the soul and core of the show, but perhaps not the funniest element as their wise-cracking is obvious and tiring. Best of all is the subtler pairing of Hotlips and Frank Burns, two military types who seek comfort in each other while plotting, and failing, to bring down Hawkeye and Trapper. Their lines are deadpan and funny, and for me Frank Burns is one of the great unsung comedy characters, with his endless inability to ever do the right thing.
Throughout these years the liberal anti-war values gives the comedy a tragic and often poignant edge. But for the second period of the show from series 4 to around 8 the show becomes more of a comedy drama. The moment of this transition comes when Blake (gulp...) and Trapper leave and as if often the case with shows that gradually become formulised they are replaced with less appealing and less anarchic characters. Potter takes charge as a loud authoritarian cowboy and BJ replaces Trapper's nurse-chasing antics with being a married, faithful man. During those years Frank also gets replaced by the snobbish Major Winchester. These changes help to keep things fresh, but the number of stories in which the war is hell message is rammed home in an unsubtle manner grows. Having said that, these years are perhaps the best showing the full range of what the show can do.
This period ends around the time that Radar leaves. Although if you're tracking the change of the show carefully I believe you can spot the moment it becomes a drama with comedy (as opposed to a comedy with dramatic elements) as being when Hotlips becomes Houlihan, thereby stopping being a promiscuous thorn in Hawkeye's side to being a dedicated nurse. This unwelcome change of character (as Hotlips is a magnificent creation and Houlihan is nothing special) forces the show to abandon the internal conflict in the unit in which the doctors fight amongst themselves to concentrate on them pulling together to fight against the horrors of war. This makes the drama repetitive and less interesting than the machinations Hotlips and Frank would go through to destroy Hawkeye. In reality this change of focus occured behind the scenes with changes in the writing staff and the greater involvement of Alan Alda who tried to use the format to highlight issues, but on screen Radar and Houlihan are the obvious change points. Watching again I enjoyed these episodes more than I had the first time round, largely because this time I appreciated Winchester more. In essence Winchester is Frasier, being a wine-loving, opera-loving character who finds himself stuck in Korea with a load of slobs. I rooted for him more this time. There's also greater experimentation in these years with many unusual story-telling formats, most of which work.
There are many other delights: Klinger permanently trying to get out of the army on a psychological discharge by wearing dresses, the ever understanding Father Mulcahy, and the bizarre recurring role for the most gung-ho CID agent in history. Many later stars also appeared in minor roles such as Leslie Neilsen, John Ritter, Patrick Swayze, Keiko from Star Trek and that shouty bloke from the Police Academy films. And it's also nice to see many bit part characters grow over the years such as the Hawaiian nurse and the cook, many of whom can be spotted from early episodes through to getting full speaking roles later.
For over 200 episodes the series presents an entertaining comedy that also says something important and this box set presents the full story. It includes every episode along with the earlier Robert Altman film and various later tribute shows containing contributions from pretty much everyone which are worth watching if only to hear Frank Burns cackle for one last time.
This is the greatest comedy show that has ever been made, but the final word really should go to Henry Blake: there are certain rules in a war. Rule Number 1 is that young men die. And Rule Number 2 is that doctors can't change Rule Number 1.