M*A*S*H Holiday Episodes (1972 - 1981)
If you're somehow not familiar with it, M*A*S*H is a series about an army medical base stationed in Korea during the Korean War. It's based on a movie I've never seen, which was in turn based on a book I've never read, so don't expect a lot of context on that end.
Actually sitting down and watching through the Christmas episodes (along with a few tangential episodes we'll discuss in a minute) was a fascinating experience. First, it's not hard to see why it left a footprint: this show has a fascinating tone, striking a careful balance between the hardships of war with the comedic absurdity of the characters. The show uses its jokes to invest the audience in the drama, not to distract from it. This style of writing has certainly been used more elegantly since, but I can't recall seeing a television show older than this pull that off. The format of the episodes also varied quite a bit. Some were vignettes set over weeks or - in one case - an entire year, while others were more story-oriented and took place in a single day.
That's not to say everything ages well. Some of the humor is built around the mischievous doctors' behavior around women, which... God, it's easy to forget how recently sexual harassment and outright assault were still considered funny. In addition, the Korean setting of course means you're getting a reminder of how Hollywood viewed other cultures in the 70s. For the most part, nothing in the episodes we saw was too egregious (a few stereotypes, but I honestly expected worse). I do think it's worth noting that "Korean" was synonymous with "Asian" to casting directors of the time, so be prepared for that.
This episode from the first season is an example of the vignettes format. There's no real plot here - the premise is that Hawkeye is writing a letter to his father at Christmas and giving him an overview of what life is like on the base around the holidays. Early in the episode, Hawkeye explains they tell jokes in the operating room as a distraction from the tragedy, which is a fairly good synopsis for the overall tone.
In addition to this, there's a running gag about Radar mailing an army jeep home one piece at a time, a bit where Hawkeye and Trapper sabotage a romantic evening between Frank and Houlihan (an uptight military surgeon and nurse), and a comedic (and mildly racist) segment about Trapper helping local villagers by delivering a calf. These are fine, if a bit problematic, but aren't particularly memorable.
A segment in the middle of the episode packs a bit more punch. Frank and Corporal Klinger get in an argument over Klinger wearing a bandanna that escalates quickly, first resulting in broken bottles, then a fairly whimsical fistfight through the recovery ward. The chaplain, Father Mulcahy, witnesses the fight and convinces an MP officer to let him handle it. He catches up with Klinger on his way to confront Frank with a grenade and talks him down. This was easily the best part of the episode, showing how situations can go from funny to deadly serious without warning.
After an unfortunate sequence where Hawkeye grabs Houlihan and forcefully kisses her passionately, he dresses up as Santa to give local children gifts. Before he can do so, they get word that a soldier with a chest wound is pinned down by enemy fire, requiring a medic to go into the line of fire and attempt to save him. There's no time to change out of the uniform, so Hawkeye hurries in dressed as Saint Nick. The episode ends with him descending a ladder out of a helicopter into a war zone, crawling through incoming fire, and reaching the patient, whose friends are watching in amazement.
While allusions to the holidays permeate the episode, they felt mostly tacked on until that ending bit, which feels as though it was the impetus for setting this at Christmas. The image of Santa crawling through a war zone gets to the heart of what the show is trying to do: show how the absurdity of war is at once horrific and humorous.
We're jumping from season 1 all the way to season 7 for the next Christmas episode. The premise appears to be referencing the original, in that both open with a letter home. In this case, that letter's being penned by the army chaplain, Father Mulcahy, who's going through a fairly dark time.
Mulcahy is questioning whether the spiritual guidance he offers might be insufficient given the gravity of the war. No one shows up for his sermons or wants to give a confession - he winds up serving drinks so people will share their problems with him.
This frustration culminates in him striking an unruly patient. Technically, he was hitting back, since the patient struck him first, but he still feels awful. He tries to apologize, but the recovering soldier isn't interested in speaking to him. Hawkeye sees how upset he is and does his best to comfort him, but he's still depressed.
He's not alone, either - everyone seems to be having a difficult time. Fortunately, a Christmas party helps cheer everyone up, even Winchester, the resident Scrooge who'd declined to donate to Mulcahy's fund to buy Christmas presents for orphans earlier in the episode. A simple gift from Radar brightens Winchester's mood considerably, and he donates to the fund after all. That, a complimentary toast from Hawkeye, and a Christmas song resolve the premise.
Then someone notices it's snowing. Before you cringe too much, rest assured as soon as everyone steps out to enjoy the scene, a truck pulls up with news the ceasefire's been broken and there are wounded on board.
I like that fake-out at the end and there are several funny moments throughout, but overall this episode felt a little forced. The central storyline isn't really tied together all that well. Some of that's intentional - the episode seems to be about pushing through hard times, as opposed to magical solutions or convenient resolutions. Only that bit with Winchester undermines that theme a bit, leaving the whole thing feeling muddled. Still, it's a solid episode.
The plot to this episode from the series' ninth season is more streamlined than either of the two we've looked at so far. It focuses on two parallel stories: one involving a wounded soldier and the other built around a Christmas celebration for orphans.
The orphan story is mostly Winchester's. After an attack on the supply convoy, they realize their Christmas dinner is being canceled. In addition to ruining everyone's holiday, this is going to be even more devastating to local orphans, who'd been invited. In order to salvage the party, they take up a collection - everyone's received non-perishable food shipped from home, so there's more than enough. And of course, everyone happily parts with it, with one exception.
Winchester, of course, refuses to give much of anything despite having received several large packages. He's hated for this, of course, but he holds firm, then slips away into town. Turns out, the reason he didn't want to hand over his chocolate stemmed from a family tradition: every year, they'd give away expensive food to the less fortunate anonymously. He wants it to go to the orphans; he just doesn't want to receive credit. The only one who knows is the director of the orphanage.
At the party, Winchester discovers the chocolate he'd given to the orphans made its way to the black market. Furious, he pulls the director outside and yells at him, until it's explained the candy was sold to purchase rice and cabbage, which the kids need more than candy.
All that's the B-story, and it's fine. Let's talk about why the main characters aren't around.
A wounded soldier shot by a sniper is brought in on Christmas. Almost immediately, it's clear that there's no hope of saving him. Just as they're giving up, they find a photograph of his family.
They then sacrifice their Christmas in an attempt to keep him alive, not indefinitely, just until December 26th, so his kids won't think of Christmas as the day their father died. They succeed until after 11, but he doesn't make it to midnight. Finally, Hawkeye casually pushes the clock hands past midnight, and they agree to falsify the records.
So... yeah. This one goes dark. I don't think it would have worked if they'd dangled the possibility of saving him or something. There are no miracles, no last-minute saves; just the desperate refusal to give into reality. And it works. This is, far and above, the best of the episodes we saw.
Sequentially, this episode is directly after the one we just saw. That's right, two holiday episodes in a single year. I'm going to be brief with this one, because it's a New Year's episode, rather than Christmas, and even then it's more New Year's themed than set. Remember when I said in the intro one of these took place over an entire year? That'd be this one.
It opens on New Year's, with the Colonel dressing up as the old year and offering a toast in which he hopes they'll all be home before the end of the next year. From here, the episode starts jumping through time, proving glimpses of life on the base at various times. There are a handful of subplots, but the main thrust concerns a series of baseball bets inspired by Klinger in which Winchester eventually loses a large amount of money.
All of this mainly seems present to kill time before the episode inevitably concludes at the next New Year, in which the Colonel offers an identical speech, this time delivered with far less optimism. It's a sobering moment in an otherwise fairly forgettable episode, and it probably should have been the end. Instead, there's a coda featuring everyone re-watching the World Series that's interrupted by Winchester madly slashing the projection screen with a knife.
Overall, it's a good concept for a New Year's episode, and it does a decent job telling stories through brief snapshots. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to see done in a movie, but was rarely attempted on the small screen back when this aired.
Of all the episodes we saw, I think the last comes closest to the format and tone of a standard sitcom. The episode opens at the end of Christmas, while the camp celebrates with some visiting British officers. During this, the English officers talk about Boxing Day, which they celebrate by swapping roles with enlisted men.
And if you've ever seen an episode of a sitcom in your life, you already have a pretty good idea where this is going. Hell, even if you haven't ever seen a sitcom before, you can probably figure this one out.
Klinger expresses skepticism towards the difficulty of the Colonel's job, so the Colonel switches places with him, giving him the power to assign all other officers to various jobs. Hawkeye winds up as an orderly, while Winchester has to report to the cook he regularly mocks.
What follows is a fairly by-the-numbers exercise in various characters learning how difficult each others' jobs are. Eventually, things get complicated when a patient requires surgery. To the writers' credit, the characters all quickly hand back responsibilities as soon as there's a life on the line, though this never felt particularly tense.
It's not a bad episode of a sitcom as far as 70s sitcoms go, but there wasn't much about this installment to make it memorable.
I don't have much to say in closing, aside from tipping my hat to the series for delivering a couple intriguing premises in a row. Death Takes a Holiday is definitely the standout of the bunch, but the rest are solid.
It's easy to see why this show was as big as it was. The tone is nuanced, and the writing is generally sharp. That said, the problem with shows that are influential is it's all too easy for subsequent shows to reproduce and improve on the best elements, and I feel like that's what's happened here. What I saw was good and ahead of its time, but nothing that made me want to go back and watch more of the series.