Sunday, September 27, 2015
M*A*S*H Should Be Rebooted
The TV show M*A*S*H should be rebooted. The original show was one of the best ever, but there were a lot of things wrong with it.
For one thing, the continuity was all messed up. We were told in the Season 4 premiere that Colonel Sherman T. Potter (playing by Harry Morgan) took command on September 19, 1952, and that Captain B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) arrived one week earlier, and that Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Corporal Walter "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) were still there.
But in Season 9, we're told that B.J., Potter and Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) were there, and that, by December 31, 1950, Frank, Radar, Captain John "Trapper" McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) were all gone.
Even if you count that episode, "A War for All Seasons," covering all of 1951, as an outlier and non-canon, in the finale, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit) says she's known Charles for 2 years -- so even if she's rounding up, we're talking the summer of 1951, meaning there's no way B.J., Henry or Frank should still have been there by then.
Throw in the fact that Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda) went from living in Vermont, having a sister, and having his mother still being alive to living in Maine, being an only child, and having his mother die when he was 10. Henry's wife was Mildred, then Lorraine. The name Mildred was brought back for Potter's wife. Potter had a son, then a daughter and no son.
Also, if Corporal Max Klinger (like his portrayer, Jamie Farr, whose real name is Jameel Farah) has Lebanese ancestry, are all his Lebanese relatives on his mother's side? Because Klinger isn't an Arabic name.
Poor Nurse Kelly. Or Kelley. Or Kellye. (Played by Kellye Nakahara.) We know her rank was Lieutenant throughout. But her name was never fully mentioned, or even definitively spelled. Early on, a couple of times, she was "Nurse Charlie," and another actress was called "Nurse Kelly."
After that, Nakahara's character was always referred to as "Nurse Kelly," suggesting that Kelly (however it was supposed to be spelled) was her last name. Funny, she didn't look Irish. Certainly, she didn't interact much with the very Irish characters of Trapper and Lieutenant, later Captain, Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher), the Jesuit priest who was camp chaplain. (Then again, Hawaii Five-O -- also on CBS, both the 1968-80 classic version and the current reboot -- had a character named Chin Ho Kelly.)
But, twice, including in the next-to-last episode, Margaret called her "Lieutenant Nakahara," suggesting that the actress' name was also the character's name. In one episode, she says she's half-Chinese and half-Hawaiian. But Nakahara is a Japanese name, and in another episode, she speaks fluent Japanese -- despite her previously-stated ancestry, at no time is she shown speaking Chinese.
Nor is Kellye ever shown speaking Korean, the language of the country they're actually in. Ironically, the only main character who shows any facility with Korean is Radar, who has some difficulty with English! Indeed, it would have made sense (for any organization but this fictional version of the 1950s U.S. Army) to have a translator there. That could have been a good role for Kellye, and given Nakahara much more screen time, instead of what she usually did: Stand in the background, assist the surgeons, or respond to requests: "Yes, Doctor," or, "Yes, Major."
Despite the "New Wave of Feminism" being underway by the time the show debuted in September 1972, the nurse characters, aside from Margaret really got short shrift, an issue addressed in the final season (Fall 1982), in an episode titled "Who Knew?" when one of the nurses dies in an accident, and no one seems to have learned much about her, not even Hawkeye, with whom she was on a date right before she died.
We know there were nurses named Able, Baker and Charlie (a reference to the "military alphabet"), a black nurse named Ginger Bayless (Odessa Cleveland) was a constant in Season 1, and a Nurse Bigelow was frequently mentioned. But the actresses playing these specific characters tended to change. This made no freakin' sense. The only nurse who tended to get significant screen time (if only to be in the background or to interact with Margaret and the doctors) was Kellye. And she was so underused, we might as well have called her "Uhura." (While Uhura is a Swahili name, like Obama, maybe, like Obama, it could sound Japanese.)
There's a few anachronisms as well. At one point, Hawkeye, hearing a lot of letters of Army acronyms spoken, mockingly sings, "M-O-U-S-E." The Mickey Mouse Club didn't start airing until 1955, 2 years after the war ended. In other episode, he references the assassination of Albert Anastasia, king of the New York Mob, which happened in 1957. And while Indochina is referenced in an episode, in the finale, it's called "Vietnam," and I'm not sure how widespread that name was in 1953.
The biggest anachronisms are the hairstyles. This was the Army. This was the 1950s. No way would Hawkeye, B.J. and Klinger have that much hair. And I don't think the Fifties Army would have allowed B.J. to grow a mustache. Granted, Major Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist played by Allan Arbus in one episode every season, had one, but, being older, they might have given him some leeway.
Another problem is the ages of the characters. When the show began, Gary Burghoff was 29 playing 19; when he left, he was 36 playing 21 or so. How old was Klinger? We're led to believe he was a street kid, who might've been soon out of high school, but Farr was then 38. When the show ended, he was 49, and now playing a character possibly half his age!
Charles frequently mentioned that he graduated from Harvard University, outside Boston. Once, he mentioned that he was "Class of '43." This would make him 30 or so when he arrived. Granted, being bald doesn't help, but did Stiers look only 30 to you? He was 35; when the show ended, he was 41 playing about 32.
And none of the characters, except Potter, are mentioned as having served in World War II, which ended 5 years before the Korean War began. Not even Margaret, who, because of her father, has lived on Army bases her entire life. Clearly, she's qualified to be a U.S. Army Major, so she's got to be at least 30. Which means she was at least 25 when "The Big One" ended. That doesn't mean she was already a combat nurse, but it does mean she was no kid. Certainly, midway through the series, there was a reference to her needing to color her hair to remain blonde.
So, no mention of World War II service for the doctors. Does this mean the doctors (Henry and Potter excepted) had student deferments -- understandable, if it meant medical school that could make them military doctors, especially since no one knew until 1945 that the war would end anytime soon? That makes them at least 30 when the war began, but look at the gray hair that Alan Alda and Mike Farrell had at the end: Alda was 47, Farrell 44. I'm 45, and I don't look nearly as old as any of the doctors, except Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper and has always looked good for his age.
Larry Linville, who played Frank, was just 4 years older than Burghoff. There's no way Frank, married with kids and a receding hairline, was just 4 years older than Radar. (Though Burghoff wore a hat to hide his even more receding hairline.)
Potter mentioned lying about his age to get into the Army for World War I, but in a later episode says he's 62, meaning he was 27 when the U.S. got into "Dubya Dubya One," and possibly already a fully-qualified doctor.
Finally, the way the Army is portrayed. A U.S. Army that incompetent wouldn't have won World War II. And there's no way Hawkeye, Trapper and B.J. would've gotten away with half the things they got away with just because they were great surgeons, no matter how many favors Henry and Potter could call in to keep them out of the stockade.
As for Frank, and the even crazier occasional guest star Colonel Flagg, played by Edward Winter, they would have been removed much sooner than they were. Maybe Hawkeye and B.J. wouldn't have been willing to ruin Margaret's career over the truth of her affair with the married Frank later on -- notably, Charles wasn't willing to lie to ruin it and get himself transferred back to Tokyo General Hospital -- but early, when she was frequently as bitchy as she wanted to be, oh yeah, Hawkeye and B.J. would have eagerly ruined her and Frank. At the least, they would have threatened to if they didn't back off, big-time.
That's the only way Frank, in temporary command after Henry's discharge, could have allowed Hawkeye the 5-day R&R he had in the Season 4 premiere, forcing him to miss Trapper's goodbye. No way Frank agrees to that otherwise.
Also, I'd like to know where the characters are from, and what led them to become the people they were when we met them. Here's the hometowns that we know:
* Hawkeye: The fictional town of Crabapple Cove, Maine.
* Trapper: Boston.
* B.J.: Mill Valley, California, outside San Francisco.
* Henry: Bloomington, Illinois.
* Potter: Hannibal, Missouri.
* Margaret: Army brat, going from base to base with her father, at one point telling Klinger, "I was never in the same school two years in a row."
* Frank: Fort Wayne, Indiana.
* Charles: Boston.
* Radar: A farm outside Ottumwa, Iowa.
* Klinger: Toledo, Ohio, just like Farr.
* Mulcahy: Philadelphia.
* Kellye: Honolulu.
* Sidney: New York -- specifically, Brooklyn.
* Staff Sergeant Zelmo Zale (Johnny Haymer): Also Brooklyn.
* Staff Sergeant Luther Rizzo: Somewhere in Louisiana. Probably not New Orleans; I think that would have been mentioned.
Hawkeye mentions a familiarity with Chicago, but also one with Boston. Maybe, since it is the closest major city to Maine, and has many renowned hospitals, he went to medical school there, or did his residency there. Did he meet Trapper there? It would explain why they were assigned together, and why they worked so well together. But, clearly, he hasn't met Charles (who arrived after Trapper left). And, in a later episode, Trapper is mentioned, and Charles shows no familiarity with him, so, clearly, they've never met, not even in a medical sphere. And yet, of the 3 men, only Charles seems to have a New England accent.
(This was also an oddity on Boston-based Cheers, where the only character who had one was Cliff. And while his portrayer, John Ratzenberger, was the only member of the main cast from any of the New England States, it was Connecticut, and he was from the New York side of the Nutmeg State, not the Boston side, and doesn't have a New England accent in real life. Nor do I recall many New England accents on other New England-based shows: Boston's St. Elsewhere, Crossing Jordan and Rizzoli & Isles, which recently had Stiers as a guest star; Rhode Island's Providence; Vermont's Newhart; and Maine's Murder, She Wrote and Haven.)
In Trapper John, M.D., the older John McIntyre is working at a hospital in San Francisco -- B.J.'s hometown! And this is never brought up! There's a reason for that, thought: For legal reasons, despite being on the same network, they had to say that this version of Trapper is based on the one from the 1970 film, played by Elliott Gould, not the 1972-75 TV version played by Rogers.
And I'd like at least one secondary character from each of the unused locations on the famous signpost, so that we understand that each of them represents somebody there. The signs, in order, are: Boston (Trapper and Charles), Seoul (the South Korean capital), Coney Island (could represent Brooklynite Zale), San Francisco (B.J. took it home in the finale), Burbank (no character on the original show was said to have come from the Los Angeles area), Death Valley (ditto, and I'm not sure why they would choose one of the few places on the planet more than that section of central Korea to be on the signpost), Toledo (Klinger), Decatur (not sure if it's the one in Illinois or the one in Georgia, at any rate no character was from either). In the early seasons, before Klinger was promoted from secondary to primary character (and, in Season 10, from Corporal to Sergeant), there was an Indianapolis sign (no character was said to come from there, although Frank was from Indiana), but it was replaced by a Toledo sign. Also, early on, there was a second Seoul sign underneath the Decatur sign, and underneath that there was a Honolulu sign (could be put on the reboot's version for Kellye).
But, definitely, there should be signs for all the primary characters. The Boston sign could stand in for Hawkeye's Crabapple Cove, especially since, as with Decatur, having "PORTLAND" could mean Maine or Oregon. Henry's Bloomington, likewise, could be confused with the ones in Indiana and Minnesota, so use Chicago for his. For Potter, Hannibal would be fine, although relatively close St. Louis could be used instead. The Indianapolis sign could be replaced with a Fort Wayne for Frank, since Fort Wayne is a decent-sized city (bigger than Crabapple Cove, as Frank once pointed out). But, you know what, the heck with Frank: He was the one guy in camp who was happier away from his family (and closer to Margaret's hot lips). Ottumwa, or at least Des Moines (Iowa's capital), would have to be there for Radar, and Philadelphia for Mulcahy. If Zale wasn't important enough to be the subject of the Coney Island sign, it could be explained as being for 7 or 8 soldiers there from the New York Tri-State Area, or it could be a tribute to visiting Brooklynite Sidney.
So here's what I propose: Definitive backstories, including birthdates and professional backgrounds, and:
* Season 1: Premiere establishes their origin stories and how they got there, season runs from September 1950 (Inchon landing) to June 1951. Season finale, Henry gets sent home, but doesn't make it.
* Season 2: June 1951 to December 1951. Trapper out, B.J. in. Henry already out, Frank out of temporary command, Potter in. Middle of the season, Margaret is engaged to Donald, they marry in the season finale, but the cliffhanger is Frank goes after them, and Charles is introduced. (Removing the "War for All Seasons" episode where they bet on the Pennant race that ends with the Bobby Thomson home run.)
* Season 3: December 1951 to September 1952. Charles settles in. In the finale, Radar's Uncle Ed dies.
* Season 4: September 1952 to July 1953. Radar goes home in the premiere. Klinger becomes company clerk, and the dresses are put away for good (except for the ending of "Your Retention Please," a.k.a. the "Dear Maxie Letter" episode). The finale ends the war, with the consequences we saw in the original finale.
* Season 5: Slowly, but surely, we bring the characters up to the present day. Show what happens to them. We got a hint of this in AfterMASH, the sequel series that aired because Harry Morgan, Jamie Farr and William Christopher wanted to continue, and the rest didn't.
In spite of the blood and gore shown on more recent crime-procedural shows, there's no need to show any more of it than was shown on the original M*A*S*H. They proved that you don't need to show that to show that William Tecumseh Sherman was right when he said that war is "cruelty" and "all hell." (Hawkeye once heard the line, "War is hell" in the operating room, and said that war was worse than Hell, because, "There are no innocent bystanders in Hell.")
Keep the continuity. Enforce it. Have a date at the beginning of each episode. Have a historical adviser on hand. Better yet, multiple experts: On the Korean War, on U.S. military history, on medicine of the early 1950s, and on Korean culture, and on Chinese culture (the other enemy at hand, besides the North Koreans). And use those experts to say what sort of behavior, and what sort of punishments for unacceptable behavior, and for overreacting to bad behavior, would have been allowed in the Army of the time. Make it realistic.
Have age-appropriate actors. The main roles can be starmakers for the people playing the main characters, including the 30 (or so)-year-old doctors and nurses. But you have to have kids, people 21 or under, playing Radar, Klinger, Private Igor Straminsky (the long-suffering mess tent hash-slinger played by Jeff Maxwell), and most of the wounded, who would be of draft age and thus ages 18 to 25.
Henry Blake and Sherm Potter should be played by established actors, one in his mid-40s and one in his 50s who could pass for older. (I like the idea of Potter lying about his age to get into WWI, but also the idea that being in 3 wars has aged him.) My suggestions are John Cusack (49 but can pass for a little younger, and from Chicago) for Henry, and Peter Krause (50, and from Minnesota but he can pass for rural Missouri) for Potter. I also like the idea of Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler on The West Wing) playing Sidney, who should be used more than just once a season.
And talk to Asian-American advocacy groups, to have the proper sensitivity to the native Korean characters, and show those characters who do not react well to them, such as Frank, getting their proper comeuppances.
And talk to them about who should play Nurse Kellye, and give her an expanded role -- as the Season 11 premiere suggested, maybe she would be the right woman for Hawkeye in the end. After all, she's not a classic pinup girl, but she's nice, intelligent, a very good nurse, and, in her own words, she happens to be cute as hell! It would also show that Hawkeye really has learned his lesson about women.
So, if I were writing it, what would I have happen to the main characters, over the rest of their lives, spelled out over the 5th and final season?
Hawkeye: Goes back to Maine, allowing his father to retire as town doctor, and him to take over the practice. If he was 30 years old when the war began, that would make him 95 years old now. Considering how much he drank, and how much the war aged him, physically and mentally, I can't see him living much past age 70. But, presuming he did marry Kellye and take her back to Maine with him, that gives them about 40 years together, until around 1990 or so. If they had kids, they'd now by in their 50s.
Trapper: Goes back to Boston, to his wife and (at least) 2 daughters. Gets a job in a clinic, eventually opens a suburban practice. He was always in better shape than Hawkeye, and probably drank less. He probably lives longer, maybe long enough to see his beloved Red Sox cheat their way to the World Series win of 2004.
B.J.: Goes back to Mill Valley, to wife Peg and daughter Erin. Commutes over the Golden Gate Bridge to a hospital in San Francisco. Maybe, in 1978, he tries to save the lives of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk when they're shot. Maybe he actually saves Harvey, who thus lives to become the face of gay America in life, instead of in death. Treats victims of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the one that interrupted the World Series. He'd have been in his late 60s then, and retires shortly thereafter. Probably dies around the year 2000 or so. Erin, probably born in early 1951, would now be 64 years old. A hospital administrator, maybe?
Henry: Many people have speculated that Radar's words might not have been fully accurate: "Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake's plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There weren't no survivors." They want to believe that, somehow, Henry survived on a Pacific Island. Gilligan's Island, perhaps? No, that was said to be somewhere near Hawaii. So here's my idea for the final episode of M*A*S*H, rebooted: It's 1973, 20 years after the end of the war, and evidence reached the U.S. that an American has been treating natives on a Japanese island for 20 years, and the speculation is that it could be Henry, who (in those pre-Internet days) had no way of letting his country, let alone his family, know that he was still alive. So the gang gets back together, and they look for him, and they find him, and they bring him back to Bloomington, where, aged by his island experience, he has a few years of happiness. He dies in 1979, at age 63, having a heart attack while watching a horrible TV show. In a tremendous inside joke, it will be McLean Stevenson's later TV disaster, Hello, Larry.
Potter: Harry Morgan lived to be 96 years old, so no reason why Potter also shouldn't. After all, despite 3 wars having aged him, and a love of booze (but not to the extent of the hard-drinking Hawkeye) and cigars (but never once on the show did he smoke a cigarette), he was in remarkably good shape for his age. Probably from all his horseback riding, including on the show with his mare, Sophie. This would have him living into the 1990s, perhaps long enough to attend a 75th Anniversary reunion of World War I veterans in 1993. As for the plot of AfterMASH, I have no problem with him going to St. Louis to work in a Veterans Administration hospital. But there's no reason to put Klinger and Mulcahy there as well. So let's just make the sequel show non-canon, shall we?
Margaret: Once an Army nurse, always an Army nurse. She could have remained Stateside for the rest of her career, possibly as the mentor (mentress?) of Colleen McMurphy, Dana Delany's character on China Beach, which was essentially a Vietnam update of M*A*S*H. And maybe, just maybe, she could find a nice conservative doctor with whom she could settle down, if not have any children. If she was 30 when the war began, she would have been in her 80s during the 2000s, and could still be alive then, but probably not now in 2015.
Frank: This is an easy one. He goes back to Fort Wayne, but his wife Louise leaves him, fully convinced that what drove him over the edge in Korea was his love for Margaret. But, this being Indiana, he quickly finds a conservative woman who is happy to marry a well-connected Army officer veteran and doctor. Then, with his hyper-patriotism and conservative beliefs, he gets the chance to work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Where he meets Vice President Richard Nixon. I think you know where I'm going with this: He becomes Nixon's personal physician, then gets involved in Nixon's 1968 campaign, then his 1972 re-election campaign, and gets caught on the tapes saying something he shouldn't, becomes a Watergate defendant, and goes to prison. He doesn't serve long, but long enough that he becomes completely embittered, made worse by Wife Number 2 leaving him. Probably already having started drinking as much as Hawkeye did after the war, now it accelerates, and he dies of liver failure on March 30, 1981, age 60 or so -- ironically, due in part to a doctor at George Washington University Hospital being pulled away from treating him to treat President Ronald Reagan, Frank's new favorite President, who's been shot.
Charles: Considering his weight and how the war finally got to him in the finale, I'm not sure Charles would have been all right. "Perish the thought, gentlemen," he'd say. "I am a Winchester!" He got the chief of thoracic surgery job at Boston Mercy Hospital (which is fictional), and may have, at some point, taught a doctor or two from St. Elsewhere. Perhaps he failed to save the life of Red Sox star Harry Agganis in 1955 (he was treated as Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge), but was able to save the life of Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro after he got beaned in 1967 (he was treated at New England Deaconess Hospital, although he died young a few years later anyway). It's not hard to imagine Charles marrying a proper Bostonian lady, nor is it hard to imagine a young medical student named Charles Emerson Winchester IV being acquainted with Cheers' Dr. Frasier Crane -- although an episode of Frasier definitively places Frasier's birthdate as being the day after one of Queen Elizabeth's children, though it doesn't say which one. It can't be Prince Charles, since he was born in 1948, or Princess Anne, born in 1950, and the newspaper from Frasier's birthdate specifically calls her the Queen, not a Princess as she was until 1952. So they're not college roommates. If it's Prince Andrew, born in 1960, or Prince Edward, born in 1964, it might make Frasier the right age to be Charles IV's roommate, but it would make him too young to be a practicing psychiatrist when he debuts on Cheers in 1984. If Charles III lives to be 75, in 1996, that would make Charles IV about 40, which means not only could he be a teacher of Dr. Maura Isles of Rizzoli & Isles (Sasha Alexander), but there could be a 10-year-old Charles Emerson Winchester V, who would now be 30 and a practicing physician.
(M*A*S*H and Cheers both had Ken Levine and David Isaacs as writers. The connection was suggested when Stiers appeared on Frasier, hinting that his sophisticated scientist Dr. Leland Barton, not the less-than-upper-class retired cop Marty Crane, might have been Fraiser and Niles' real father, thus explaining the baldness.)
Radar: Forget the ridiculous pilot W*A*L*T*E*R. Radar may have gotten married, but no way does the wife he married on AfterMASH leave him so soon, and no way does he become a cop in St. Louis. (Not just that Radar is not fit for city life, but also that St. Louis is 260 miles away. It's still closer than Chicago, 300 miles away.) He probably stayed on the farm outside Ottumwa. Easily the youngest of these characters, if he really was 19 in early 1951, he'd be 83 now, and thus the likeliest to still be alive.
Klinger: Again, forget AfterMASH: The plot setup that forced him to leave his beloved Toledo and rejoin Potter in St. Louis was stupid. He stayed put. Maybe settling back in Toledo with Soon-Lee wouldn't have been easy, but that big family of his would have made her feel welcome, especially after first wife Laverne left him first for sausage-maker Morty, then for best friend Gus. If they had any sons, they would have been born too late to be of draft age in the Vietnam era, meaning they wouldn't have had to borrow any of dear old Dad's dresses. Given his Army experience, I can imagine ol' Maxwell Q. getting a job with an advertising agency, giving ideas on how to sell clothing to all kinds of women, from ladies of society to streetwalkers. Do you see where I'm going with this? The Klingers eventually move to New York, and Max becomes one of the Mad Men! Why, you could even call him Mad Max! He'd be in his mid-to-late 80s now, so he could still be alive. If not, do you think he was buried in his tux, or in one of his dresses? It should be the tux: In spite of the huge nose, when he was dressed up, he was actually a good-looking guy.
Mulcahy: Now, the good Father going from his parish in Philadelphia to the "General General" in St. Louis to get his hearing, damaged in the finale, fixed, as on AfterMASH, is plausible. But like "my sister, the Sister" (Sister Angelica the basketball-coaching nun), he was devoted to his parish, and likely would have gone back. Or maybe, given his experience, he would have followed up on his suggestion and opened a Catholic school for the deaf in Philly. He could have coached and managed the first deaf man to become a boxing champion. I get the idea that he wasn't that young when the war began -- William Christopher was nearly 40 when the show started -- so the chances of John Patrick Francis Mulcahy, S.J. still being alive today, at over 100, are not good. Which is too bad: I would have liked to have seen him there with Pope Francis in Philly yesterday.
So, by my count, here is the likelihood of the MASHers to be alive, if not necessarily available, for a 50th Anniversary celebration of the end of the war in Korea in July 2003:
Probably yes: Radar, Klinger, Soon-Lee, Igor.
Possibly yes: Trapper, Margaret, Kellye, some of the other nurses, Zale, Rizzo.
Probably no: Hawkeye, B.J., Charles, Mulcahy, Sidney.
Definitely no: Henry, Potter, Frank.
And, yes, I see the odd arrangement of the names that suggests Henry Potter, the mean old man who runs Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life, played by Lionel Barrymore. As far as I know, there is no famous man named Sherman Blake.