Better Late Than Never

Aside from it being a holiday Monday where FOX had a scheduling gap as it transitioned into its winter schedule there was no particularly monumental milestone, anniversary or death that would otherwise support why an evening that all knew would be annihilated in key demo ratings by the overwhelming presence of the national college football championship semifinals on ABC, let alone the premiere of the latest AMERICA’S GOT TALENT iteration, would be turned over to a documentary about a show that hasn’t produced an original episode in more than four decades.

But M*A*S*H is no ordinary show, and, arguably, any show on any network or service that has attempted to be “prestige” TV, mix elements of comedy and drama and employ an ensemble cast owes its very existence to the enormous success the 251 episodes produced for CBS by Twentieth Century Fox TV between 1972 and 1983 achieved.  When the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere occurred on September 17, 2022 it was memorialized by plenty of magazines and entertainment blogs; its current diginet home MeTV celebrated it by expanding its successful double dose of nightly episodes to a four-pack.  Heck, even yours truly took note of this milestone, an appreciation that included more than a few personal observations and thanks.  I’m proud to say it was one of our more read musings, although it fell far short of the 60.3 per cent of the U.S. that watched the 2 1/2 hour series finale GOODBYE, FAREWELL AND AMEN.  But nothing, not even Mr. Beast, has approached that kind of simultaneous audience level anywhere since, and I highly doubt any possibility exists that something ever could.

And, honestly, if you’re of a certain age, you’re far less likely to appreciate exactly how and why this show was so special.  And, apparently, that’s the excuse that the crop of CBS executives who were in place in 2022 used not only to explain why they didn’t acknowledge this anniversart, but also those of several other groundbreaking shows that helped to give the network the beachhead in audience domination that they still are quick to tout they maintain, at least in conflated metrics like billions of minutes spent to this day.

TV LINE’s Matt Webb Mitovich put the question to the documentary’s executive producers John Schienfeld and Andy Kaplan, and, to the credit, they attempted to be discreet:

TVLINE | At the time of M*A*S*H’s 50th anniversary in September 2022, Maude, The Waltons and The Bob Newhart Show also all turned 50 — and none of them got proper TV specials. Was there a business reason that CBS didn’t do something for M*A*S*H?
JOHN SCHEINFELD |
Well, you know, it’s an interesting landscape we’re working in now. Everyone is chasing the younger viewers and sometimes when they’re faced with what they would call “legacy programming,” it’s not something they always jump at…
(W)e actually had sold it to CBS, but it was bought by Les Moonves, and then Les got booted out and the new guy didn’t want to do it, and so every year or so we would trot this out and we couldn’t get anybody to buy it — even in the anniversary years, as you noted…But then, happily, Fox decided this was the time to do it(.)

ANDY KAPLAN | (W)e were so thrilled that Fox jumped in to do this. To get a special like this in a great time slot on a broadcast network is becoming a much harder thing to do.

Andy’s one of the most tenacious and likable executives I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, so there’s little surprise that he didn’t let a series of “nos” define this show’s fate.  He has maintained a friendship with FOX’s astute scheduling czar Dan Harrison for decades, and Dan is one of the few executives that remain in a position of influence anywhere these days who knows the value of something truly timeless.

And Scheinfeld did much, much more with this than wrap a bunch of clips together.  As DECIDER’s Joel Keller elaborated, this was a much more inclusive and thoughtful retrospective than any previous lookback, even ones previous CBS executives had commissioned, attempted:

The documentary examines the show’s origins, from the novel by Richard Hooker and W.C. Heinz, to the 1970 Robert Altman-directed film that inspired the series. Gelbart, Reynolds and Metcalfe have great respect for Altman’s vision, but they wanted to do something different, something that not only was comedic but really examined the fact that these people were stuck in a horrific war trying to patch young men up so they can just go back out and kill or be killed.

Scheinfeld then examines each of the primary characters from the perspective of the people who played them: Alda’s Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, Rogers’ “Trapper” John McIntyre, Swit’s Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, Linville’s Frank Burns, Stevensen’s Henry Blake, Burghoff’s Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, Christopher’s Father Francis Mulcahy, and Farr’s Maxwell Q. Klinger. There is frank discussion of why both Stevenson and Rogers left after the third season(.)

And Schienfeld reinforced to Mitovich that there was more of a sense of urgency to tell this story now than ever:

There hadn’t been a proper documentary on M*A*S*H in many, many years and I thought, “We ought to do this.” And as everyone was getting a little bit older, we cobbled some money together and shot interviews with all the living cast members, and those are the interviews you see in the special. And in fact two, Bill Christopher and Wayne Rogers, died the next year, so these are the very last interviews they gave on M*A*S*H. 

And then we found archival interviews with Harry Morgan at [Potter’s] desk, David Ogden Stiers backstage, and then Larry Linville and McLean Stevenson had done interviews for a network special about M*A*S*H that aired in 1991, and those were buried in the vault at Fox, and so we were delighted to find those.

Indeed, the rarely seen perspectives of both Stevenson and Linville, both of whom passed decades ago at far too young ages, are compellingly candid and almost heartbreaking.  Neither of them enjoyed anything close to the level of success on M*A*S*H in any of their later works; indeed, an incredibly high bar and arguable typecasting they achieved may have hurt them.  Rogers expressed similar thoughts in his reflective original interview shot with a much longer separation period.

Yet these actors who weren’t around for the show’s full run share similar sentiments with those who were in at the end.  Farrell, one of the documentary’s executive consultants, is particularly emotional and expressive in the laudings of his castmates.  Alda, Farr, Swit and Burghoff, who continue to evangelize about the show to this day as almost a “core four”, are their usual combination of grateful and reflective.  Their ubiquity and, especially in Alda’s case, his subsequent successes make them the most recognizable faces in this work, but those of the behind-the-scenes people, as noted, are equally insightful.

According to Schienfeld, there were many more behind-the-scenes interviews done, but FOX requested they be cut.  True TV geeks might have loved seeing some more inside baseball narratives, but, to be fair, FOX knows its audience will only go so far into the weeds for entertainment.  Possibly the only lamentable quality of this special were the relentless violators and spots for its new schedule of reality and game shows debuting in the next few days that shared the screen with this work.  And Harrison knows better than most that, at this point, more of the baby boomer audience that was most likely to show up to this air on New Year’s Night was much more likely to watch the new season of Celebrity Name That Tune than they would, say, a current day’s comedy. (Not that FOX has any live-action sitcoms on its plate at the moment).

But, heck, FOX at least was respectful enough to give this work a shot and, frankly, a most deserved victory lap.  Ironic, since M*A*S*H isn’t even part of the current FOX corporate landscape (Twentieth Century Fox was sold to Disney in 2018).  But the current FOX is still housed on the same lot where the show was made.  They still own the stations (and revenue generators) that for decades achieved enormous success with nightly reruns that exposed the show to slightly younger viewers.  And an awful lot of that Century City real estate (and, as Alda noted, his house as well) was paid for by the money those reruns raked in for the studio during its extremely lean years just prior to Murdoch’s purchase and Barry Diller’s fourth network gambit.  Indeed, there is likely no network or place for Harrison and his team to work at today were it not for M*A*S*H.

So who needs a reason like a specific point in time for a story like this to retold?  And now that it’s out there, you’ll undoubtedly be able to see it on some streaming service moving forward (as well you should).  Maybe several over time.  Andy Kaplan’s that tenacious a salesman, remember?

Until next time…

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