Once in my long and somewhat checkered life, I went to Mount Rushmore. I was actually on the way to someplace else, but figured I would stop off and see the gigantic carvings of the four presidents on the side of the mountain. So I headed that way and then drove and drove and had to stop for lunch and then once more to go to the bathroom and, finally, I got to see Mount Rushmore. It was not worth the drive.
This was my feeling after sitting through 2 1/2 hours of the final episode of "M*A*S*H." I had been reading about this event for what a seemed like years. Newsweek, ever so trendy, had it on the cover. People Magazine, trying to go head-to-head with Newsweek, had covered the story, too. The newspapers had been full of stories about the final episode. I read them all, but not a one of them said that the show was a turkey.
This is not easy for me to say because by and large I am a ""M*A*S*H" fan. No, I take that back. More and more in its later years, I liked the idea of the show, or at least the memory of the show, but not the show itself. It had lost its energy, its tartness, its black humor and its sense that war--all wars, even good wars--are man's most stupid endeavor. It was that sense of high intelligence cum high cyncism that infected the original "M*A*S*H" and made it such fun to watch.
There is, I think, a dirty little secret about highly rated television shows that are also supposed to be good: If they were any good, they would not be highly rated. I know that I am going to hear from "60 Minutes" fans, but the show is really a cartoon of journalism, a reenactment of stories that frequently have been reported elsewhere--with useless confrontations thrown in for good measure.
I know, too, that I am about to hear from "Hill Street Blues" aficionados, of which I used to be one. The show originally was as good as people said it was--and nonviolent to boot. This is not the case anymore, though. It is now as violent as any cop show on television. There is your standard beating or knifing or shooting per show. That, plus the burlesque humor and the sex, helps account for why it is now doing well in the ratings. It is doing well because it is no longer a good show.
"M*A*S*H," though, rose in the ratings even as it kept its integrity. In later years, the show changed and became more of a standard television situation comedy, but even then it was a rare thing for television: a show that could make you think. Maybe that is why the last show was such a disappointment. It was the ultimate cop-out, and not even an original one, at that.
In fact, the last "M*A*S*H" episode was Sophie's Choice moved to Korea. Instead of Sophie choosing which of her two children would die, it was a Korean civilian choosing to kill her child to save the lives of others. And instead of the mother suffering, it was Hawkeye who went crazy--a startling piece of egomania. Presumably, Koreans don't care about their babies.
No matter. What the show did to originality, it then did to psychology. The crazy Hawkeye, suffering terminal guilt for killing a child he did not kill, is cured in about 20 minutes worth of sessions with a pyschiatrist. If John Hinckley watched the show and now expects the same thing to happen to him, he is about to learn the hard way--and maybe for the first time--that TV lies.
This was not the sort of silliness we had come to expect from "M*A*S*H." This is not the stuff upon which the show gained its reputation for excellence and that kept it going for 11 years. The old "M*A*S*H," the true "M*A*S*H," would not have been so self-indulgent, would not have spent an hour of the audience's time so that the cast could say good-bye to one another, but would have told a story instead.
The old "M*A*S*H," in fact, would have killed Hawkeye. That would have been the perfect antiwar message, a message that conveyed the sense that all wars end, not just with farewells, but with empty feelings--lots of voids for all the people who die. That is how "M*A*S*H" should have gone out: the way it came in. But instead of killing Hawkeye, "M*A*S*H" chose instead to kill its own integrity.