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BARNHART

The Series Finale of M*A*S*H Was As Good As Finales Get

MeTV's annual Veterans' Day airing of the 1983 war comedy is absolutely worth a rewatch.
  • Mike Farrell and Alan Alda in a secene from the final episode of M*A*S*H, titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (Photo: CBS)
    Mike Farrell and Alan Alda in a secene from the final episode of M*A*S*H, titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (Photo: CBS)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    I don’t watch or recommend a lot of old TV shows, but for this Veterans’ Day I’m making an exception on behalf of the longest, most-watched and greatest TV series finale of all time. Some of you have never seen it, and those of us who have (and until a few days ago that included me) have likely not watched it since Ronald Reagan was president.

    There is no disputing that the very last M*A*S*H, titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” — broadcast on CBS on the night of February 28, 1983 — was the longest series-ender ever. The runtime on the episode was two hours, not counting commercial breaks. In the middle of the country where I lived, it came on at 7:30 p.m. and didn’t sign off until after 10.

    Nor is there any disputing that it was the most-watched finale. Indeed, it is the most-watched episode of a scripted TV show in U.S. history. For some reason many people seem to believe the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas was more popular (probably because it gets name-checked in trivia contests). That broadcast, however, “only” drew 83.6 million viewers. Asked to name the most-watched series finale, people might guess Cheers or Seinfeld or Friends. But those shows all drew smaller crowds because it was the Nineties and there were many more channels to split up the viewing audience.

    A.C. Nielsen counted an astounding 106 million Americans who watched the two-and-a-half hour finale of M*A*S*H, titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” Only 11 TV shows have ever drawn more than 100 million viewers, according to Nielsen, and the other 10 all have the words Super Bowl in the title. TV was a three-network, live-viewing game back then, and on that night in 1983 the other two networks got out of CBS’s way. More than 60 percent of U.S. households watched the M*A*S*H finale, a mark that will never be matched, not even by Squid Game.

    OK, so it was the biggest and the longest … but the greatest series finale? Better than Six Feet Under and Newhart and all the other finale fan favorites? That’s my position, after watching “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” in one sitting for the first time in 38 years. It’s delightful, riveting, satisfying. And given what it was — a mass-audience network comedy — the M*A*S*H finale remains surprisingly relevant in its observations about war and the toll it takes on human beings.

    In 1970, when director Robert Altman adapted Robert Hooker’s MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors for the big screen, the country was mired in the Vietnam War. Yes, the fictional Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077 was located in 1950s Korea during that country's north-south conflict, but everybody knew it was a film about Vietnam. A film about the pointlessness of American involvement in civil wars halfway across the planet, the nihilism that accompanies warfare and the anything-goes culture of those conscripted into its grim rituals.

    By the time Larry Gelbart pitched CBS on a TV adaptation of Altman’s film, times were changing. We were getting out of Vietnam. Nixon had ended the draft. Archie Bunker had gotten Americans to laugh at bigotry; why not get people to laugh at a bloody foreign war? And so M*A*S*H arrived on the CBS lineup in 1972 as a rollicking comedy about doctors on the loose in a combat zone. There was more drinking and fooling around in those early seasons. The network insisted on a laugh track, as it had with The Beverly Hillbillies.

    But a funny thing happened during those 11 seasons. While America was loosening up, M*A*S*H was sobering up. The laugh track was dialed down. Episodes on partying and adultery gave way to those emphasizing the savagery and insanity of war. The cast was slowly rid of its lightweight characters, like the original commanding officer of the 4077, Henry Blake, an affable but weak-kneed reservist played by sitcom boob McLean Stevenson. He was replaced by Sherman Potter, an Army lifer played by gruff Harry Morgan, who symbolized the American military’s desire to fight “good wars,” like those against Japan and the Nazis, and found this protracted Asian civil war somewhat baffling.

    Trapper John, the smart-ass doctor played by Wayne Rogers, was replaced with the more sensitive and thoughtful B.J. Hunnicut, played by Mike Farrell. Similarly, Loretta Swit’s character, head nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, broke off her affair with Frank Burns, the incompetent surgeon played by Larry Linville, and evolved into a more world-weary character who married, then divorced, an Army officer. While Swit showed off her dramatic chops, Linville was replaced with David Ogden Stiers, who played Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester, an able if pompous Boston brahmin who had no interest in Hot Lips or anyone else at the 4077.

    But no one embodied the show's evolution from sitcom to dramedy more than Hawkeye Pierce, Alan Alda’s surgeon extraordinaire, who carried M*A*S*H from start to finish. As the years wore on and the toll of years performing meatball surgery on young men mounted, Pierce did less boozing and womanizing (Alda was cultivating an off-screen image as a liberal feminist) and developed into the show’s most strident antiwar voice. (Years later, writer Walker Percy would comment on the show’s tonal change in his novel The Thanatos Syndrome, praising Frank Burns as “an honest bigot” while expressing disgust for Pierce, whose sarcasm masked his intolerance for patriotism.)

    Even if you don’t recall any of this, you can watch the M*A*S*H series finale and thoroughly enjoy it. “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” requires no previous knowledge of the show. Indeed, the finale’s opening scene doesn’t even take place on the set of the mobile army hospital, but at a leafy military base some distance away from the front lines. As we soon learn, this is a mental hospital for soldiers suffering “shellshock,” or as we call it today, PTSD. And Pierce is being held there against his will.

    Gradually we learn about the terrible incident that pushed him over the edge. He’s deemed well enough to return to his unit, which could be a recipe for another nervous breakdown — except that, as we learn from the ubiquitous camp loudspeaker, the U.S. has begun negotiating a truce. The show will end when the war does.

    At the time the M*A*S*H finale was not universally well-received by the show’s fans. Many were taken aback by this story about Hawkeye being in a mental ward. PTSD simply wasn’t as well understood or received in the 1980s, although looking back now, give M*A*S*H credit for putting the issue before the public in as realistic a manner as a network show could.

    “I’m a little out of control, Sidney,” Pierce admits to his Army shrink (played by Allan Arbus) after returning to the front lines. “Surgery used to be like falling off a log. Now it’s like falling off a cliff.” But if he doesn’t sew up these kids blown apart by enemy shrapnel, who will? He’s got a job to do, and this is, after all, the 1950s. When duty calls, everyone answers, even the malcontents.

    Winchester actually gets the second-best story of the night, when a group of Chinese noncombatant musicians surrender to him and he winds up teaching them to play Mozart. But in the end, it’s all about saying goodbye and farewell — and in the case of William Christopher’s Father Mulcahy, amen. During the long episode, numerous major and minor characters on the show get their chance to say goodbye to the viewing audience.

    I have written and thought very little about M*A*S*H in the nearly four decades since this broadcast aired, and after watching it again I was surprised that the catharsis felt so strong, maybe even stronger than it did back then. In a way I couldn’t appreciate in 1983, M*A*S*H was determined to capture the hell of war, as well as its absurdity, right to the very last shot. Having challenged viewers with narrative techniques that combined drama with comedy, it refused to kowtow to its enormous audience, many of whom were organizing watch parties, by falling back on nostalgia or a saccharine-sweet finale. 

    After M*A*S*H would come the inevitable spinoff (called, alas, AfterMASH), which has thankfully faded from memory. But this finale has remained a fan favorite for the MeTV channel, which airs it every Veterans’ Day. Watch it again — or for the first time — and you’ll see why.

    MeTV, available in most parts of the country over broadcast and cable, will air the “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” episode of M*A*S*H Nov. 11, along with MeTV Remembers the M*A*S*H Finale, starting at 7:00 PM ET/PT. The entire series, including the finale, is available for streaming on Hulu. M*A*S*H airs weeknights on MeTV at 7 and 7:30 PM ET/PT.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: M*A*S*H, CBS, MeTV, AfterMASH, Alan Alda, David Ogden Stiers, Harry Morgan, Larry Gelbart, Larry Linville, Loretta Swit, McLean Stevenson, Mike Farrell, Series Finales