Earlier this year, Netflix gave me a nice birthday gift when they announced they’d begin streaming the first five seasons of M*A*S*H. True, there was a nostalgic aspect to my excitement: M*A*S*H was one of the few shows that my family watched on a regular basis, and to this day, the melancholy strains of “Suicide Is Painless” always take me back to our living room, where I’d watch one episode after another every night.
As a kid, I loved the hijinks of Hawkeye, Trapper John, B.J. Hunnicutt, and the rest of the 4077th. Those hijinks are no less funny now that I’m older — it’s a testament to the show that the humor has held up so well over the decades — but I’ve since come to appreciate M*A*S*H for other, deeper reasons. M*A*S*H wasn’t just a great comedy; it was also a thoughtful and touching exploration of the human condition, and as an added bonus, features an extraordinary depiction of publicly living out one’s faith in a fallen world.
For those of you born after the ‘80s, M*A*S*H follows the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a medical facility located just a few miles behind the front lines of the Korean War. Throughout its run, M*A*S*H placed those aforementioned hijinks within the context of the 4077th’s efforts to save lives, make sense of endless cruelty and suffering, and otherwise survive the war with their humanity — and sense of humor — intact.
The first seasons often leaned towards the “funny” end of the spectrum, and those early episodes contain indelible comic images. But even in the midst of the humor and ribaldry, there was something more humane behind the laughter. And so, in the pilot episode, we see Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) sneak around their superiors’ backs to auction off some R&R — all so that they can send a young Korean boy to the U.S. for a better education. In “To Market, To Market,” they steal their bumbling commanding officer’s beloved antique desk and have it airlifted out of camp — not as a simple prank, but rather, in order to acquire some much-needed penicillin.
This became a recurring theme in M*A*S*H, as well as a source of much of the humor: Sometimes it’s necessary to stick it to the powers that be (i.e., the military brass) in order to do the right and moral thing. And so, time and again, Hawkeye et al. stand up to crazy, glory-seeking generals, flout callous military regulations, and navigate the black market to save lives, seek justice, and share some sanity and compassion.
As M*A*S*H progressed, though, it grew more daring. The jokes were still there, and they were still funny, but M*A*S*H wasn’t afraid to tackle topics like forced prostitution, alcoholism, racism, homophobia, and suicide. (Surprisingly, the show’s treatment of female characters, particularly the camp nurses, was often problematic, relegating them to either pretty faces in the background or nameless objects of the doctors’ leers.)
The show’s very format became experimental at times. One of its most acclaimed episodes, “The Interview,” was shot like a wartime newsreel with war correspondent Clete Roberts interviewing the 4077th about life in Korea. “Follies of the Living – Concerns of the Dead” is arguably the strangest M*A*S*H episode. In it, a recently deceased soldier mills around camp commenting on everyone’s behavior — until he finally realizes he’s dead. The episode’s final scene, as the soldier joins his fellow dead to walk uncertainly into the Great Beyond, remains haunting to this day.
There’s no denying that M*A*S*H could get preachy while railing against the horror and futility of war. What saved the show even in those moments was its colorful characters, and how they grew more complex with each passing season. Hawkeye was obviously the star, and though a scoundrel, lothario, and alcoholic, he was also a skilled, compassionate surgeon who fought tooth and nail to heal the injured. Hawkeye’s compatriot in the show’s later seasons, B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), was just as much a scoundrel, as well as a devoted family man who constantly struggled with being away from his wife and daughter.
Their chief antagonist in the final seasons was Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers), a Harvard-trained surgeon whose uppity demeanor clashed with everyone else. But even Winchester had deeply sympathetic moments, such as when he encourages a young soldier ridiculed for stuttering or helps out the local orphanage anonymously. Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) may have been derided as “Hot Lips” (see the show’s aforementioned treatment of women) and ruled her nurses with an iron fist, but the show let her tough exterior crack once in awhile to great effect. In one of my favorite episodes, “The Nurses,” the loneliness of Houlihan’s command is revealed in a deeply moving manner.
Indeed, with the notable exception of the clownish Major Frank “Ferret Face” Burns (Larry Linville) — who was so obnoxious you love to hate him — all major characters (and even some minor characters) were given incredible moments of grace, redemption, and courage in the face of war’s savagery. Uniting them all was a desire to heal, to tend the wounded, and bring about some measure of normalcy in the midst of earthly horrors.
Hawkeye and Hunnicutt never failed to make me laugh, but as a kid, my favorite character was always Corporal Walter O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), a naïve Iowa farmboy who was the company clerk. Nicknamed “Radar” for his uncanny ability to predict what would happen before it did, he was often the only one keeping the camp afloat with his pluck and resourcefulness.
I still love Radar for his naïvete and lack of guile, but nowadays, it’s the 4077th’s chaplain, Father John Patrick Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher), that I admire most. When we first meet the good Father, he’s a rather milquetoast individual. Flustered and frustrated by the near-constant debauchery around him, he hardly seems like an effective priest for an outfit so lost. With his nasally voice and meek personality, Mulcahy is far from charismatic, and his services don’t draw many attendees — much to his superiors’ chagrin. However, Mulcahy displays an admirable faith that can only result from living out one’s convictions as best they can amidst many who hold little to no similar conviction.
On the one hand, he’s quite pragmatic. Taking seriously his role as spiritual advisor for a wide range of beliefs, Mulcahy is ecumenical in the best sense of the word: he presides over Protestant weddings and even officiates a Jewish bris. Though a devout Catholic, he’s fascinated rather than offended by the religious traditions of his Korean neighbors: he knows enough about Korean marriage ceremonies to narrate one for the others (“Ping Pong”) and when a Korean priest performs a decidedly non-Catholic exorcism in the camp, he watches with curiosity rather than outright condemnation (“Exorcism”).
On the other hand, Mulcahy’s slight demeanor hides a spiritual focus and resolve that other characters can’t help but admire, appreciate, and draw strength from. He rushes to the front lines against orders so he can better relate to wounded soldiers (“Mulcahy’s War”) and stays up all night comforting a grief-stricken man (“Blood Brothers”). When a nurse expresses affection toward him in “Nurse Doctor,” he does his best to treat her honorably and gently rather than take advantage. (Of course, this being M*A*S*H, some humorous confusion is bound to occur at first.) And when an AWOL soldier requests sanctuary, Mulcahy defies even his commanding chaplain to grant refuge to the troubled man (“A Holy Mess”).
Above all else, he’s not afraid to remind people that, though doctors like Hawkeye have the important duty of mending broken bodies, he serves a higher purpose — mending broken souls — and his stakes are far greater (“War of Nerves”). It’s a bold statement to make, especially in a military hospital, but it’s a conviction that Mulcahy lives out forcefully (though never judgmentally or unpleasantly) throughout the show’s eleven seasons.
As it is for the rest of the 4077th (including that “crazy agnostic” Hawkeye) Mulcahy’s depiction of faith is fascinating and encouraging to me — not just on a personal level but also as a reminder of what television is, in fact, capable of when depicting people of faith. Christians are often clamoring for better depictions of people of faith in the media. I’d suggest they log in to Netflix, fire up a few episodes of M*A*S*H, and see that a great one’s been around for over four decades now.