M*A*S*H Season 4 Review
On paper, a comedy series set in a mobile field hospital during the Korean war does not look like a good idea but M*A*S*H ended up as one of America's longest running shows and is loved by millions. We've already looked at Season 3 and the reasons why it works, and Season 4 continues the tradition of strong writing and excellent characterization.
The big shock here is the departure of two of the major characters, Trapper John and Col. Blake, but their replacements do a fairly good job of filling their shoes. New Colonel, Sherman Potter (played by the wonderful Harry Morgan) is especially good, managing to combine the kind of military eccentricity with pragmatic bonhomie that makes him a hit with the lead characters. He's a horse nut, in Hey, Doc watch as his jeep gets crushed by a tank and, with a wonderful control, he simply un-holsters his gun and calmly puts it out of his misery as you would a horse; its a sublime, insane moment, and the sort of thing that M*A*S*H does so well.
Perhaps less successful is Mike Farrell as Doctor B.J. Hunnicutt. His performance is fine, but the character is less developed than Trapper John and the writers seem content to allow him to simply develop into a pale shadow of Alan Alda's wonderful Benjamin Franklin Hawkeye. This is most certainly Alda's show, but given that he's one of the most talented comic actors America has produced, this is no bad thing. His performance here is absolutely note perfect, not surprising when you consider it's his fourth season, but he still manages to make each one liner sound fresh and funny, even when you can spot them coming from a mile away. And it must be borne in mind that those one liners wouldn't resonate nearly as much if there wasn't a super ensemble cast to bounce them off.
Every character that has returned has grown neatly into their roles by now. Gary Burghoff as Rader is especially good; It's quite a touching moment when he asks a patient who believes he is Jesus Christ to bless his teddy bear, and Loretta Swit is, once more, superb as Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan. Perhaps the only character that doesn't really work is Major Frank Burns; by this time, Larry Linville is resigned to the fact that his characters’ one function is to be the butt of Hawkeye's wit, pranks and sarcasm and hams it up no end, often resorting to slapstick. This occasionally works, witness his reaction to being deposed of his position in Change of Command, but more often than not it fails, though thankfully it doesn't occur frequently enough to be a problem. It's a shame that more depth could not be brought to his character in the same way that Major Houlihan’s character was allowed to develop slightly in the previous series. Linville, however, is a very capable actor, and plays the part wonderfully - his comic timing is superb, watch the way he always manages to say just the wrong thing to Houlihan, "You're the only one who cares for me, apart from my wife.", is just one of many finely timed lines that tumble from his lips. And watch for the special gift he leaves for Houlihan when writing his will in her presence.
There's not a dull episode on here. The series maintains its high standards from start to end. The pilot episode that introduces new Doctor Hunnicutt contains many of the elements that make M*A*S*H so compelling; it's ability to mix horror with comedy; Hunnicutt’s induction into the horror of war is fairly brutal for a TV show of this period, yet tinged with the bleakest of comedy. You won't know whether to laugh or cry, and this is especially true of the final, devastating episode. It's structured as a TV News special that features candid interviews with members of the cast in character explaining their views on the war. It's in B&W for realism and is a searing anti-war statement and must have been hugely shocking for its audience. It's a stroke of genius, in a series that has more than its fair share of flashes of genuine inspiration, and is one of American TV's finest moments - and as part of a sit-com as well. Astonishing.
The picture quality on this release is far superior to any of the previous series released, you'll be happy to know. It's still very grainy, but with far more detail than the previous releases and, curiously, the grain seems to disappear as the series continues. It looks as though there's been a change of filming method, but we wouldn't like to say for sure. It's excellent, though, considering its age and the source material. Colours are strong and bright and the contrast levels are excellent.
Only two channel stereo once more, but it’s clear, accurate and does its job very well indeed. Once more, you get the laugh track option, which is essential.
This is a great disc as far as the actual content is concerned. M*A*S*H is intelligent, funny and constantly compelling. The only reservations concern the nature of the set, calling itself a special edition, but there's not a single extra on here. Perhaps it's special in that you can choose whether to have the laugh track or not, but that's not very exciting and, in this instance, falls into the 'essential' category.
The chaptering is excellent, as well, but hardly special.
But the most annoying feature is the dreaded copyright warning. Not only do you get the locked screen at the start of the disc, but before every episode as well. There's no option to watch each episode back to back, and given that each episode is a (perfectly crafted) piece of comedy drama of a mere twenty-three minutes long, if you plan to have an extended viewing session, you better get used to that copyright screen that we know and love. Surely this is slightly excessive? You have to sit through it twice before you see a single episode. Come on Fox, we’re not stupid; do not treat us as though we are once you have our money.
Your poor reviewer has seen that stinking screen at least twenty seven times while reviewing this, and if he sees it once more he's going to ensure that every Fox disc he comes across from now until doomsday, is copied, shown to an audience where a fee has, or has not, been paid. It will be shown on oil rigs, hospitals, prisons and schools, oh yes, and they shall be exported, sold and distributed, by trade and otherwise, to his hearts content and with no proper license from Twentieth Century Fox so think on.....