Here we have the sixth series of M*A*S*H (the ancronym standing for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), the American sitcom set in the Korean War. Surely one of the weirdest settings for a sitcom, yet strangely ideal for the writers' strain of black wit and gallows humour. It's a tightly knit ensemble piece full of eccentric characters, the two most prominent being Alan Alda's 'Hawkeye' and Mike Farrell's 'BJ', two fine surgeons but badly disciplined soldiers. Other supporting characters include Margaret 'Hotlips' Houlihan, a bad tempered senior nurse and the object of desire; Klinger, a medical orderly trying to get discharged by continually wearing women's clothes on duty; and Radar, a simple farm boy in charge of communications (playing a role not dissimilar to Woody in 'Cheers' but not as thick). They joke and prank their way through the grimmest of situations. All twenty four episodes are included, spread over three discs, and there's a play all feature. Hoorah! But there's also a long boring copyright warning before each and every episode that can't be skipped. Boo!
The opening episode of this series brings a new permanent cast member, Charles Winchester the Third - a pompous, arrogant prig of a surgeon as ably played by David Ogden Stiers. Winchester quickly asserts himself as a worthy foil to Hawkeye and BJ, replacing their long-time nemesis Frank Burns (Larry Linville), who gets sent back home to the States. The arrival of Winchester really brings a shot in the arm for the programme. Practically every scene he's in is hilarious; he's such a blowhard and a snob. Two of the best episodes centre round him - 'The Smell of Music' and 'Dr. Winchester and Mr. Hyde'. In 'The Smell of Music' his refusal to stop playing a French horn (badly) drives Hawkeye and BJ to extreme lengths - they vow to stop washing until he stops playing. It becomes a battle of wills as to who will give in first. The days go by and they get smellier and smellier and his playing gets louder and louder. The tent where they all sleep becomes a war zone in itself as things escalate. It's very amusing in a 'Father Ted' kind of way. In 'Dr. Winchester and Mr. Hyde' he starts taking amphetamines to keep himself awake through the long hours of extended surgery. This of course leads to addiction and strange side effects with predictable zany consequences. Betting and cheating between hospital staff and marines on mouse races is chucked in the plot as well, before Winchester regains his health and composure. It's all funny and sad at the same time. It's a comment on how emergency medical staff were expected to do the impossible with tiny resources while enduring preposterously long hours. Sadly you don't need a war for this to occur, look at the ER rooms of today - it's just as bad. Oops, where did that soap box come from? Anyway, series six is probably the one that got the balance of comedy and drama just right. Many serious issues are covered with a great sense of levity without simply preaching 'War is hell!' In this series the comedy seemed to be of a less verbal slapstick nature, being more ironic and mature while still having a plethora of silly gags and practical jokes from Hawkeye et al. As with most sitcoms the episodes are mainly set in one place, in this case the camp - mostly in the surgery room or in the guys' tent. There are a few exceptions though, which broadens the scope of the series, such as the more cinematic two-parter 'Comrades in Arms', set in no-mans land. Hawkeye and Hotlips get cut off by enemy troops while travelling to another camp and end up having a romantic interlude amongst all the explosions and gunfire. This leads to confusion and mixed emotions for the characters. It's all rather poignant stuff. Yep, M*A*S*H was no ordinary sitcom.
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