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M*A*S*H season 11
cast: Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Harry Morgan, and Jamie Farr

directors: various

450 minutes (PG) 2006
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
A very different piece of work to its cinematic origins, M*A*S*H the TV series was not as hard edged as the 1970 Robert Altman movie wherein Donald Sutherland as 'Hawkeye' Pierce and Elliot Gould as 'Trapper' John were less sympathetic characters than their TV equivalents, or so it would seem to someone who saw the TV series first. M*A*S*H on TV ran for 11 series some eight years longer than its Korean War setting and by this final run (the 10th series was going to be the end but the network went for one more) storylines were becoming familiar and a little predictable.

The ER or The West Wing of its day M*A*S*H on TV down-played the Vietnam War parallels that were so stark in the movie, although there is a harbinger in the series finale extended episode, whether this was political or just good broadcasting sense by the network, the comedy-drama served to concentrate more on the madness and pathos found in all armed conflicts. Where the TV series paralleled the movie was in making a star of its main actor Alan Alda, as the film had done with Sutherland and Gould.

Their was a definite change in tone about half way through the series after the departure and replacement of a clutch of main characters; the drama was highlighted over the madcap comedy and this signalled the increasing creative input of Alda on the writing and directing side.

Episodes here highlight the larger conflict and also the qualities and failings of the main characters, Hawkeye is dismissive of a nurse with a crush on him, she is rather plump and of Hawaiian extraction although body or racial politics aren't foregrounded as the reasons for his behaviour, Major Winchester falls for an attractive and sophisticated French nurse but his stuffy Boston background puts paid to the affair, a nurse dies and the team realise that no one really knew her, Colonel Potter's wife pays off their mortgage and the doctors have to keep their increasingly paranoid CO in the dark while they prepare a surprise party.

Where series 11 really comes alive is in the feature-length finale, where strong parallel storylines and good characterisation are allowed to develop. Hawkeye has had a nervous breakdown and the shocking catalyst is only revealed after his psychiatrist teases the truth out of him in a Catch-22 series of flashbacks, Hawkeye's buddy BJ mistakenly gets his release papers and tries to get back to the 'States before the Army realises, Major Winchester coaches a North Korean musical ensemble in playing Mozart, and Corporal Klinger helps his Korean sweetheart to hunt for her missing family as the war reaches new intensity with the approach of peace.

It is perhaps hard to appreciate how radical this series was in its day, the single camera and simple set-ups lifted by the quality of the writing and playing; it established Alda in the role of essentially decent but slightly flawed liberal for years to come, just as the original movie stranded Sutherland and Gould with their stoner characters. Still watchable today perhaps these episodes are a tad shallow but the finale is guaranteed to have you reaching for the Kleenex. There is a coming attractions advert following the main feature and perhaps this series is best enjoyed if teamed up with an earlier one where the anarchic comedy helped establish it as must-see TV.
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