Sunday, August 04, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: A Mash Note to Trapper John, MD

It might seem difficult to fathom today, but there was once a time when Korean War dramedy M*A*S*H, chronicling the wacky trials and tribulations of a group of army docs, was one of the most potent brands on television. The show, an adaptation of the 1970 film of the same name (which was in turn an adaptation of Richard Hooker's series of novels), enjoyed an unprecedented eleven season run on CBS during the '70s and '80s, and its 1983 finale remains the most-watched TV episode of all time even this many decades later. Thus, it should come as no shock that home studio Fox tried to find several ways of expanding the brand outward.

One of the more successful attempts to franchise M*A*S*H was Trapper John, MD, an hourlong drama that ran on the Eye network beginning on September 23, 1979 (just two days before I was born). Starring the late Pernell Roberts as "Trapper" John McIntyre, the chest surgeon played by Elliot Gould in the film and Wayne Rogers on TV (a role Rogers unwisely ditched after just three seasons), Trapper was set in (then) present day San Francisco, with the one-time troublemaker McIntyre now Chief of Surgery at SF Memorial Hospital. Here's the totally '70s intro, with theme music by John Carl Parker (who also tuned up this artifact from the same era):


Set nearly thirty years after his antics with Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland in the film, Alan Alda on the series), Trapper John, MD had the title character butting up against young hotshot George "Gonzo" Gates (Gregory Harrison), whose unorthodox methods aren't unlike those of Trapper himself many moons ago. While set in the same universe as M*A*S*H, a legal complaint from the producers of the TV show claiming that they were due credits/participation for a spin-off led to a settlement clarifying that Trapper spun-off from the movie, not the show. It's kind of a distinction without a difference, but the opening moments of the pilot make you wonder how the producers got away with that, with pictures on the wall clearly depicting TV's Rogers and Alda. Check it out below:


Trapper John was pretty much standard TV doctor fare of the time, with various serious "A" stories running in conjunction with several seriocomic "B" stories, but the M*A*S*H connection coupled with the likable Roberts and Harrison as the leads kept it going. I was like four or five the first time I saw the show, and I'm pretty sure loved it primarily because of that title sequence. I had no idea what M*A*S*H was, and even when I found out, I didn't watch it until many, many, many years later (I actually only got around to watching the whole series when my first kid was born just over six years ago, during those late nights I'd be up trying to get him to sleep).

What's a bit curious is that Trapper John, MD was a success by most objective measures, running for a very healthy seven seasons and 151 episodes (the final installment airing in September of '86), yet you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who remembers it today. It's like it dropped right down the memory hole the second it ended its run. Even though the entirety of M*A*S*H has been released on DVD several times, there's been no such love for Trapper, nor does anything seem to be forthcoming. Considering that, of several failed attempts, this was the only M*A*S*H spin-off that actually took with auds (the less said about 1983's AfterMASH the better), it deserves to have the paddles applied at some point.

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