Sunday, May 17, 2015

Nostalgia Theater: AfterMASH Loses the War

The cast of AfterMASH: (L-R) William Christopher, Harry Morgan, Jamie Farr
In February of 1983, CBS aired the finale of their long-running hit M*A*S*H. Thanks to its mix of comedy, pathos, and its charismatic star Alan Alda, the show, about the hilarious hijinks of a medical team during the Korean war had enjoyed an amazing eleven year run -- almost four times longer than the war itself! The much-ballyhooed final episode, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" was watched by a staggering 121 million people, and still holds the record for the highest rated TV episode of all time. Here's the tearjerking final scene, with Alda's "Hawkeye" Pierce bidding farewell to Mike Farrell's BJ Hunnicutt:

It's impossible to convey today what a cultural phenomenon M*A*S*H was at the time, so much so that neither CBS nor home studio Fox were quite ready to let their prize property recede into the wilderness of TV syndication just yet. And so, even as Alda, Farrell, Loretta Switt, David Ogden Stiers and the other remaining regulars planned to at long last put in their walking papers, the studio made deals with the three least interesting (and thus most available) co-stars, Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter), Jamie Farr (the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger), and William Christopher (Father Mulcahy), to keep the war going just a little bit longer.

What they arrived at was AfterMASH, a sequel series that premiered in fall of '83, and sees the three characters above reunite at a VA hospital shortly after the events of the previous show. Here's a collection of the three (!!) different opening title sequences:

Man, Colonel Potter and Klinger, together again! Bring on the wacky antics, am I right?

There's a lot of stuff AfterMASH did wrong. First, it rounded up supporting players who functioned best as supporting players, and put them front-and-center, thus drawing attention to how ill-suited they were as leads. And constantly seeing Potter and Klinger only made us wonder where Hawkeye and BJ were at. Second, its setting in a VA hospital was arguably even less suited for frivolity than the frontline of M*A*S*H, making it even more unnecessarily serious than the parent series had gotten near the end there.

Nonetheless, the M*A*S*H afterglow was a powerful thing, and AfterMASH actually did okay in the beginning, even as reviews weren't particularly kind. The show made it through an entire first season, and ended the year in the top ten of all network shows. But for its second year, CBS flew too close to the sun, scheduling it against The A-Team on NBC, after which the bottom fell out. Despite guest appearances by popular M*A*S*H characters "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) and Col. Flagg (Edward Winter), by May of '85, nine episodes into its second season, the war was over for AfterMASH.

With a total of 31 episodes produced -- a far cry from M*A*S*H's 256 -- AfterMASH has largely been written off as an egregious mistake so ham-handed in its terribleness that it's become the gold standard in how to poison the well after a successful series. When you think about it, it was sort of the Joey before Joey. Of course, this wasn't the only MASH spin-off on the air at the time, and that other series, CBS's Trapper John, MD, enjoyed a much healthier run, finishing its seven seasons in September of '86. You can read all about that one here.

(By the way, after writing this entry, I've come to the realization that I really like typing M*A*S*H.)

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Godzilla: The Series -- A Horrible Remake Spawns a Not-Bad Sequel

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: A Final Farewell for Trek's First Family

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Forever Knight -- Fangs for the Memories!

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