The Failure of AfterMASH

The story of AfterMASH begins prior the 10th season of M*A*S*H.  The principal actors (Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, David Odgen Stiers, Jamie Farr, Harry Morgan and William Christopher) met to decide the fate of the show.  Alda, Swit, Farrell and Stiers wanted to end the show after its 10th season, but Farr, Morgan and Christopher wanted the show to continue.  Since Alda had become the creative force behind M*A*S*H, he decided to compromise and they did an abbreviated 11th season, with a 2.5 hour series finale.  The shows creator, Larry Gelbart, was approached by Farr, Morgan and Christopher about creating a spin-off of M*A*S*H.  Gelbart was the obvious choice since he had written M*A*S*H’s pilot episode and was the creative force behind the show for its first five seasons.  He agreed to take on the challenge.

What Gelbart envisioned was, in retrospect, ahead of its time.  A show set in a hospital, but not just any hospital, a veterans hospital in River Bend, Missouri.  Having seen all but a few episodes of AfterMASH, I can comment on its quality and its downfall.

The series began with a strong following.  All the M*A*S*H fans watched the premier, in fact, the show was the highest rated premier in the Fall of 1983, but the ratings were short lived.  While the familier characters of Colonel Potter, Father Mulcahy, and Klinger (along with his wife Soon-Lee) were present, they felt out of place.  I accept that it is impossible to replace the war atmosphere at a state-side hospital, but there were many other things the writers could have focused on such as racism, the Cold War, etc., but the show was condemned to be a situation comedy.  Unlike M*A*S*H, AfterMASH could not be a “dramedy” in only 23 minutes.  By the middle of the first season, the shows ratings had tumbled and the show’s creators began to make drastic changes.  Replacing the actress who played Mildred Potter, replacing the head of the hospital, and replacing a surgeon.  The new surgeon seemed promising, however, beging that he himself was veteran who had lost is leg in Korea while working at an Aid Station.  But, by far the worst change of all, was the treatment of Farr’s character of Klinger.  Klinger was adjusting to married life and life away from war, but the story line took him in the wrong direction.  Klinger became a fugitive and had to pretend to be crazy to avoid jail, thus Klinger was back in dresses.  A man wearing a dress to get out of a war is funny, but a man wearing a dress to avoid facing punishment for his actions is not.  The fans hated the “new” Klinger and Jamie Farr revealed in later interviews that he did as well.  The series ended with a thud during its second season.  A series finale was filmed, but it never aired.

Despite the numerous negative aspects to AfterMASH, there were a few bright spots.  One episode, “Fall Out,” was nominated for an Emmy in 1984.  The episode centered around a soldier who had been present at atomic bomb tests in Arizona.  He was diagnosed with Leukemia and the doctor on staff at the veterans hospital wanted the Army to foot the bill, but they refused citing there was no proof the atomic bomb was to blame and they denied that the atomic bomb could produce a dangerous amount of radiation.  Colonel Potter convinces the young doctor not to give up on his practice simply because he lost one battle.  In the 1950s, it was common for the Army to deny that radiation from the atomic bomb had damaging effects, and the Veterans Administration did deny claims on a regular basis.  This touch of real life/drama was what M*A*S*H was all about, and AfterMASH was able to capture that magic for one 23 minute episode.

Why is AfterMASH important? Mostly because it ushered in a number of hospital dramas.  These dramas, such as ER, were able to learn from AfterMASH’s mistakes.  The most important lesson from AfterMASh is that drama should overpower the comedy.  Another lesson learned was that a drama worked better as an one-hour show as opposed to only a half hour.  Many forget that there was another doctor drama to spin off from M*A*S*H, and that was Trapper John, M.D.  The series only took the character’s name, but did not include any of the original actors from M*A*S*H, but the show was a one-hour drama series that lasted for nine seasons.  Overall, the material was there to make AfterMASH a successful one-hour drama, and the shows creators would most likely have been able to get the air time from CBS considering the success of M*A*S*H, but they took the easy way out and created a comedy.  Because fans of M*A*S*H only wanted to see their favorite characters in Korea, the world has largely forgotten AfterMASH – but this is not such a bad thing.

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