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War memories portrayed through the final episode of M*A*S*H

Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of the final episode of "M*A*S*H" - a legendary moment in TV history that will probably continue for decades to come to be cited as the most watched American television program ever, even though it was actually surpassed in total viewership, finally, by Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 (which, however, commanded a smaller percentage of the American TV audience).

"M*A*S*H," if you've never seen it, was a sitcom that people who were alive in the 1970s liked. It concerned the high jinks (and - in its later, more serious seasons - low jinks) that took place in and around a U.S. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. Yet, for all its slapstick antics, it was by all accounts a self-consciously "high-quality" program: not lowbrow but proudly middlebrow, with an emphasis on realism - or what passed for it on 1970s TV - and politics.

Until a few hours ago, I had never watched an episode of "M*A*S*H." I'd seen the Robert Altman movie upon which it was based years earlier, but the show, despite its iconic status, seemed skippable. In fact, I'd guess that most Americans born after 1985 have never watched it.

TV tends to be generationally specific that way: there are probably 10 films from the 1970s ("The Godfather," "Jaws," "Rocky," "Star Wars," etc.) that virtually every American, no matter his age, has seen, but no young person I know watches reruns of "All in the Family" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" - even though, to those who were alive during their original runs, these probably seemed as culturally essential as any big-screen blockbuster.

I happened to get my hands on a copy of the "M*A*S*H" finale this evening, however, and gave it a look in an attempt to figure out why, on Feb. 28, 1983, so many people - more than "Seinfeld" ever got - tuned in for this particular program.

Almost needless to say, the episode - titled "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" - isn't very good. Series finales pretty much never are (maybe it's better for shows to get cancelled unexpectedly, mid-season), and therefore it's probably unfair to judge a series by its ending (and maybe just downright stupid to view that ending without first attaining some familiarity with the beginning and middle), but this one seems particularly rambling and pointless.

It is, for one thing, two and a half hours long (two hours without commercials) - a reflection of the producers' consciousness of the show's import, and not a storytelling necessity - and is comprised of several go-nowhere subplots that exist not to be funny (presumably because a series finale is serious business) or even to further character development (presumably because, after 11 years, these characters are either fully developed already or never will be); they're like last-day-of-school busy-work. Each storyline is sufficiently heartrending to qualify as series-finale material but not so complicated or important that it can't either be solved or quietly dissipate by the conclusion.

In brief: Alan Alda is locked up in a mental hospital after experiencing a traumatic episode among South Korean refugees, the memory of which he has repressed. Back at the camp, as the war winds down, some pompous surgeon is teaching a group of POWs to play Mozart while artificial-looking bombs drop nearby - one of which causes the hospital's chaplain to go deaf. Some other surgeon is hoping to leave Korea early, in time for his daughter's second birthday, and another guy is in love with an Asian-American actress with a blatantly fake Korean accent whose family has gone missing amid all the fighting. In the end, Alda is rather abruptly cured of his mental distress, although the chaplain is still deaf, and the one guy misses his daughter's birthday, but whatever: the war ends, and there's a wedding (as there must be in every cheesy series finale), and the various characters tearfully get to wish each other farewell, which is probably what all the fans wanted to see anyway.

Two observations: 1) Alan Alda's character, Hawkeye, is really annoying - smugly sarcastic, relentlessly smart-alecky and verbose, incapable of giving an honest answer to an honest question, possessed of a censor-approved "rebellious streak" that I guess is just some corny, watered-down, post-counterculture articulation of "Catch-22" wartime absurdism. 2) The color palette of "M*A*S*H" is unbearable and likely the reason why, flipping past the reruns all these years, I never stopped for more than a moment. Filmed, quite obviously, in the Santa Monica Mountains just north of Los Angeles (standing in for Korea), the show exists in a world composed solely of muted greens and dusty browns. In short, "M*A*S*H" looks like dirt. Its ugliness is less sophisticated than Robert Altman's film's was, though the director of "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" did apparently borrow Altman's outmoded zoom lens.

TV is probably better now than it was then, but it's hard to imagine a television show today occupying such a large space within the culture as to demand that, upon its conclusion, "everybody" must watch. I think the most popular shows these days are programs like "The Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS," and I've never even heard anyone talk about watching those. The "M*A*S*H" numbers are probably a relic from a time when mainstream culture was relatively monolithic: they had fewer television channels and no internet, so - rather than selecting from a limitless range of entertainment choices, with options tailored to every subculture - everybody just watched the same stuff.

I think this is why everyone over 40 seems to share the same cultural memories, and the reason that bland mainstream entertainments of the pre-Web era, like the Beatles and "Star Wars," have achieved a stature that today's popular junk probably will never match.

What is "M*A*S*H"? Probably just a boring sitcom with a nonsensically rendered acronym (four letters and three asterisks?), containing just enough literacy and liberalism to allow people who remember the '70s fondly to believe that it was more "important" than "Two and a Half Men." Of course, they're right: it was.