M [1931]

Director: Fritz Lang, William Friedkin
Stars: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 110 minutes

This M*A*S*H-tastic 36-disc collection is one for the television time capsule. It contains all 11 seasons of this multi-Emmy Award-winning series, PLUS Robert Altman's 1970 iconoclastic anti-war classic, PLUS two discs of special features, including two reunion specials and a series retrospective episode of A&E's Biography. As with the individual season sets, there are no new episode commentaries, a major disappointment. But M*A*S*H-ophiles will enjoy this set's other bonus features, including emotional behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of the last half-hour episode, "As Time Goes By," the inevitable bloopers, interviews with cast members as well as fans about their favorite episodes, a segment about the series' "Jocularity," a parade of PSAs (cut down on salt to avoid heart disease), and the text of an unproduced script penned by Alda for an episode titled, "Hawkeye on the Double." All of this material (except for a commemorative booklet) is available elsewhere in different configurations, but this space-saving (albeit ungainly packaged) box set collects them all under one tent. Adapted for television by legendary comedy writer Larry Gelbart, the series has long since supplanted Altman's film in the public's consciousness. Life and death at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War doesn't seem like ripe fodder for a comedy series, but M*A*S*H masterfully balanced laughter and tears (less so in its later, more preachy seasons). It often does play better without a laugh track (a viewing option for all episodes). During its run, M*A*S*H survived several delicate operations, including the departure of Gelbart after season 4 and the loss of core ensemble members McLean Stevenson as Col. Henry Blake and Wayne Rogers as Trapper John (after season 3), Larry Linville as Frank Burns (after season 5) and Gary Burghoff (a veteran of the original film) as Radar (after season 8). The show thrived with the introduction of some new blood, Henry Morgan as "regular Army" Col. Potter and Mike Farrell as compassionate BJ (season 4) and David Ogden Stiers as elitist Charles Emerson Winchester III (season 6). M*A*S*H was honored with the prestigious Peabody Award "for the depth of its humor and the manner in which comedy is used to lift the spirit and, as well, to offer a profound statement on the nature of war." This was a sitcom that did not always leave you laughing, as witness the classic season 3 episode "Abyssinia, Henry." And throughout its run, M*A*S*H broke the sitcom mold with several episodes, including "The Interview" (season 4), in which Clete Roberts interviews the staff of the 4077th, "Point of View" (season 7), subjectively seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier and "Life Time" (season 8), which unfolds in real time. M*A*S*H boasted one of television's greatest ensembles, fully embodied characters who each became icons, most notably Alan Alda, who served with distinction as Hawkeye, the series' soul and conscience. But a special salute to Loretta Switt, whose Margaret Houlihan went from "Hot Lips" to nobody's pushover. From the "Pilot" to the feature-length finale, "Goodbye, Farewell & Amen," still the most-watched episode in history, this essential (but not so much if you bought the individual season sets) collection honors one of television's greatest half-hours. --Donald Liebenson

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