Iconization of the Characters
Because M*A*S*H revealed so many facets of its principals' personalities, it followed that the audience would feel more attached to them than to most television characters. It also followed that this attachment would adhere to the actors playing them as well. In 1980, a Ladies Home Journal survey found that Alan Alda was tied with Sally Field (who was playing a flying nun) as the most trusted personality on television (White, 27). In 1983, the last year of the series, Alda had the highest male TVQ (popularity rating) in the country (Romano, 12-I). Clearly this is a case of viewers confusing characters with the actors who play them. The audience's affection extended to the cast as a whole. In the late 1980s, IBM capitalized on nostalgia for the cast when it reassembled most of the M*A*S*H stars in a series of computer commercials. The status of the M*A*S*H compound as a national treasure was acknowledged when the Smithsonian placed parts of its sets on exhibition.
Sentimentality for the series was paralleled by sentimentality within the scripts. As M*A*S*H shifted from satire to character exploration, its tone shifted from hard-edged liberalism to sentimental liberalism. The final, two-and-a-half-hour episode was an unabashed tear bath. To some extent the series may well have been responding to the political climate in the
country as a whole. That is, the growing sentimentality of M*A*S*H may mirror the change in the national psyche from post-Watergate cynicism to Reagan-era soft-headedness.
But I suggest that the sentimentalization would have happened in any era. Alda-Hawkeye had become a national treasure. And when a serialized cultural icon becomes a national treasure it goes soft.
To wit: Mickey Mouse, originally a bit of a dirty old mouse (see "Plane Crazy," 1928), became as clean as a cub scout as his popularity rose. Thereupon the Disney company created Donald Duck to play antagonist in the thirties (see "The Band Concert," 1935). Soon Donald mellowed and acquired three cute nephews plus a new antagonist, his Uncle Scrooge. On television Archie Bunker remained a bigot in later years, but he too mellowed considerably by the time All in the Family became Archie's Place . At the end of Murphy Brown 's 1991–92 season, that feisty, female curmudgeon became a single mother. Dan Quayle turned her into an instant icon for the poverty of family values. But what we actually saw in the final episode was a touching endorsement of motherhood—Murphy croons "You make me feel like a natural woman" as a lullaby to her newborn son.
With Murphy as a mother, the show has vacillated between political cynicism and domestic sentimentality. Murphy has indeed become a character very much in the mold of Alda's Hawkeye Pierce. Perhaps the reason both characters (and therefore their shows) have touched something in the American psyche is that they each created a persona that many viewers like to think is their self-image: the tough but tender American, who just happens to have better writers than we do.
Thanks to Lucy Fischer, Krin Gabbard, and Andy Horton for reading the manuscript for this essay and making helpful suggestions.