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12 Chasing the Spirit of M*A*S*H Washington Post TV columnist William Henry noted in the late 1970s that executives of all three networks consistently ranked M*A*S*H with All in the Family as the most respected and craftsmanlike series on the air. They also considered it the most inexplicably successful one, Henry added. That is because simple descriptions of the show’s premise, or of individual episodes, wouldn’t give anyone the idea that here was a project that was such a solid hit, and an artistic one at that.1 That didn’t deter television producers or network programmers. With dramatic series about doctors coming on-line incessantly during the ‹rst half of the ’70s after the success of Marcus Welby, Medical Center, and The Bold Ones, they saw M*A*S*H’s success at mid-decade as an invitation in another direction. The race was on to concoct doctors for comedies. The challenge was to come up with the right combination of elements that would duplicate M*A*S*H’s popularity, if not its theme. That proved very hard to do. “I Want to Get Out” Five doctor-centered comedy series came through the development gauntlet from 1975 through 1979: The Bob Crane Show (NBC), about a middle-aged man making his way through medical school; The Practice (NBC), about a dedicated, old-fashioned doctor and his son practicing 272 medicine in New York City; Doc (CBS), also about a dedicated, old-fashioned doctor practicing medicine in New York City; A.E.S. Hudson Street (ABC), about an emergency room in New York City; and House Calls (CBS), about the erratic goings-on in a California hospital. These series represented more doctor comedies than had hit the air previously in the history of television. None of them was a direct takeoff on M*A*S*H. In fact, The Practice (with popular TV actor Danny Thomas), Doc (with experienced stage actor Barnard Hughes), and The Bob Crane Show (whose star had hit it big in a previous sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes) had the standard approach to situation comedies written all over them. Not long after their debuts, though, network programmers and producers began to insist that the trick to copying M*A*S*H’s popularity lay not in simply building shows around physicians but in trying to capture the spirit that made M*A*S*H clearly different from other sitcoms. The change of tactics is clearest in a comparison of The Practice with Doc over time. At their inception, the two series were quite similar in tone as well as premise. They mixed gentle humor, one-liners, and putdown repartee among the physicians, the rest of the regular cast, and “visiting” patients. The pace was sometimes vaudevillian (particularly in The Practice, with former standup comic Thomas), though the putdown humor was never really at the expense of the physician’s dignity or the seriousness of a particular patient’s illness. For example: jules bedford [of The Practice] to female patient: Take off your shoes. patient: I’m not going to have to take anything else off, am I? bedford: Why, what else did you have in mind? patient: It’s just that I have so much better underwear at home. doc bogart to mona, who is clearly a prostitute: What is your complaint? mona: Business is terrible. doc: I mean, your medical complaint. mona: My feet. They’re killing me. All day long I’m on my feet! doc: How come you’re on your feet so much? mona: I told you, honey—business is terrible! The overall mood of the two programs was more like “Marcus Welby meets the TV sitcom” than like M*A*S*H. Doc Joe Bogart and Dr. Jules Chasing the Spirit of M*A*S*H | 273 Bedford were constantly putting their concern for their patients ahead of the almighty dollar. In the classic TV sitcom tradition, each episode saw a storm of con›ict rise at the beginning, reach a crescendo toward the middle, and resolve into serenity at the end. Bogart and Bedford both had naysaying companions (a wife and son, respectively) who constantly tried to bring them back to pragmatic realities. But the message across the episodes was that these men were consummate physicians precisely because they went beyond technical considerations and understood the souls of their patients. In The Practice, the sagacity of the traditional, fatherly brand of medicine...


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MARC Record
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