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The news of Harry Morgan’s death at 96, back in 2011, saddened me. I’m at the age when it seems far too many icons of my youth are dying off. Not from some misspent life or accident; from old age. And the process accelerates as I age. I now understand why my grandparents and then parents read the newspaper obituaries. I haven’t quite succumbed to that, but I’m sure the day will come.
No, I’m not being morbid. Or maudlin. I have, I believe, a healthy attitude towards death. Death moves me, sometimes fascinates me (as our collective attitude towards it fascinates me), but it doesn’t frighten me. But when someone dies, it’s a row of dominoes that tumble. We’re all connected, even if only through the TV screen.
Morgan played Colonel Sherman Potter in the latter part of the long-running TV series, M*A*S*H. he brought to the show a maturity and a softer wit. I recall watching him as a harder character in the 1960s’ crime show, Dragnet. I preferred Colonel Potter.
I was reminded of his death only last week, through a Facebook re-post on the anniversary of his passing. That got me thinking about the show, about the era in which it was made, and how it affected me then and later. I dug out my DVDs so I could start watching the series again. (Susan struggles to watch Columbo, a contemporary show from that age that I recently acquired, but loves M*A*S*H).
Why, you might ask, would I want to watch a TV series that ran for 11 seasons and ended more than 30 years ago? Surely it is dated, as dated as any TV series from the 1970s.
Because, I respond, M*A*S*H isn’t just any TV series. It’s a show about the human condition. It’s set in a time and place (the Korean War) where the characters emerge in the forefront, not the hardware, not the technology, not the action.
Because it matured as it ran. It went from a simplistic sitcom – with some uncomfortable fumblings and forays into the sexist and racist attitudes of the 60s and 70s – to a deeply moving story about humans dealing with stress, tension, survival, hardship, friendship, loss and even death.
They weren’t just actors reading lines: they became avatars of ourselves. We watched them grow up, watched them interact and develop for 11 years.
Which is, you realize, rather over the top for a war that didn’t last a full three years. But after a while the war didn’t matter as much – or rather, the relationship of the series to the actual war didn’t matter. Instead, we were observers into a fishbowl, a sandbox in which characters were tossed, and we watched how the reacted.
A future TV show about humans colonizing Mars or on a long space voyage might offer the same sort of interactions and complications about life in a closed system.
It was a weekly morality show, with bigger issues that just its setting. It became what Vulture would later label a “sadcom.”
It was at times hopeful, nostalgic, painful, funny and, yes, sad. I don’t cry at movies or TV often. Very rarely, but when Henry Blake died, and when the series ended were two such moments (and when Spock Died in Star Trek II, but that’s another story….). Many viewers did. That’s how strongly the bond between the characters and the audience became: we empathized deeply with them.
Which is what a good show should be: a story about humans we care about. Not just a series of interactions used solely to connect the jokes or action. Not that every episode was brilliant, witty, or even good. There are some rough spots and weak episodes, and the early seasons are often what we would deem today “politically incorrect.” You’d expect that in 11 years through that era. But overall, it was a good, heartwarming series and it reflected the human condition well.
And in an age of increasing violence, dominated by guns, pornography and terrorists, it’s comfortable to be able to sit back and watch something that isn’t about any of them. There’s an aura of innocence about it that makes it eminently re-watchable.
Morgan was 96, only a little older than my mother was at her death. Ne had a long life and left behind a legacy that will long outlast him.
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