Following my post on Monday on the loss of Richie Havens, I heard the very next day of the death of actor Allan Arbus, at the age of 95, mostly known for his role as the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, on the TV show M*A*S*H.
(In a creepy example of the urban myth that celebrities die in groups of three, since I started writing this, I’ve learned of the death of country music legend George Jones at the age of 81. I may or may not be able to post an obit for George later today.)
Anyway, I mentioned once before that I practically grew up on M*A*S*H. In fact, it was such a central experience for me, as well as for many of the people I knew, including my best friends, who would talk about it constantly, reciting our favorite lines, analyzing it’s ups and downs, that it is not unsurprising to me at all that Allan Arbus’ passing would inspire more than just a brief note about how I used to enjoy him on television.
(If you aren’t a TV geek who enjoys exploring the themes of a show, if you are someone who simply likes entertainment, that’s cool, but you might want to skip ahead below, to the video part of this Video Fridays installment, a montage of clips of Allan Arbus from various M*A*S*H episodes.)
Now, the fascinating thing here, for me, is that Allan Arbus and his character, Sidney Freedman, actually represent the epicenter of an aspect of M*A*S*H that divided its fans into two opposing camps:
- Those who preferred the earlier seasons of the show, when comedy far outweighed drama, and when the comedy was, as I would argue, of a more sophisticated style.
- Those who loved the evolution of the show from mostly comedy toward increasing amounts of drama, and despite the shift in comedic style.
You see, although Arbus only appeared in 12 of the 251 episodes of M*A*S*H, and although his earliest appearances were in Season 2, when the show was still firmly mostly-comedy, I contend that the very fact that Sidney Freedman became a recurring character is symbolic of the evolution of the series towards drama.
Gradually, the show became less and less about the farcical absurdities of war, in the style of, say Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — the style, incidentally, of the original source material, the novel by Richard Hooker and the film by Robert Altman — and more and more about the emotional, dramatic, traumatic and tragic nature of war.
That said, a convincing argument could be made that, once you delve into the ugliness of war, as would, let’s say, a psychiatrist, digging through the horrible toll it takes on humans and humanity, that it necessarily gets harder and harder to make light of it. A sitcom about war, then, could eventually become shallow or even insulting to those who have faught in, been injured by, or have lossed loved ones to war.
And, nothing underscores Sidney Freedman’s central role in this evolution than his central role in the very last episode of the series, 1983’s Goodbye, Farwell and Amen, M*A*S*H‘s swan song, the show’s last statement on the subject of war, which centered on therapy sessions between Sidney and Alan Alda‘s Hawkeye Pierce, who had suffered a nervous breakdown over a traumatic experience involving a mother who silenced her baby, thereby suffocating and killing it, in order to protect Hawkeye and the other passengers on a bus that was under enemy fire.
Drama indeed. Nothing funny about that.
Now, I should make it clear that, despite my preference for the earlier seasons, I do appreciate the significant achievement of keeping the show on the air for 11 seasons, while maintaining a huge audience and mostly positive reviews. After all, I kept watching and never missed an episode.
Truthfully, my beef with the show wasn’t really with the trend toward drama-over-comedy. Rather, as mentioned above, I found the comedy that did remain to be lacking in sophistication, too often heavily laden with silly puns, slapstick arguments and personality clashes.
Whatever you make of this analysis, regardless of which camp you reside in, I think we can all agree that Allan Arbus was wonderful as Dr. Sidney Freedman. As Alan Alda said, quoted in the Los Angeles Times Arbus obituary, “He was so authentic in the role it was hard to believe that he wasn’t that person.”
R.I.P., Allan Arbus. Thanks for the memories.