Fifty years ago this month, William Morrow & Co. published MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. Attributed to "Richard Hooker," the book was actually composed by Richard Hornberger, a doctor who had served in Korea, and W.C. Heinz, a sportswriter who spruced up the doctor's prose. A couple years later, Robert Altman adapted the novel into a movie, and a couple years after that, the movie's success spawned a long-running TV show.
If you're an American born between the beginning of the Cold War and the end of disco, you probably have an opinion or three about the M*A*S*H franchise. In my case, I think the book is fun but unexceptional, the movie is great, and the TV show ranges from very good to terrible, with most of the good episodes concentrated in the period before B.J. grew a mustache. (Credit where it's due: I stole the mustache thesis from Bill Geerhart.) Whether or not you agree about any of that, it's undeniable that Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, Radar O'Reilly, and the rest of the M*A*S*H crew were a cultural juggernaut.
But you're reading the Friday A/V Club, where we take pleasure in slipping past the juggernauts to peer at the junk left in our cultural attic. If you want a detailed take on the main stream of M*A*S*H history, Howard Fishman wrote a pretty good article about it for The New Yorker this past July. (I especially liked his observation that the M*A*S*H doctors come across as frat boys in the book and as hipsters in the movie; on TV, he could have added, their mixture of progressive politics and serial sexual harassment resembles a certain sort of college professor.) Fishman can handle the M*A*S*H that mattered. We'll look at the detritus—at the sequels to the novel and the spinoffs from the TV show.
First the novels. Two of these, M*A*S*H Goes to Maine and M*A*S*H Mania, were written by Hornberger; they feature the M*A*S*H doctors working at a hospital in Maine in the 1970s. These books may shock people raised on the TV series, since Hawkeye here is a rock-ribbed Republican who throws around racial slurs and at one point declares that you "oughta kick the bejesus out of a liberal now and then just to stay in shape." The Maine books aren't great literature, but they have a sort of lived-in authenticity to them; they're stories about small-town doctors from Maine that were written by a small-town doctor from Maine, and they can't help picking up some texture along the way. If nothing else, I can recommend "Dragons," a chapter of M*A*S*H Mania where Hawkeye, having been dragged before a judge who's in on the joke, spins a tall tale in which the atom bomb wasn't invented until 1950 and it was a dragon named Sid who actually destroyed Hiroshima.
But then there are the other books. William Butterworth wrote these, and he churned out around a dozen of them. M*A*S*H Goes to New Orleans. M*A*S*H Goes to Las Vegas. M*A*S*H Goes to Vienna. M*A*S*H Goes to Morocco. In these the swamp doctors still work at that hospital in Maine, but now they're constantly getting drawn into allegedly high-comic adventures around the world, with a recurring cast of guest stars with names like Boris Korsky-Rimsakov, Horsey de la Chevaux, and Wrong-Way Napolitano. Sometimes the book characters' backstories are adjusted to fit the TV series; other times the books go out of their way to contradict the TV series. (Col. Henry Blake, famously killed off on the show, periodically pops in to say hello.) I cannot in good conscience recommend reading two or more of these, but every student of '70s kitsch should try to make it through one.
And the TV spinoffs? There were three of those. Trapper John, M.D. was a standard medical drama set in what was then the present day, with the title character now employed at a hospital in San Francisco. (It must have been a tough commute to work both there and in Maine.) AfterMASH was set in Missouri in the 1950s, with three characters from the old show adjusting to civilian life at yet another hospital.
Finally, there's W*A*L*T*E*R, in which Gary Burghoff reprises his role as Radar O'Reilly and a very young Victoria Jackson plays the ditzy drugstore clerk who befriends him. There was only one episode. It aired in only half the country. It is the most godawful piece of crap ever excreted by the M*A*S*H multiverse—and yes, I've seen the episode of the original show where they spend the whole story organizing a surprise party for Col. Potter. That one is Citizen Kane compared to W*A*L*T*E*R. If the novel published in October 1968 is the place where this franchise was born, then this half-hour of television that aired in July 1984 is where it went to die. (*) Enjoy!
(* I mean "went to die" figuratively, of course. W*A*L*T*E*R was followed by one more season of AfterMASH and two more seasons of Trapper John, M.D. America still has troops in Korea, too. Apparently it's really hard to wind these things down.)