TV broadcasters are famously loathe to let go of a good thing, and if a successful series finally reaches its end – usually because leading cast members want to move on, or everyone involved have agreed that there is nowhere left to go – then the spin-off series is a good gamble. It comes with character recognition, and sometimes everything combines to make a series that develops a life of its own, possibly even outshining the series that it emerged from. Frasier, spun off from Cheers, is perhaps the prime example. More often though, the shows fail, because they try too hard to take an existing character and crowbar them into a new situation. Friends spin-off Joey is a prime example, taking one of an ensemble cast and attempting to graft a bunch of unconvincing new characters into his life., with predictably awful results.
M*A*S*H is one of the biggest sitcoms of all time, with the final episode setting new records for viewing figures. It’s understandable that many of those involved – cast and producers alike – would be keen to keep benefitting from that success. But taking a show that had a very specific story and relocating supporting characters into a more conventional setting was always going to be problematic.
Admittedly, the show did have a precedent for a successful – if not quite official – spin-off, as Trapper John MD – based on the character played by Wayne Rogers in the early seasons of M*A*S*H – had run for seven seasons from 1979 to 1985, taking the character from the Korean War into the modern day (and beyond the cancellation of M*A*S*H itself). This updating was probably the reason for the success of the show, as there was little connection to the parent show – Rogers had left the series in 1975 and the character was played in this show by Pernell Roberts, effectively making it an entirely separate series. In fact the producers claimed it was actually a spin-off of the original MASH movie and Richard Hooker’s novel. There was actually a lawsuit between the producers of M*A*S*H and this show, even though both were made for 20th Century Fox.
M*A*S*H ended in February 1983, and the awkwardly titled AfterMASH went into production almost immediately, premiering in September that year. It took the characters of Colonel Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr) and Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) and transplanted them (plus Klinger’s Korean wife Soon-Lee (Rosalind Chao), through a series of contrivances, to post-war Missouri, where Potter was Chief of Staff at a hospital.
The show was created by original series writers Larry Gilbert, Gene Reynolds, Ken Levine and David Isaacs, and produced by Burt Melcalfe, which ought to have given it a status beyond mere cash-in, but stripped of the war-time background, it was hard to make the show stand out. What’s more, the characters that we knew didn’t really work in this new context, and the new characters were unconvincing. References to the original show were frequent, but the only other main cast member to return was Gary Burghoff as Radar O’Reilly, who turned up in a two-part story in the first season.
This was never going to be a show that people took to their hearts – the familiar characters aside, it felt like just another average sit-com from a time when American TV was at its artistic worst. Somehow, though, AfterMASH managed to find a big enough audience to not only last a full season (at a time when USTV was ruthless about cancelling unsuccessful shows) but also be renewed for a second season. But ratings collapsed dramatically on the return, hitting the bottom spot for the time slot. It had been pitted against The A-Team, with CBS even taking press ads to suggest that it would wipe the floor with the opposition, a prediction that was breathtakingly wide of the mark. The show was yanked off-air after just nine episodes of season two.
Despite this, there was a further attempt at cashing in on M*A*S*H in 1984, with the pilot for W*A*L*T*E*R, which took Radar’s character and continued the story from his guest slot in AfterMASH. The pilot wasn’t picked up and was eventually broadcast just once, in 1984, as a ‘special presentation’.
Watching the pilot, it’s easy to see why it wasn’t picked up. Not only does it seem forced and unfunny, pushing a character who was only ever a supporting figure front and centre, but the show is weirdly bleak for a half hour sit com with canned laughter. The basis for this spin-off is that Radar has lost his family farm, packed his beloved mother off to live with relatives, had a wife who left him for another man on their wedding night and then tried to commit suicide, before joining the St Louis police force. Not exactly a barrel of laughs then, and on top of this, the show tried to cram too much into the pilot episode, with weak characters and a cheap look that doomed it from the get-go. It also seems an odd idea to try another spin-off when one had just flopped.
While M*A*S*H remains one of the most beloved US TV series, the two official spin-offs are now barely remembered, and have been written off as complete flops – fair comment in the case of W*A*L*T*E*R perhaps, but a little harsh for AfterMASH, which won awards and was, for a little while, fairly popular. But neither are artistically satisfying, and their existence does feel rather unnecessary.