Neal Justin: The 10 greatest episodes of ‘M*A*S*H’

It's the 50th anniversary of the legendary show's premiere.

Fifty years ago this month, CBS gambled that viewers would find laughs in a war zone. It took awhile for viewers to adapt, but by the time “M*A*S*H” ended 11 seasons later, it had become a major hit, proof that a successful sitcom could be just as heartbreaking and harrowing as any one-hour drama.

To honor the show’s golden anniversary, there’s a new retrospective, “M*A*S*H: When Television Changed Forever,” airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ReelzChannel. It’s a decent collection of clips, but the new interviews are mostly with secondary characters. Those hungry to learn more about the cook, Pvt. Igor, will be thrilled.

A far better way to celebrate is revisiting classic episodes, currently airing on both Hulu and 8-10 a.m. weekdays on TV Land. Here are 10 personal favorites, in the order they originally aired.

“Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (1973): The most startling indication that the show was willing to deal directly with the ravages of war was this episode in which Hawkeye (Alan Alda) must come to terms with the death of an old friend. Ron Howard guests as an underage soldier who thinks he’s as invulnerable as the Fonz.

“A Smattering of Intelligence” (1974): Lt. Col. Sam Flagg (Edward Winter) popped up several times in the early years, always sniffing for scandal. In his most side-splitting visit, he goes up against a rival spy.

“The General Flipped at Dawn” (1974): Before joining the cast as Col. Potter, Harry Morgan popped up as an unhinged commander who tried to move the unit closer to the front lines to save gas. It’s the funniest guest appearance in the show’s history.

“The Nurses” (1976): Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) went from being a punching bag to a three-dimensional character in this pivotal episode written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who would go on to create “Designing Women.”

“Fallen Idol” (1977): Alda wrote and directed this episode in which Hawkeye is too drunk to operate on a wounded Radar (Gary Burghoff). The ensuing confrontations between the two characters give Burghoff a chance to show the company clerk’s tough side.

“Movie Tonight” (1977): Some episodes were just good silly fun. Near the top of the list is this outing in which a screening of “My Darling Clementine” is broken up by sing-alongs and play-acting. Burghoff gets to do his dead-on impression of Father Mulcahy.

“Death Takes a Holiday” (1980): Frank Burns has his fans, but I always preferred the smarter Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) as the camp’s main foil. He had a heart, even if it was buried under layers of bravado. In this Christmas episode, he tries to anonymously donate candy to an orphanage.

“Blood Brothers” (1981): This episode is largely remembered for Patrick Swayze’s performance as a soldier who discovers he has leukemia. But it also has great moments for Mulcahy (William Christopher), who learns an important lesson in humility from the dying patient.

“That’s Show Biz” (1981): Another upbeat outing — or at least as upbeat as a show about the Korean War can be. Gwen Verdon leads a troupe of vaudeville stars who give the unit some much needed relief.

“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (1983): The finale is really four episodes packed into one movie, a chance for the writers to tackle stories that may have been too dicey during the regular run. That includes a story line in which Hawkeye ends up in the psychiatric ward. The goodbyes stretch on, but the more than 121 million viewers were too busy crying to complain.

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