It’s an inevitable fact of life that not everything ages gracefully, entertainment included. There are movies that were once considered amazing and without genuinely questionable content that, when watched in the present day, feel a little uncomfortable. And if anything, TV shows seem likely to age even faster than movies do, with once-beloved sitcoms now being watched by younger generations who find some jokes or episodes distasteful. While it’s easy to critique shows that have aged more like a mediocre IPA than a fine wine, it’s worthwhile acknowledging those rare TV shows that, for the most part, have continued to hold relevance and still remain great watches. One such show is the dramedy M*A*S*H, which ran for a staggering 11 seasons between 1972 and 1983. It was set during the Korean War and, somewhat amusingly, ended up staying on air for eight years longer than the real-world conflict itself lasted.
Few, if any, sitcoms that began more than half a century ago can claim to be as great as M*A*S*H was. Despite airing throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, and centering on a war that began and ended approximately 70 years ago, in many ways, it feels like a timeless show. It was a TV version of the 1970 Robert Altman movie of the same name, which itself was an adaptation of a 1968 novel called MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. That novel was based on the real-life experience of former military surgeon turned author Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr. during his time spent serving in the Korean War, and so both the movie and the TV show center on a group of doctors and other medical staff in South Korea, with M*A*S*H’s cast shown to work at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea. As striking and effective as the movie can be, the TV show takes what works about the film and makes it even better. It’s a little less abrasive and crude, given it was broadcast on television, and features new takes on the characters that make them more sympathetic and endearing. Beyond the character development, the TV version of M*A*S*H also shines for its expert balance of comedy and drama, its bold anti-war themes, and its willingness to experiment with the TV format. Not every aspect has aged perfectly, but the vast majority of the time, M*A*S*H still shines bright despite its age, and remains worth watching all these years after its conclusion.
‘M*A*S*H’ Allowed Its Characters to Grow and Change
One undeniable strength TV shows have over movies is the fact they allow character development to play out organically and over many years. A movie rarely exceeds two or three hours, after all, and characters can only go through so much within a limited runtime. This is one clear advantage M*A*S*H as a show had over the movie version. For much of the show’s first season (arguably the first three seasons, even), the tone is comparable to the movie. Alan Alda‘s Hawkeye is as sleazy as he is funny and kind of likable, but his constant womanizing can be a lot to handle (even if his attempts to hit on the various nurses fail at least as often as they succeed). The first of his best friends, Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers), enables and supports such behavior. Elsewhere in the main cast, the characterization of Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) early on isn’t great, as she’s comically shrill and often stuck up. She also had an ongoing affair with Frank Burns (Larry Linville), who (admittedly) didn’t change much in the five seasons he was on the show. Additionally, early on, Maxwell Q. Klinger (Jamie Farr) was all but defined by his frequent attempts to get a Section 8 psychiatric discharge (usually by cross-dressing), and the original Commanding Officer, Henry Blake, was a kind but often comically inept leader.
As M*A*S*H progressed beyond its first three seasons, certain characters were shown to change dramatically, while others left the show and were replaced by similar (though more complex) counterparts. Hawkeye was shown to have serious trauma from all the carnage he saw as an army surgeon, with later seasons making it clear that his seemingly carefree attitude and immature behavior were coping mechanisms for the terrible situations he found himself in. Trapper was replaced in season 4 by B.J. Hunnicutt, who was a great friend to Hawkeye, though his faithfulness to his wife back home ensured he could clash with Hawkeye and his womanizing. Klinger became a more fully-formed character and the writers made him cross-dress less and less, Burns was replaced by the stern but ultimately good-hearted (and more competent) Charles Emerson Winchester III, while Margaret Houlihan changed a great deal in later seasons, clashing less frequently with Hawkeye and the others and feeling more like a real-life person in the process, no longer defined by her antagonism. The second Commanding Officer, Sherman T. Potter (Harry Morgan), also felt like less of a caricature than Blake. Those who remained on the show beyond the first few seasons went through noticeable character development, and those who left the show were all replaced by more three-dimensional characters, with this dedication to great character writing being one big reason M*A*S*H holds up so well.
Few Dramedies Have Balanced Comedy & Drama As Well as ‘M*A*S*H’
As M*A*S*H began recasting some of its characters and deepening others, it also made an effort to add more drama to the show, making it feel less like a sitcom and more like a dramedy. That being said, it’s not like the earliest years of the show were without dramatic moments. The first episode that delivered a truly hard-hitting moment came in Season 1 with the 17th episode: “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet.” It marks the first time the characters are shown to fail in saving a patient, and even worse, that patient was a close friend of Hawkeye’s named Tommy Gillis, with the final portion of the episode explicitly showing Hawkeye’s emotional devastation. Of course, M*A*S*H delivered its most emotional half-hour a couple of seasons later in the iconic third season finale, “Abyssinia, Henry,” which was the 72nd episode of the show overall. It announced loud and clear that M*A*S*H was going to start being just as heavy as it was funny, given this episode ends with one character announcing that another has been suddenly killed after his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan.
Suddenly, the reality of war is driven home for the characters and the audience even more than before. A character who’s appeared in more than 70 episodes is abruptly killed, and this happened at a time long before The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead made viewers used to major character deaths. This moment — coupled with some re-castings and further character development starting in Season 4 — made M*A*S*H unambiguously a comedy-drama from that point forward. And Seasons 4-11 represent M*A*S*H at its most memorable and consistent. In the years since, plenty of shows have balanced comedy and drama well, as seen with sitcoms like Scrubs and even prestige shows like Succession. However, few have executed the balance quite as well as the later seasons of M*A*S*H did, and seeing as it perfected the art of the TV dramedy before any other show did, it deserves additional credit for being simultaneously so funny and so effectively tear-jerking.
The Anti-War Sentiments of ‘M*A*S*H’ Remain Topical & Powerful
When M*A*S*H began airing, the Korean War was probably something that many viewers remembered, though it had been over for almost two decades when the first season aired. The Vietnam War, on the other hand, didn’t officially end until 1975, meaning it was ongoing while the first three seasons were on the air. Though the show couldn’t explicitly comment on that then-contemporary war, due to being set in the early 1950s, the strong anti-war messages found in M*A*S*H could be equally applied to the Vietnam War as the Korean War. Though the show wasn’t exceptionally violent or heavy on combat (in fact, there was almost none of the latter), it was critical of warfare, with Hawkeye in particular being someone great at his job and passionate about saving lives, despite hating the fact that America had chosen to go to war in a foreign country. His lashing out at authority figures throughout the show makes it pretty clear how much he disagrees with the Army from a moral point of view, while professionally, he remains dedicated to saving the lives he can.
The show doesn’t shy away from showing the deaths that war causes, and how the living are emotionally impacted by the loss of lives, doing so right up until the devastating series finale. Though M*A*S*H was explicitly about the Korean War and perhaps implicitly about the Vietnam War, much of the anti-war content has remained tragically relevant, because as humanity’s progressed beyond the 1970s, the Vietnam War was by no means the world’s final war. Unequivocally, it has regrettably not represented the final time thousands or even millions of (predominantly young) people would be made to die because certain politicians or governmental bodies decided they wanted to start a violent national (or international) conflict. For as long as powerful people feel like wars are necessary for whatever reason, anti-war stories and sentiments will remain relevant. And few TV shows or movies out there are as brutally honest about the negative physical and psychological impacts of warfare as M*A*S*H was, with its anti-war messages remaining powerful and relevant to this day.
‘M*A*S*H’ Was More Innovative Than Any Other Sitcom of Its Time
For the most part, M*A*S*H did follow a reliable formula, and most of its episodes are structured like any number of traditional sitcoms. Like most comedy shows of its time, the vast majority of episodes featured a laugh track, and though there are a few more outdoor sequences than you might see compared to other sitcoms of the time, numerous scenes take place indoors and on obvious sets. It’s not cinematic the way more modern shows are, which could initially turn some present-day viewers off. However, anyone new to the show should stick with it, since as the show went on, it became more daring and experimental, with several key episodes showing a level of innovation and creativity that would have been mind-blowing back in the day, and remain admirable even today.
An early (and imperfect) example is the season 4 episode, “Hawkeye,” which is essentially just Alda’s character monologuing to himself for half an hour to prevent succumbing to a concussion. A better example of experimentation came in Season 7’s “Point of View,” which was filmed from the first-person perspective of a patient (predominantly contained to a hospital bed) for the entire episode. Season 8 saw two memorable episodes that played with the formula of a sitcom/dramedy to striking effect. “Life Time” was an episode told using real-time, and in that way, feels like it established what 24 would do for its entire run more than two decades before that show ever aired. And then “Dreams” is almost entirely made up of the various main characters each having visceral nightmares that explore what terrifies them and what plagues their minds while serving in the war. Extended and often bizarre dream sequences forming the bulk of an episode might not sound like anything unusual to fans of Twin Peaks or (especially) The Sopranos, but M*A*S*H was a show that did it years before either of those shows, further signifying how ahead of its time it was.
Despite Some Imperfections, ‘M*A*S*H’ is Still Phenomenal TV
For as great as M*A*S*H has generally aged, it still can’t be expected to hold up flawlessly. Watching it 40 to 50 years after it first aired, some parts might not fly if it was a show that aired during the 2020s. One thing that sticks out is the main cast, given it’s made up of mostly white men (with a single white woman). There are side characters of different races, and the team of female nurses did get a little more screen time in later seasons, though the main cast didn’t change in either regard. That could be a hurdle for some enjoying the show today, while the choice of lead cast members likely wouldn’t have stood out nearly as much in the 1970s and 1980s, if at all. And, as mentioned earlier, there are some jokes (particularly in the first three seasons) that feel a little crass when viewed today, mainly due to Hawkeye’s womanizing and the way he treats many of the women he hits on.
Yet there is character development and a clear move away from relying on that kind of humor which demonstrates that M*A*S*H was a TV show dedicated to maturing alongside its characters. And when viewed as a whole, its character development, balance of comedy and drama, strong anti-war themes, and willingness to shake up audience expectations through daring experimental episodes have made it one of the few old-school shows that still holds up amazingly well. For all its great qualities, it’s surprisingly easy to begin watching and fly through, even in the 2020s, with its influence on the TV shows that followed in its wake now clearer than ever. While Maxwell Klinger claimed that he only had a good time during the Korean War on three occasions, viewers who give M*A*S*H a shot should find themselves considerably more enthusiastic.