Few shows in the history of American television have successfully combined quick-witted humor, tense drama, and political commentary like MASH. Originally, MASH was a novel which was then adapted into a movie starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. Following the success of the MASH enterprise, one of the greatest and most beloved television series was born. The series follows a group of surgeons working at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) somewhere in South Korea during the Korean War.
Many critics have praised MASH for its forward-thinking plots, shocking tone shifts, and biting satire. In retrospect, MASH took risks that no other television show could have taken at the time. So, let’s take a look back at the 10 MAS*H storylines that were way ahead of their time:
For nearly 3 seasons, Colonel Blake was the bumbling yet lovable commanding officer of the 4077th M*A*S*H. When his character finally got the orders to return home, his fellow “meatball surgeons” wanted to send him off in style. Parties, endless nights of drinking, and heartfelt goodbyes led up to one of the most shocking moments in television history.
After departing, Colonel Blake’s assistant and longtime friend, Radar O’Reilly, announced that the plane carrying everyone’s favorite Colonel had been shot down over the Sea of Japan, and there were no survivors. It was a sad and shocking moment for television audiences at the time, as it was not common practice to kill off beloved characters in a traditional dramedy.
Before shows like The Office or Parks and Recreation used Talking Head interviews to create laughs or tears, M*A*S*H was doing both. In the now-famous episode from Season 4, “The Interview,” a war correspondent (played by real-life war correspondent, Clete Roberts), interviews different members of the 4077th M*A*S*H about their experiences in the war.
In addition to feeling like an actual documentary, “The Interview” marks a strong tonal shift from the scripted comedy that audiences had come to expect from M*A*S*H.
M*A*S*H featured several “Dear Dad” episodes, but the first (and best) occurred in Season 1. In this storyline, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) writes a letter to his father back in Maine, updating him on recent events. The episode was unique because it allowed the protagonist to passively observe his fellow characters, and make some humorous (and not so humorous) commentaries on events around the camp.
It became such a popular format that the show’s creators included two additional “Dear Dad” episodes later in the series.
7“Your Hit Parade”
By Season 6, M*A*S*H had become an established part of American pop culture. As a result, the shows creators wanted to branch out from their standard format. In “Your Hit Parade,” the surgeons face a seemingly endless barrage of wounded soldiers.
As a way to keep them entertained, Radar O’Reilly plays hit songs over the camp’s speakers. The story is very minimalistic but nonetheless powerful. Audiences watch as the doctors and nurses work themselves to exhaustion, all to the tune of popular oldies.
6“A War For All Seasons”
In “A War for All Seasons,” audiences got to experience a year in the life of the 4077th M*A*S*H. There are plenty of laughs in this episode, but the format lends itself to more contemplative, nostalgic moments between friends and enemies alike.
The characters look back over the year, reminiscing on how they have changed while still living and working in the middle of a war zone. “A War for All Seasons” is one of the few episodes that shows the characters grow over an extended period.
As one of the funniest episodes on this list, the storyline in “Tuttle” borrows heavily from established sitcom tropes and is a loose parody of a story from Soviet literature. In “Tuttle,” Hawkeye and Trapper (Wayne Rogers) give some of the camp’s supplies to a local orphanage.
To get away with it, they need to invent a fictional person named Captain Tuttle. However, their lies quickly pile up, to the point that a General wants to award Captain Tuttle with an honorary medal. As a result, Hawkeye and Trapper must fake Tuttle’s death in the hilarious finale.
When the camp’s morale hits an all-time low, Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) schedules a special screening of his favorite Western movie. It may sound like a simple storyline, but naturally, plenty of antics ensue. The film frequently stops playing, forcing members of the 4077th to entertain themselves until the projector can be fixed. “Movie Tonight,” like many of M*A*S*H‘s greatest episodes, highlights a part of combat that nobody wants to talk about: boredom.
In “Movie Tonight,” audiences can see the negative impact of boredom and in-fighting in a war zone, while still getting plenty of jokes to keep things light.
A running joke on M*A*S*H was the poor quality of food provided to military personnel. In “Adam’s Ribs,” Hawkeye finally breaks, throwing a tantrum in the mess hall and demanding better cuisine. This leads him on an elaborate quest to order ribs from his favorite rib joint back in the States.
Naturally, military bureaucracy and greed threaten to thwart his plans, leading to one of the funniest and frustrating final scenes of the entire series.
2“5 O’Clock Charlie”
The writers of M*A*S*H had the unique ability to make comedy out of otherwise serious subject matters. In “5 O’Clock Charlie,” an inept Korean pilot drops bombs close to the 4077th, attempting to hit nearby ammo.
Since 5 O’Clock Charlie always appears at the same time, the 4077th turns the bombings into their newest form of entertainment. When the camp receives an anti-aircraft to deal with the situation, Hawkeye and Trapper take matters into their own hands to help 5 O’Clock Charlie hit his target.
Few television series of the ’70s and ’80s were willing to address issues like alcoholism directly. Surprisingly, M*A*S*H talked about the issue frequently, as the doctors in the show were always drinking off-duty. In “The Consultant,” a visiting surgeon (played by Alan Alda’s father, Robert Alda) is meant to perform a specialized radial artery transplant, only to show up drunk.
This forces Hawkeye to step in and perform the surgery without any prior experience. The episode ends with Hawkeye questioning his own battle with alcohol.