The Pitch: One of the most vital and beloved sitcoms of all time, “M*A*S*H” follows a group of rowdy but deeply humane army doctors through the Korean War. The surgical team is headed up by Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), a wise-cracking, martini-swilling playboy who’s also a traumatized, unwilling participant in a seemingly endless war. Hawkeye’s a surprisingly complex sitcom character, by both 1972’s standards and today’s, but then again, no one in “M*A*S*H” is two-dimensional.
The series based on Robert Altman’s film follows the members of a division of the U.S. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital as they quarrel, prank each other, fall in and out of love, and otherwise pass the time, all while living with the painful realities — both physical and psychological — of combat and cultural displacement. It’s as heartfelt as it sounds, but also funny, too. Across its eleven seasons, a cast of memorable characters calls the 4077th camp their home, from stern head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) to crossdressing private Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr) to naive company clerk Radar (Gary Burghoff). In turn entertaining, insightful, and depressing by design, “M*A*S*H” is real in a way that few sitcoms dare to be.
Why It’s Essential Viewing
While plenty of television classics pioneered either a genre or a cinematic format or a particular ethos, “M*A*S*H” successfully did all three and then some. The show constantly broke the boundaries of what television was capable of. First, with kinetic filmmaking that clearly took place off the studio lot, then with gut-punch plots that expanded the boundaries of what TV comedy could look like, and finally, with episodes that broke from familiar structures in innovative ways. One episode, for example, takes place entirely from the bedridden perspective of a wounded soldier. Another, a season finale, takes the form of a somber black-and-white documentary about the M*A*S*H unit. The original telecast of the final chapter, a two-hour movie that gives each character a poignant and authentic goodbye, remains the most-watched TV episode of all time.
“M*A*S*H” also possesses an astonishing moral clarity that seems nearly extinct in television today. Although its willingness to engage in polarizing topics ebbs and flows across its seasons, it always stands firm in a progressive viewpoint: one that maintains that war is hell, America is imperfect, and compassion and cultural understanding is key. Its first three seasons aired during the Vietnam war, and while Hollywood at one point seemed scared to touch the topic, “M*A*S*H” used the Korean war as a clear stand-in for the more controversial conflict. Its duty, above all else, was to constantly remind viewers — in vivid detail and with example after heartbreaking example — of the senselessness of it all.
The M*A*S*H message still matters
Beyond that, “M*A*S*H” was enjoyably counter-cultural, slyly subverting the status quo in a dozen different ways. The show is always sure to position racists, homophobes, and uber-patriots as appalling and villainous, while the heroes mostly spend their days partying and flirting when they’re not helping patients, local civilians, and one another. In fact, by the end of its run, the show’s most romantic through-line — complete with countless grand gestures, marriage jokes, and shared confidences — isn’t between an actual on-screen couple, but between persistent bachelor Hawkeye and his best buds, Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) and, later, BJ Hunnicut (Mike Farrell).
One of the show’s greatest strengths is its ability to let each character grow organically, deepening every unique relationship bit by bit across its 256 episodes. Its most fully-realized friendships, like Hawkeye and BJ’s, are built around the writers’ obviously considerable understanding of masculinity, mental health (particularly PTSD), and human nature in general. Of course, a few moments in the show have aged quite poorly, but mostly, it wears the passage of time well. The “M*A*S*H” pilot will turn 50 in September, yet none of the series’ most urgent and plaintive lessons have dulled in the ensuing decades. If anything, its message of unconditional love, respect, and humanity, communicated in hundreds of different ways across nearly a dozen years, is more important now than ever.