One of the most commercially and critically successful series in American television history, M*A*S*H is — to quote its lead character, Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) — "finest kind".
The show ran on CBS from 1972 to 1983, seven years longer than The Korean War during which it takes place. The setting is the 4077th MASH (short for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a type of Army field hospital first activated in the last month of World War II), which is located three miles from the front line in Uijeongbu. The doctors and nurses there perform "meatball surgery" and otherwise do what they can to patch up the physical (and sometimes psychological) wounds of the war's numerous casualties while staving off their own fear, stress, boredom, and fatigue.
M*A*S*H was first presented as a wacky, slightly edgy sitcom based on Robert Altman's movie—which was an adaptation of Richard Hooker's novel—but the series moved away from strictly comedic storylines early in its run (starting with Season 1's "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet") and incorporated dramatic plotlines in conjunction with comedic ones in the same episode. The show is often cited as TV's first true Dramedy.
"Abyssinia, Henry", the final episode of the third season, is one of the major turning points for the series. It was the final episode for both Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) and "Trapper" John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers), and the tragic shock ending—Henry's plane home is shot down; "there were no survivors"—delineated the line between "Funny M*A*S*H" and "Dramatic M*A*S*H", as many fans would later divide the series. The fourth season proved crucial to the show's long-term success; at the time, very few shows had ever lost such significant characters and kept the audience. But the creators' decision to replace Henry and Trapper with completely different character types in Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) succeeded, and the show continued to enjoy high ratings and critical acclaim.
Character development often came first in the "Dramatic M*A*S*H" phase. Previously one-note characters such as Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit) became more sympathetic and complex, as seen in Season 5's "The Nurses", in which Margaret asked her nurses, "When did one of you ever even offer me a lousy cup of coffee?" This approach ultimately led to Frank Burns (Larry Linville) leaving the show by receiving a psychiatric discharge, as the writers had developed Burns as a wholly unlikeable character with no room for growth.note Burns was replaced by Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers), who not only proved to be an actual asset to the medical staff, but even (eventually) became a nicer guy...in his own way.
Other ways in which M*A*S*H changed how the Sitcom was perceived was by the use (or disuse) of the Laugh Track, commonly imposed by the networks if a studio audience would not be present at an episode's filming. The show's creators grudgingly accepted the laugh track, but soon imposed rules on when it was not to be used (during any of the operating room scenes); they dropped it entirely in certain nontypical episodes, and eventually abandoned it entirely. (The laugh track was never used when the series was broadcast by The BBC in the UK, and the DVDs on both sides of the pond offer the option to watch the shows with or without it.)
M*A*S*H revolutionized the use of camera movements and editing styles on television—one example is the use of long tracking shots moving with the action (usually of soldiers being moved from helicopter/bus/Jeep to the OR). The show also experimented with unusual storylines married with different camera moves and screen devices. One special camera technique, Boom Up and Over, was new to television at the time; the use of this technique in sequences where camp announcements were shown from the "perspective" of the loudspeaker was groundbreaking and memorable.
Critics and fans note that the show did Something Completely Different very well by keeping the tone of the show consistent while experimenting with unusual storylines or storytelling techniques. "Hawkeye" is a 25-minute monologue by Hawkeye as he struggles to stay awake after suffering a head injury. In "Point of View," the entire episode is literally seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier via P.O.V. Cam. "Life Time" is told in Real Time, with a clock in the corner ticking off the minutes as the doctors race to replace a soldier's crushed aorta before he becomes paralyzed. The series also has a Fever Dream Episode, the obligatory Clip Show, and a Documentary Episode told as a series of (largely improvised) television interviews with the characters.
For twenty-five years, the show's final episode—"Goodbye, Farewell and Amen", which aired on February 28, 1983—held the record for the most-watched single broadcast in U.S. television history, with a 60.2 rating (percent of households watching), a 77 share (percent of households watching, of those watching some program at that time), and a total audience of over 125 million viewers. Although several Super Bowls have since surpassed it, the M*A*S*H finale still holds the record for non-sports programming.
Considering that the original novel consisted mostly of the characters engaging in wacky fratboy hijinx and boasting about how much sex they have (and showed a truly awful degree of sexismnote to boot), to produce such a long, successful and at times thoughtful series is a fine example of Pragmatic Adaptation, a very nice change in a world full of Adaptation Decay. Of course, Dr. Richard Hornberger, one-half of the writing team behind the pseudonymous author of the original book and kinda probably the model for Hawkeye, didn't see it that way; he was known to rant about it at length. (In a sequel, MASH Mania, he has his version of Hawkeye remark how he enjoys going down to the State University to "kick the shit out of a few liberals".)
Attention, all personnel — the television series M*A*S*H includes the following tropes:
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