With 121.6 million viewers, the 1983 series finale of M*A*S*H was the single most-watched episode of television in American history. To this day, the only television events that have seen more viewers are Super Bowls. Yet, if you are under the age of 35, it is completely possible, even likely, that you have never seen a single episode of the record-breaking show, and that is a tragedy!
A sitcom that ran on CBS from 1972 to 1983, M*A*S*H told the story of the personnel stationed at a M.A.S.H. (mobile army surgical hospital) unit during the Korean War. However, it is so much more than that. The show is every bit as much a graphic, gritty look at the reality of war as it is a comedy, and even if the concept doesn’t sound like it’s your cup of tea, here are five reasons you should give M*A*S*H a try.
5. The Medicine
While M*A*S*H technically could be described as a medical show, given that the show’s primary set is a mobile hospital, the medicine was never the focus of the show. That being said, if you are someone who struggles to watch medical shows because of inaccuracies, you might be pleasantly surprised when watching M*A*S*H.
Keeping in mind that medicine depicted in the show is that of the early 1950s, in a war zone, meaning bare basic and somewhat dated techniques and procedures. Still, the medical advisors on the show made sure that the medicine was as accurate as possible. This means most of the medical terms you hear are real, as are the procedures being performed. More than that, though, the cast was devoted to making sure they got the medicine right. These actors were portraying, for the most part, the reality of what many surgeons overseas were facing/had faced in Korea and Vietnam. So even when the show often critiqued the war, undervaluing or misrepresenting the work of those who served was never an option.
4. The Cast
If the prospect of accurate medicine isn’t enough to draw you in, maybe this will help: 11 Golden Globes and 34 Emmys. That’s how many awards the M*A*S*H cast was nominated for during the series run. For comparison, the cast of Game of Thrones earned 8 Golden Globes and 32 Emmy nominations. There can be no doubt that this cast was talented.
Not only was the cast regularly award-nominated, but the show made many of its stars, including Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, Gary Burgdoff, David Ogden Stiers, Henry Morgan, and Mike Farrell, household names. To the degree that even if you’re not familiar with M*A*S*H, you may recognize them, particularly as some have remained active onscreen even in recent years. For example, Alan Alda appeared in early seasons of The Blacklist as Alan Fitch, Mike Farrell guest-starred on Supernatural in the season 8 episode “Hunteri Heroici,” and Jamie Farr appeared in episodes of the short-lived The Cool Kids. However, you may recognize some of them from their older work, like David Ogden Stiers’s prolific voice acting career with roles including Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast and Ratcliffe in Pocahontas, or Harry Morgan’s appearances in everything from Dragnet to 3rd Rock From the Sun.
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3. The Writing
With witty dialogue and stories that never failed to portray the reality of the situation the characters found themselves in, M*A*S*H set the bar for writing on sitcoms. Offering a brilliant mix of comedic moments that left audiences in stitches and emotional moments that brought tears, the writers made sure that their audiences were never bored.
From complex characters to intense plotlines, the M*A*S*H writing team turned a show set in an active war zone into something that was relatable to viewers at home, all without completely painting over the rough edges or overselling the war as something better than it actually is/was. However, from fun lines like, “If I had all the answers, I’d run for God,” to “I’m not sleeping, I’m inspecting the inside of my eyelids,” to more serious moments like Hawkeye’s explanation of why war is worse than hell, the writers on this show gave us some of the most memorable pieces of television history … but that’s another article.
2. The Characters
Part of what made this show so successful was the characters it created. From Hawkeye’s witty quips like, “A device is yet to be invented that will measure my indifference to this remark,” to Radar’s often comical naiveite and Frank’s frankly — pun intended — absurd antics, the characters on this show are unforgettable in the way that only the best show’s characters are.
In fact, the show really set the bar for what a sitcom ensemble cast could do/be. Many of the characters are people you have a strong love-hate relationship with because the show never shied away from showing the characters at their worst just as often as at their best. Hawkeye, in particular, splits audiences, as his wild antics often make him a comical, loveable character, but his struggles with the war and his over-the-top reactions can also make him difficult to like. However, this is also what makes the characters so great in that it makes them relatable and human. The show never shied away from the truth that the characters aren’t undefeatable or infallible.
1. The Relevance
If you are asking yourself, “How can a show that ended over 40 years ago still be relevant?” I’m sure you’re not alone. We have an unfortunate tendency to assume that shows aimed at previous generations have nothing relevant to add to our modern lives, but that is not the case with M*A*S*H. While the show certainly shows its age in some places, including its treatment of women, overall, it holds up in terms of modern/relevant views on everything from mental health to race to disabilities and many things in between.
Although the show was supposed to be set in the 1950s during the Korean War, it put a priority on mental health. In fact, one of the show’s most popular recurring characters is Dr. Sidney Freedman, a psychologist who treats not only many patients at the M.A.S.H. but also nearly everyone on staff at one point or another over the course of the series. Not only did it put that focus on mental health, but it also made it clear that race, sexual preference, or disability made no difference in the way someone ought to be treated, within the hospital or outside of it. Something that even modern shows don’t always manage.
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While the age of the show may be off-putting for younger audiences, it repeatedly proved that television doesn’t always need a happy ending for everything, and not every episode needs to teach a lesson. In doing so, it paved the way for many shows that followed, including the single-cam, laugh track-free comedies like The Office that so many enjoy. Accurate medicine, an extremely talented cast, smart writing, memorable characters, and lasting relevancy all contribute to making M*A*S*H one of the best and most popular half-hour shows of all time.
So in the words of Colonel Potter, “Well, friend, it’s time we said goodbye. Time you got on with your life. You’ve come as far as you can go here.” Now head over to Hulu to stream M*A*S*H, and be sure to let us know what you think once you do.