MASHstylized as M*A*S*H, is the story of a bunch of misfit medics from the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital thrown together against the horrors of the Korean War in the 1950s.
The series ran for 11 seasons, from September 1972 until its final episode in 1983.
It originally focused on two army surgeons: the wise but sympathetic Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, played by Alan Aldo, and the no-nonsense “Trapper” John McIntyre, played by Wayne Rogers.
The show featured an ensemble cast, and different episodes often focused on one of the featured characters.
There was the mild-mannered Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger, the calm Lt. Col. Henry Blake, and the pious Father Mulcahy. The antagonists, conniving Major Frank Burns and Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, were fakes for Hawkeye and Trapper, but were also occasionally central characters in some episodes.
Based on the 1970 film based on the novel, MASH was designed as a “black comedy” set during the Korean War. It was really a thinly veiled criticism of the Vietnam War that was raging at the time.
Korea is like Vietnam
The creators of the series knew that they would not be able to make a comedy about the Vietnam War. Uncensored news stories showing the brutality of Vietnam were broadcast directly to an American public that was by now weary of an increasingly brutal war.
The setting of the series takes place 20 years ago and allowed the creators to hide their criticism behind a historical perspective, but most viewers understood the true context.
What began as a criticism of the Vietnam War soon turned into a war on everyone.
Many episodes reminded viewers of the horrors of the lives lost fighting on the line, as well as the suffering and trauma faced by those behind the line.
no matter what war it is MASH said that all wars are the same, full of broken lives.
By cloaking this message in comedy, the creators were able to make it palatable to a wide audience.
The early seasons have a distinct sitcom feel, largely due to series co-creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds coming from sitcom backgrounds.
When both creators left at the end of the fifth season, the show took a more dramatic turn.
The rise of Alan Alda’s influence
In particular, Alda was more involved in the writing and steered it in a more dramatic direction, toning down the comedic elements. This also affected the change of many secondary characters.
The sly practical joker Trapper was replaced by the moral and professional BJ Honeycutt, the snotty Frank Burns by the pretentious Charles Winchester, the laconic Henry Blake by the official Sherman Potter, and after the eighth season, the complete absence of Radar. The voice acting of the series took on a prominent Hawkeye focus.
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, so did the show’s tone. It became less political and more focused on the dilemmas of individual characters. The laugh track was toned down. But that didn’t make the show any less popular.
The public reacted strongly to the anarchic anti-authoritarianism of Hawkeye and Trapper/BJ.
Almost all of the characters are anti-war, reflecting the growing antagonism the American public felt toward the Vietnam War and general war-weariness after Vietnam.
Even Frank and Hot Lips, the most patriotic of characters, sometimes doubted whether war was worth all the suffering and death. And the series reminded people that the humor was not intended to disrespect those at war, but rather as a coping mechanism for the participants’ trauma.
That’s not to say the show doesn’t have its problems when viewed with a modern sensibility.
Modern audiences will find problems with the portrayal of the characters and issues touched on in the series. Today, Corporal Klinger will be seen as a controversy. His penchant for dressing in women’s clothing was not because he was transgender or interested in drag, but because he was trying to get “section 8” or mental health.
Many of the female characters were also relegated to two-dimensional romantic interests or background characters.
The only woman to appear in a significant recurring role was “Hot Lips” Houlihan, but as her nickname suggests, she was often the target of sexual humor.
That hasn’t stopped the show from maintaining its popularity in the constant reruns it receives on cable and streaming services.
MASH was a product of its time, but its themes of the absurdity of war are universal. It became more than a TV show: a shared cathartic experience for a war-weary public.
At its core is an eclectic mix of dysfunctional characters who use humor to laugh in the face of adversity. This is what does MASH a timeless classic.