M*A*S*H is a genuine television classic, one which still holds the record for the most watched moment of television when it finally ended its eleven season run. Its influence on the modern landscape of television is undoubted, and the affection in which it is held remains as steadfast as ever. Each year it is rediscovered by generations to whom the Korean War in which it is set is mostly forgotten. Today presents one such chance for discovery.
Today, forty-six years exactly after it was first aired, M*A*S*H returns to UK screens thanks to True Entertainment’s week-long celebration of the series. This may be your first chance to dive headlong into the chaotic world of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and as we’ll see – there’s never been a better time.
As part of True Entertainment‘s plethora of M*A*S*H-related programmes they will be airing the first ten episodes tonight, with documentaries, a reunion special and the record-breaking finale to come. Though it lasted far longer than the war in which it set its scene, the adoration continues long after it ended. And the effect it had on television sitcoms in particular remains evident.
The basic set up for most sitcoms seems to follow this tenet: hell is other people. Throw a group of people together in a room and watch what happens. Reality TV is based on this premise almost entirely, with Big Brother being an extreme of the measure. This is why work-based comedies often have the most traction. In The Office, Parks and Recreation, The IT Crowd and more, the characters we bond with are never the ones in control. In M*A*S*H the military hierarchy is established and set, with a cast-iron hold on who commands who. The frat-boy antics of Hawkeye, Trapper John, and B.J. Hunnicutt jar not only with those in command, but those who worked alongside them as soldiers, not civilian draftees. This tension was worked to the bone, and can be seen in the ladder climbers of The Office mixing with those who are not as serious about their careers. Lister and Rimmer from the BBC’s Red Dwarf distilled these two opposing factions to two distinct characters.
In the hands of the M*A*S*H team this was a foundation but in contrast to many modern sitcoms which spend their entire runs wearing the ground thin M*A*S*H was able to build on this dynamic quickly, bringing us deeper into the lives and desires of our beloved/hated characters. NBC’s much-loved Community wore its M*A*S*H influences on its sleeve for its six seasons (and, so far, not yet – a movie) but it was unable to reconcile the fact that students graduate and so lost some of its comedic lustre as characters hung around, caught in the sitcom web of necessity.
M*A*S*H could certainly have used more women in lead roles. The sexism rife in sitcoms of the ’70s and ’80s (both as throwaway jokes and casting decisions) is something the show fell foul of. However its relationships rarely felt forced, remaining true to the characters as they went through the hell of war with a camaraderie that drove the stories and served up many of the laughs. Though some of the series regulars became household names, Alan Alda’s charming, mischievous Hawkeye being a prime example, the show never seemed to buckle under the weight of a revolving door of cast members. Each new character brought something extra to the show, the producers feeling no need to replace the void left by a departing actor with someone exactly the same. It was fearless in that respect, and the audience responded with equally fierce devotion.
Playing with the format was also something M*A*S*H became well known for. It used black and white film for entire episodes, switched to one singular POV for another. Musical numbers, dream sequences – these are part and parcel of sitcom language now – were introduced to the mainstream by this show. For viewers of M*A*S*H it was something new, a radical departure that emboldened the series and endured us to the characters even more. Many sitcoms today play it safe with these leaps forward, mimicking what has come before. Every now and again a sitcom will do something extraordinary with its format, and we have Hawkeye and Co. to thank for that.
Finally it was able to marry the hierarchical hijinx with a sobering sense of right and wrong. They were at war, and lives were on the line – this was not forgotten in the race to endear the show to its audience. In point of fact it allowed the show and its actors the scope to mirror the audience’s hopes and fears to an unparalleled extreme. Scrubs, another recent sitcom which echoed M*A*S*H in many ways, was able to blend its dream logic non sequiturs with a sharp sense of reality in much the same way. The constant fight against death is ground ripe for humour – in many ways, it’s the only way to get through it – but M*A*S*H’s unashamed seriousness was unheard of in the late ’70s. It is just one more reason M*A*S*H is remembered as a groundbreaking show.
At the heart of the show was its cast, its characters. Despite the infighting and the outbursts there was a true sense of community, and a healthy, honest love between them. A love that was evident in its final moments, when the characters bid farewell honestly, with love and gratitude for the hell they’ve endured and everything they’ve learned because of it. The audience felt the same way, and that each new generation of people who discover will feel the same is a fitting testament to the show.
For more details of this special M*A*S*H anniversary week click here.
True Entertainment is available on Freeview 61, Sky 179, Freesat 142 and Virgin 189.