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MASH is the best sitcom of all time, and still great after 40 years

By in Culture

Arts Writer

A few years ago, if someone had asked me what the best TV show of all time was, I’d have been hard pressed to come up with an answer. That was then. Now, I can answer, without a moment’s hesitation: MASH.

    There was once a time when MASH was synonymous with television, though most of the people reading this were not around then. I certainly wasn’t. I spent most of my life only vaguely aware of its existence as a show my mother and grandmother talked about, until the past couple years when I began catching up to most of it through the magic of the History Channel.

    The show is difficult to sum up in the space of one article but I’ll start with the basics. MASH was a sitcom that spun off of the 1970 Robert Altman film of the same name. It follows the exploits of Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pearce, chief surgeon at a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War.

Even though the Korean War was only three years along, the show ran 1972-1983 (I have a theory involving time loops, but that’s for another article). It was wildly popular in its day, with the series finale drawing in a record 105 million viewers.

The show spoke to a Vietnam generation but it is just as relevant today. There is no doubt that it’s anti-war — never hesitating to depict the horrors of battle — but more than that it also challenges those critical of the army in general. It criticises the bureaucracy of war, while celebrating the individuals who are caught up in a mess they don’t want to be in.

    This isn’t to suggest that the show stops at being political. The humour and charm are unrivalled today. Most plots revolve around the hijinx of Hawkeye and his best friends Trapper and B.J. (each one taking the role of Hawkeye’s counterpart at a different point in the series) as they run amok and afoul of their commanding officers and the no-nonsense head nurse Maj. Margaret Houlihan.

In the early episodes, it plays out something like a frat comedy, with Hawkeye and Trapper being the rambunctious jokers cooking up one scheme after another, pulling a fast one on their C.O., the oblivious and ineffective Lt. Col. Blake, and pranking their surgical nemesis, the incompetent Maj. Frank Burns. Hawkeye’s general flouting of authority is a mainstay of the series, but his role alternates between joker and crusader: his self-determination and disdain for army regulation that gets him into trouble also causes him to go out on a limb to help people who are abandoned by army bureaucracy.

It’s not a comedy about war. It’s a comedy about people who have to laugh in the face of war in order to get through the day.

Through the early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be,
Pains that are withheld for me.
I realise and I can see
That suicide is painless,
It brings on many changes,
And I can take or leave it if I please.
-From “Song from MASH (Suicide Is Painless)” (MASH theme song)

    As the years went by, the show became less a sitcom and more a half-hour drama. It was an almost imperceptible change; characters became more human and less archetypal, plots more poignant, the humour a little bit darker. A great sitcom has to be able to take itself seriously, and MASH set the bar in that regard. No show has been better at blending comedy and drama into one — it makes the emotional moments more powerful because you’ve been disarmed by the levity of it and it makes the humour more striking because you are laughing with the cast, joining in their need to escape the war.

    The show saw several cast changes in its run, which can be a death knell for some shows but here, however, they only propelled the show further. Instead of dishing out a half-assed replacement to fulfill the same function, as some shows are wont to do, each character brought something totally new to the show. In general, it has some of the most memorable characters in TV history.

There is Trapper John McIntyre, prankster and womanizer; B.J. Hunnicutt, devoted family man with a young daughter at home; Lt. Col. Henry Blake, indecisive commander who is never far from his fishing hat; Col. Sherman Potter, stern but charming C.O. and WWI veteran; Maj. Frank Burns, bigoted and incompetent surgeon; Maj. Winchester, New England aristocrat who bemoans how his skills are wasted in the army; Maj. Margaret Houlihan, promiscuous army brat devoted to military discipline; Radar O’Reilly, timid but adorable company clerk; Max Klinger, doing anything to convince people he’s crazy for a ticket out of the army; Father Mulcahy, army chaplain and hobby boxer; and the one and only Hawkeye Pearce.

    You have a love-hate relationship with Hawkeye; he can be crass, self-righteous and downright insane. But he’s a devoted surgeon who will go to any lengths to save the people around him, and his unique brand of humour never fails to brighten the dismal atmosphere. His antics clash most often with Margaret’s army sensibilities but within their conflict and unmentionable love smoulders throughout the series. The cast is full of disparate personalities thrust together by war. They clash and fight, their conflicts being poignant or hilarious (or both) but they all find a way to co-exist.

    There are other shows out there these days with characters more complex and plotlines more intense but it is my measured opinion that they all owe a huge debt to MASH. It proved that you didn’t always get a happy ending, you couldn’t always teach a lesson and your characters weren’t undefeatable. The way it can create so many laughs out of a premise so bleak is nothing short of genius.

    It also has the best opening theme song of any TV show. Period.

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