April 1 was a sad day, as another great TV show was removed from Netflix’s catalogue, a casualty of the streaming service’s ever-diminishing selection. That program was M.A.S.H., a staple of the CBS lineup for more than a decade, between 1972 and 1983.
In the thirty years since M.A.S.H. went off the air, it’s become one of the most idolized and imitated sitcoms in the history of television. The Writers Guild of America, for example, voted it one of the Best Written TV Series of all time. The show about an unorthodox group of doctors counting the days until the end of their tour of duty has inspired countless one-scene odes and even a few direct rip-offs.
Here are just a handful of reasons why the adventures of Hawkeye and the nuts at the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital have remained a fixture in the hearts of TV fans for nearly 50 years.
It’s Dark, But Silly
If you’ve ever basked in the general silliness of show’s like 30 Rock or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as they made light of everything from cancer to drug addiction, you can give M.A.S.H. some of that credit. And M.A.S.H. owes all the credit to a looney bunch of doctors dabbling in insanity while working in a war zone.
The sitcom that made light of man’s worst decisions pulled its inspiration primarily from a book by Dr. H. Richard Hornberger which was based on old Horny (real nickname, not joking) and his buddies’ time serving with the 8055th MASH unit as doctors in the Korean War. Here they are:
Look familiar? These kinds of antics, the ones Hawkeye orchestrated in the show, were common among Hornberger’s unit. As Dale Drake — one of the members of the 8055th — said, “You had to laugh about something because there was a lot of serious business, a lot of unhappiness and sorrow and death.”
The showrunners of MASH took that philosophy to heart, and the result was a drastic change to the sitcom landscape.
The Liberal Hero
As a sitcom star, Alan Alda’s Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce was unique. Prior to his arrival on the scene, the TV landscape had been largely dominated by family men and blue collar figures who adhered largely to the American ideal (i.e. work hard, listen to the government, and you’ll get ahead). While the early seventies had begun to crack that mold with surly father-figures like Archie Bunker, Hawkeye flat-out broke the mold as a disaffected blue blood caught in a terrible situation.
In his way, he was TV’s attempt to engulf and humanize the ongoing protests against the Vietnam War which embroiled society at the time as the show’s release. Hawkeye was a a brash prankster who filled his days with all sorts of fun, disreputable behavior only to transform magically into a leader when the situation called for it. “Hawkeye,” it has been said, “is the anti-heroic hero who seems like he has feet of clay but constantly rises to the occasion. He is a fool figure and trickster and subverter of institutions who is constantly coming up with schemes and deceptions along with his co-conspirators.”
Of course, television is now overrun with Hawkeye-types, everyday guys who prefer to live slow but simply can’t rationalize standing by while injustice (or stupidity) flourishes. See: Taxi’s Alex Reiger, Cheers’ Sam Malone, and Community’s Jeff Winger.
It Wasn’t Afraid To Get Real
In a time when the entire country seemed divided, M.A.S.H managed to walk the razor’s edge by showcasing the horrors of war in general as opposed to specifically pointing a finger at the war on the evening news.
In the fourth season finale, “The Interview,” for example, the show made use of a rarely-before-seen talking head technique that skewers the ridiculousness of the entire conflict.
At one point, for example, Hawkeye remarks, “One thing you can do is to get out in the road when the jeeps are coming by, and everybody sticks their foot out in front of the jeeps, and the last one to pull his foot in is the sane one.” The job is funny in its Groucho Marx delivery, however, the sentiment behind it is no less prominent.
All the Experimentation
Okay, so M.A.S.H. wasn’t the first show on television to experiment with the format of the half hour sitcom, but it was certainly one of the first to turn experimentation into some of the series’ best episodes.
A season one episode titled “Dear Dad” eschewed a more formal structure for a series a short vignettes that showed the everyday life of the members of the 4077.
Season four, in particular offered several other twists on the narrative. In addition to “The Interview, and episode entitled, “Hawkeye sees Alda crash his jeep just outside the hut of a Korean family. In order to keep himself from passing out and succumbing to a concussion, Hawkeye must spend the entire episode rambling at a family that can’t understand a word he’s saying.
The impact of this experimentation has left its fingerprints across sitcoms. Former NBC series Community, in particular owes a very explicit debt to M.A.S.H.’s avant garde approach to the narrative form, something Dan Harmon has never shied away from. At one point, when TV devotee Abed is compared to Radar O’Reilly, he excliams, That made me so happy I just peed a little.”
It Pioneered Dual Plot Lines
Perhaps the series’ greatest contribution to the half-hour format was its use of dual plot lines. It was the first series on television to make dramedy appealing, effortlessly striding the line between the deadly serious and the completely bonkers. As the Archive of American Television explains, “the series set the standard for some of the best programming to appear later. The show used multiple plot lines in a half-hour episodes, usually with at least one story in the comedic vein and another dramatic.”
This bittersweet mixture of comedy and an acknowledgement of the real world circumstances crashing (sometimes literally) around their heads is M.A.S.H.’s true legacy. No matter how zany the characters’ antics got, they always remained grounded in the horrors of the situation around them. As Alan Alda explained in an interview years later, “We knew we were telling the story of real people … we weren’t comic characters who were there just to amuse you.”