M*A*S*H, the most popular sitcom of the 70s, recently made news again…by coming to Netflix. For a limited time, the streaming-video giant is now running 251 episodes from the show’s 11 seasons.
For those who want to learn filmmaking, especially comedy writing, watching M*A*S*H can teach you a lot. Consider this powerful bit of dialogue between M*A*S*H‘s first commanding officer, Col. Henry Blake, and surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce, who’s just seen a close friend die from battle injuries:
HAWKEYE: I’ve watched guys die almost every day here. Why didn’t I ever cry for them?
HENRY: Because you’re a doctor.
HAWKEYE: What does that mean?
HENRY: Look, all I know is what they taught me in Command School. There are certain rules about war. And Rule Number One is, “Young men die.”
HAWKEYE: What’s Rule Number Two?
HENRY: “Doctors can’t change Rule Number One.”
TV’s finest writers worked on M*A*S*H, and it shows. In 2013, the Writer’s Guild of America ranked M*A*S*H the fifth-best written TV show ever. And TV Guide selected it as the eighth-greatest TV show of all time.
Beyond its popular success, M*A*S*H was decades ahead of its time, boldly mixing sitcom laughs with serious drama about the life-and-death subject matter. Lots of current shows mix comedy and drama, but M*A*S*H was the first and maybe the most effective.
Now you can catch the entire 11-season run of M*A*S*H on Netflix. But where to start watching?
For the unfamiliar, here are ten episodes that demonstrate why everyone watched M*A*S*H during the 70s and 80s, and why it’s still worth a look today.
The 10 Best Episodes of M*A*S*H
M*A*S*H turned star Alan Alda into a household name. He was the only star of the series to appear in every one of the 256 episodes. A multi-talented performer, he also wrote and directed numerous episodes. When he won his first Emmy award for writing, Alda performed a cartwheel up to the stage. (M*A*S*H © 20th Century Fox Television)
Why It’s a Classic: Army bureaucracy and red tape were constant targets of M*A*S*H. In this clever episode, Hawkeye and cohort “Trapper John” McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) make an end run around regulations by inventing an officer, a Captain Tuttle, to cover their funneling of supplies to a local orphanage. In time, Tuttle takes on a life of his own. Soon people are even pretending that they know the imaginary officer. So there’s only one thing Hawkeye can do, right?
Episode: “Mail Call”
Why It’s a Classic: Much of the best humor in M*A*S*H stems from the ongoing conflict between Hawkeye and Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville). “Mail Call” presents one of Hawkeye’s classic pranks, playing on Frank’s greed and tricking him into buying a dream stock that doesn’t even exist (“Pioneer Aviation”). Episode also contains plenty of other choice bits, including Corporal Klinger hilariously trying to scam Col. Blake and Radar O’Reilly’s double-talk explanation of the time difference between Korea and the U.S.
Episode: “Dear Dad…Three”
Why It’s a Classic: There were several “Dear Dad” episodes, in which Hawkeye narrates a letter he’s writing his father. This one is the best, with a classic lovers’ rendezvous between uptight Major Frank Burns and upset Major Margaret Houlihan. There’s also a 4077 staff meeting that descends into comic anarchy and a resolution to go ahead and end the entire war, at once. DIS-missed!
The Emmy-winning “O.R.” passed on the laugh track and showed doctors running out of patience and supplies, while facing an Operating Room overflowing with patients…and, at times, even flames. (Check the back wall behind the characters, who are too busy to notice.) (M*A*S*H © 20th Century Fox Television)
Why It’s a Classic: M*A*S*H was always stretching the medium of TV and trying new things. For the fifth episode of the brilliant third season, the writers threw away the laugh track and played it serious. “O.R.” takes place during a siege of heavy action at the hospital, after local battles flood the Operating Room with a sea of casualties. There are no funny hijinks during “O.R.”, only tired medical personnel facing an unending supply of customers.
This is where M*A*S*H really earns its stripes as a serious drama: The scene (about 10 minutes into the episode) where Hawkeye daringly performs open-heart massage to save a tanking patient remains as tense and thrilling as any scene to have ever appeared on any medical show. “O.R.” won its director an Emmy, while the tough-as-nails script captured the Writers Guild Award.
Why It’s a Classic: The episode that sent shock waves around the TV world. When McLean Stevenson, the actor who played company commander Lt. Col. Henry Blake, decided he wanted to leave M*A*S*H to pursue other projects, the writers wrote Henry out of the show.
But instead of just giving Henry a big send-off, the producers decided to make his exit true to wartime conditions: They decided to have the lovable character be killed on his way home from the war. At the time, this was unthinkable. Television characters on sitcoms were never killed. Not until M*A*S*H.
Among the cast, only Alda knew about the producers’ decision. So in the episode’s final minutes, the producers handed Gary Burghoff (the actor who played Radar O’Reilly) a note for his character to read. Radar staggers into the O.R. and reports: “I have a message. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane…was shot down…over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.”
The genuinely stunned and silent reactions of the actors spoke volumes; it became one of the most powerful moments ever to appear on television. TV Guide ranked the episode the twentieth-greatest episode ever among its 1997 list of “The 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.” And in 2005, TV Land ranked it the fifteenth most unexpected moment in TV history.
Episode: “The Interview”
Why It’s a Classic: The premise: The camp is profiled in a TV news documentary. Using clever filmmaking and visual effects, the creators filmed the episode in black and white, so it would resemble a 1950s news program. Each of the personnel is questioned about a variety of topics. Responses are sometimes surprising and moving.
The reporter (actual Korean War journalist Clete Roberts) asks camp chaplain Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) if his experience at war has changed him. “When the doctors cut into a patient…and it’s cold, the way it is today,” he answers, “Steam rises from the body. And the doctor will warm himself over the open wound. How could anyone look on that and not feel changed?” (Ranked #80 on TV Guide‘s 1997 countdown of the top 100 television episodes of all time.)
In the celebrated “Dreams,” surgeon Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) dreams he is a magician performing tricks, until he’s confronted by a dying man…and a suddenly hostile audience that expects Winchester to save him. (M*A*S*H © 20th Century Fox Television)
Why It’s a Classic: Innovative and surreal episode set on a cold winter night, when each M*A*S*H staffer tries to sneak some much-needed sleep. Each drifts into their own dream sequence. Like real dreams, the images are often bizarre. One surgeon imagines himself as a magician on stage, wowing an amazed audience, until he’s confronted by war casualties that he’s unable to heal with a magic trick.
No matter what they start out dreaming, each dreamer is brought back to the waking nightmare of war. “Dreams” (co-written and directed by Alan Alda) demonstrated the show’s ambitious belief in pushing the envelope.
Episode: “Life Time”
Why It’s a Classic: More bold experimentation, involving time. In “Life Time” (also written and directed by Alda), the story is compressed down into a 20-minute race against the clock, as the surgeons hustle to perform an artery transplant. There’s even a clock posted in the corner of the screen to keep the viewer’s mind constantly on the element of time. The tension ratchets up as the minutes wind down…
Episode: “A War for All Seasons”
Why It’s a Classic: Another cool twist on time…but this time the four seasons of a full year are covered with this one show. The dramatic device works, as you get a wistful feeling about the passage of time and the sense that these characters feel trapped in a waking limbo, with their lives back home stuck on hold as they risk their lives in an active war zone.
Episode: “As Time Goes By”
Why It’s a Classic: Everybody remembers the next episode, a three-hour series finale that became the most-watched final episode of a TV series ever…indeed, the single most-watched show in American TV history, with 125 million viewers. The finale (“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”) was a special TV event which was released as its own DVD, and the finale is presently not being streamed on Netflix.
So for Netflix viewers, “As Time Goes By” is the last episode being offered, and it shows things winding down as the 4077th prepares for peace and a return to civilian life. Fittingly, the crew assembles a time capsule to leave behind, marking their extraordinary experience in Korea.
When M*A*S*H finally ended, government dignitaries issued statements marking the occasion and the nation mourned the loss of what was clearly the most creative and successful sitcom of its time.
By the late 70s, the show had become a massive merchandising empire licensing everything from this trading card series to T-shirts to coffee mugs to board games. (M*A*S*H © 20th Century Fox Television)
If you catch an episode and like it, try binge-watching the show. Quality control was high on M*A*S*H, and except for a few multi-part story arcs, each episode is self-contained, so you can dive in anywhere and start enjoying one of TV’s all-time bests.
Or maybe instead of watching TV you’re more interested in making your own show or movie? If so, this summer could be a special time for you to attend a filmmaking tech camp. Kids and teens will be discovering how to make and edit their own films at Digital Media Academy summer tech camps on more than 20 great college and university campuses across the U.S. and Canada.