There’s been a rising trend in the past year or so of turning beloved comedy series into bingeable packages: NBC aired classic Saturday Night Live episodes to celebrate season 40, FXX ran a 12-day Simpsons marathon last year, Hulu added every episode of Seinfeld, and Comedy Central is currently airing a 42-day streaming Daily Show marathon. All these shows never have a shortage of online coverage, acclaim, and generation-spanning fans, so today I’d like to recommend another bingeworthy classic that predates them all and has gone mostly unnoticed since it was added to Netflix back in February. Because if you haven’t already, you need to watch M*A*S*H.
Older readers might roll their eyes at that, but for a majority of comedy fans born after the record-breaking 1983 series finale, M*A*S*H’s sweeping influence on all the sitcoms that followed is something we largely take for granted. And who can blame us? It’s a television show based on a movie based on a novel. It’s an 11-year series about a three-year war. It’s a gritty, sometimes graphic look at a mobile Army hospital…with a hokey laugh track. It’s about the Korean War, but really it’s about the Vietnam War, but really really it’s about war in general. It’s full of boring costumes, a drab color scheme, and a gloomy instrumental theme song called “Suicide Is Painless,” so for those of us who grew up in the ‘90s watching Rocko’s Modern Life, Phil Hartman-era SNL episodes, and Ren & Stimpy, M*A*S*H just seemed way too depressing, not to mention endless, in comparison.
Of course, M*A*S*H is way more than those surface assumptions. It paved the way for the single-cam, laugh track-free comedy that exploded after The Office premiered in 2005, and over 40 years later the comedy is still relevant in its depictions of misogyny, racism, and the horrors of war. And while most of us are at least a little familiar with the show – whether from its original run from 1972-1983 or the near-constant reruns in the decades that followed – a casual survey of my 20-something friends brought up responses ranging from “I’ve seen an episode or two” to “You know what? I never gave it a try.” I was somewhere in between before I watched the pilot back in March; three months and 256 episodes later, I was a fan.
In many ways, I’m glad I waited until my late 20s to watch the show from start to finish. Learning to fall in love with ensemble casts on shows like The Office, absurd medical comedies like Childrens Hospital and Scrubs, and arguably likable asshole geniuses like Gregory House sort of reverse-prepared me to understand why M*A*S*H works so well, and for the first time in years I got to experience a show without any outside opinions, reviews, or spoilers barraging me along the way. I also recommend the binge if you’re feeling sad, confused, or aimless about life, because spending over 250 episodes watching surgeons and nurses dressed in blood-stained scrubs cutting soldiers’ bodies open near the front lines of a war zone really puts things into perspective. And while it might be dressed down in bland military colors, shots of the Korean countryside (okay, California), and a bummer theme song, the beauty of M*A*S*H is that it’s colorful in ways I think many young American comedy fans have become too impatient to discover. Today we have the luxury of limitless TV options on cable and elsewhere, so embarking on a series as vast and often culturally outdated as M*A*S*H might seem like an uphill battle. It’s worth it, though.
Does M*A*S*H have its weaknesses? Sure, but only in the context of its time. With the exception of head nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, women, and for the most part Korean locals, are rarely explored or given a real spotlight on a personal level, and the cast is unsurprisingly white dude-dominated. Some episodes veer off into overly preachy, melodramatic territory too, which isn’t really an issue if you enjoy Alan Alda turning the show into his own personal theatrical soapbox now and then (he wrote/directed many episodes and steered the show in later seasons). But the “very special” episodes hit more than they miss, characters grow and change in interesting and sometimes surprising ways, and in the true spirit of war, those gooey, tearful, climactic “proper goodbye” moments don’t always happen. Over the course of eleven seasons, M*A*S*H transforms from a ribald sitcom with too much laugh track to something much bigger, more emotional, and more plugged in to a time a lot of us weren’t around to experience, and from smartass Hawkeye to wormy Burns to Father “I just wish there was something I could do to help!” Mulcahy to Klinger the cross-dressing Toledo boy, what ultimately makes M*A*S*H transcend the context of its time are its complexly etched characters.
I won’t go into any specific plot details about the show because (1) you can easily spoil it all for yourself via a quick Google search, (2) there’s already tons of M*A*S*H criticism out there, and (3) I want to reassure anyone who has never watched M*A*S*H in its entirety that it’s never too late to start. And even for those who have seen a handful of episodes here or there, watching chronologically from the pilot episode to the series finale – which still holds the record as the most-viewed TV episode ever, unless you count the Super Bowl – is a fantastic lesson in character development done right, self-referencing and continuity, and just how many sitcoms M*A*S*H has, and continues to, inspire and inform today. Having said all that, I need a few months off before I give AfterMASH a try.