50 years ago this week, two of the most memorable programs of the Seventies – or any decade – debuted on CBS: the “All in the Family” spinoff “Maude”; and the TV show based on a book and movie called “M*A*S*H.”

M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors was written by Richard Hooker and featured the characters of Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Trapper” John McIntyre, Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, Father Francis “Dago Red” Mulcahy, Frank “Ferret Face” Burns, and their commanding officer, Henry Blake.

Two of the greatest writer-producers of all time, Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, shepherded the show to air.  Signed on to star were Alan Alda as Hawkeye, Wayne Rogers as Trapper, McLean Stevenson as Henry, William Christopher as Fr. Mulcahy, Jamie Farr as Klinger, Gary Burghoff as Radar, Larry Linville as Frank, and Loretta Swit as Margaret.

The first season of “M*A*S*H” was shaggy and irreverent.  Trapper and Hawkeye were mischievous womanizers, Frank and Margaret were in collusion (and in lust), and Col. Blake was their feckless leader. Very little of the drama that came later was evident in that first season, which tended to focus more on hijinks at the front.  The shows are side-splittingly funny, but one episode late in the first season stands out as its best, because it handled a real-life situation so well.

The episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” features Hawkeye’s reporter friend who visits Korea on a journalistic mission.  The episode is hilarious, as expected, until the end of the episode, when Hawkeye’s friend is brought into the OR, mortally wounded, and dies on the operating table.  Episodes such as this began to make these characters more human as they dealt with the futility of war.

The shocking final episode of the third season threw viewers for an unexpected loop: major character Henry Blake was discharged and allowed to return home. He never made it and was shot down before he could even leave the war zone. Today, such a development is commonplace when an actor leaves a show, but back in the mid-1970s it was unheard of, and therefore “Abyssinia, Henry” stands alone as the first time a sitcom was brave enough to kill off a main character. 

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Although I enjoy the first three seasons, beginning with its fourth year “M*A*S*H” really came into its own as a dramedy that added Harry Morgan as Col. Potter, Mike Farrell as BJ Hunnicutt, and David Ogden Stiers as Charles Emerson Winchester III.  This cast, and the production crew during those later years, put forward some of the most thoughtful comedy and drama that has ever aired on television, period.

Some great episodes come to mind, many written by legendary teams such as Everett Greenbaum & Jim Fritzell; Elias Davis & David Pollock; Jay Folb & Ronny Graham; Thad Munford & Dan Wilcox; and especially Ken Levine & David Isaacs.

Personal favorites include Point of View, where the viewer is brought into the 4077th as a patient; The Interview, a black and white episode in which reporter Clete Roberts asks the staff to describe their wartime experiences and includes the definitive line of the series – from Father Mulcahy – describing what war is really like; The Winchester Tapes, a showcase for Stiers as he dictates his horrid new life at the 4077th into a tape recorder; Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?, in which an injured serviceman convinces everyone he’s Jesus – an episode that also features bonus characters Col. Flagg and Dr. Freedman; Period of Adjustment, with the rawest emotion ever displayed by a male on American television as Mike Farrell’s BJ is devastated by news from home; Old Soldiers, featuring a powerhouse performance from Harry Morgan as Col. Potter as he toasts his departed World War I mates; The Bus, where our crew is stuck in enemy territory on a broken-down bus; Dear Sigmund, experienced as a letter to Sigmund Freud about the MASH staff written by psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman (perhaps the best episode of the entire series); Mulcahy’s War, an episode where Fr. Mulcahy decides to head to the front lines and sees more action than he bargained for; Morale Victory, in which pianist loses his right hand – but classical music-loving Maj. Winchester introduces him to music written for left hand only; Mail Call Again, an episode in which we get to see some movies from home – sweetly ending with Radar mouthing the words “I love you” to a film of his mother; The Billfold Syndrome,about a soldier so traumatized by seeing his brother get killed in action that he is in a trancelike state; and probably a hundred more that are certifiable classics worth watching again and again.  

Seriously.  While I am thinking of these top ten shows, I also fondly remember Blood Brothers, 5 O’Clock Charlie, Life Time, Dear Sis, Bug Out, April Fool’s Day, Adam’s Ribs, O.R., Dear Mildred, and any episode with Col. Flagg or Dr. Freedman.  Whenever some message board has opinions about the bests and worsts of this series, I always say that the magic period of the show is seasons three through eight – they were the near-perfect combination of drama and comedy and the characters were probably the right ages for their parts.  The Korean War lasted three years; M*A*S*H lasted for eleven! 

So, I’ve seen them all now, several times.  I’ve laughed and cried.  Often within the same episode. If somebody pinned me down and asked what the greatest series of all time was, I’d have to answer with “M*A*S*H.” It was created with care, and even after 106 million people gathered to watch the 256th and final episode in 1983, the program has never left the air and continues in reruns on MeTV, TVLand, and other cable channels as well as streaming on Hulu. 

They say that we are living in a golden age of television.  That may be true, but for this viewer, I don’t know that anything will ever live up to the greatness found within a group of doctors performing meatball surgery somewhere in Korea, “a hundred years ago.”