10 classic episodes of M*A*S*H
With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
There was no real model for M*A*S*H when the sitcom debuted on CBS in 1972. There had been military comedies, like Gomer Pyle and The Phil Silvers Show, and there had been sitcoms that dealt with more serious, contemporary matters in a realistic way, like Room 222. But M*A*S*H was as different from those as Robert Altman’s hit 1970 film had been from every wacky comedy and Army movie that came before. The series’ mastermind Larry Gelbart had been a writer in the live TV era of the ’50s, and became a go-to gagman in Broadway and Hollywood during the ’60s. Gelbart’s producing partner Gene Reynolds had been a child star in the ’30s and ’40s, before becoming a respected television director in the ’60s, working on the likes of My Three Sons and Hogan’s Heroes. Like Altman, Gelbart and Reynolds had been around a while before they found the project that launched them into a higher showbiz echelon, and while Altman always claimed to resent the TV M*A*S*H—largely because he didn’t own the property and didn’t get rich off it—Gelbart and Reynolds presided over a show that was as unconventional, honest, and challenging as the movie. They just did it with more vaudeville-schooled savvy.
Set in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, M*A*S*H spent 11 seasons following a unit of doctors, nurses, and support staff as they staved off boredom during the slow stretches of the war and performed “meatball surgery” in marathon sessions when the casualties were heavy. As cast-members came and went, the show’s producers (which also changed over time) wrote their arrivals and departures into the show, creating the rare sitcom where characters could die, and the composition of the cast could evolve. But two pieces of M*A*S*H in particular were steady: Alan Alda, who played the wisecracking, anti-authoritarian Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, and Loretta Swit, who played the officious but deeply passionate Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. During the run of the series, some joked that the Korean War itself lasted only a fraction of the time that M*A*S*H did, but the show wasn’t really about historical accuracy; it was about people making a new home far from where they’d rather be, and learning to live alongside each other, even if they were as different as Hawkeye and Hot Lips.
The style of M*A*S*H changed significantly between 1972 and 1983. The first season is a lot shaggier, more in line with Altman’s film; then in the mid-’70s, after Wayne Rogers’ Captain John “Trapper” McIntyre and McLean Stevenson’s Lt. Colonel Henry Blake were replaced by Mike Farrell’s Captain B.J. Hunnicut and Harry Morgan’s Colonel Sherman T. Potter, M*A*S*H became as dramatic as it was comedic, taking advantage of its popularity to push its audience toward a deeper consideration of the horrors of war. The show took another turn by the end of the decade, after Larry Linville’s Major Frank Burns was replaced by David Ogden Stiers’ Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. The later seasons of M*A*S*H contain some of the show’s most daringly experimental episodes, but also a lot of half-hours that combine ham-fisted social commentary with a punishing barrage of one-liners, making M*A*S*H more of a comedy writers’ construct than the vital, singular piece of American entertainment it had been at its best.
Still, there’s a lot of “best” to M*A*S*H, such that the 10 episodes highlighted below (and the 10 listed below that) barely scratch the surface of what the show has to offer. A bad M*A*S*H—and there are plenty of those, too—can be insufferable. A good M*A*S*H is sublime in a way that few sitcoms have even tried to be, before or since.
“Dear Dad” (season one, episode 12): According to Larry Gelbart, “Dear Dad” was inspired by his wife, who felt that Gelbart was wasting the setting of the show by sticking to one or two stories and a handful of characters per episode. So Gelbart and “Dear Dad” director Gene Reynolds conceived a different kind of Christmas episode for M*A*S*H, with Hawkeye writing a letter home and catching his father up on all the pre-holiday news from the camp. Some of the anecdotes are bizarre—like company clerk Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly shipping a jeep back to his farm in Iowa, part by part—and some are more poignant, as when Hawkeye plays Santa for a group of Korean kids. M*A*S*H returned to the “letter home” storytelling well multiple times over the years, not just with Hawkeye but with Colonel Potter (“Dear Mildred”), B.J. (“Dear Peggy”), Radar (“Dear Ma”), an enemy spy (“Dear Comrade”), a visiting psychiatrist (“Dear Sigmund”) and more. The show also flipped the premise a few times with episodes like “Mail Call,” where the action is spread across multiple characters, inspired by news from home.
“The Army-Navy Game” (season one, episode 20): One of the first-season episodes closest in spirit to the movie M*A*S*H, “The Army-Navy Game” has the doctors dealing with an unexploded American bomb that’s landed in the compound at the same time that the entire chain of command of every branch of the military is glued to their radios, listening for football updates. The episode spoofs bureaucracy, and is fairly effective at suspense as well, as Hawkeye and Trapper try to defuse the device while Henry relays instructions.
“Abyssinia, Henry” (season three, episode 24): A top-to-bottom stunner of an episode, this third-season finale shows what happens when Henry Blake gets his discharge papers and has to wind down his business at the 4077th in preparation for the trip home. “Abyssinia, Henry” is full of practical details about packing up and leaving, and has some of M*A*S*H’s best scenes of drunken revelry. Then comes the gut-punch: In a scene that was added without the cast’s advance knowledge, Radar comes into the OR to tell the doctors and nurses that Henry’s plane back to the States was shot down. Gelbart directed this episode himself, and after Radar’s announcement, the camera pans slowly across the room, getting real reactions from the genuinely stunned actors. It’s a signature moment of both M*A*S*H and ’70s TV as a whole.
“The Late Captain Pierce” (season four, episode four): An episode indicative of the stylistic shift that M*A*S*H* took at the start of season four, “The Late Captain Pierce” starts out as blackly comic, as a paperwork error leads to Hawkeye being declared dead, which Hawkeye uses as an excuse to kick back and take it easy around the camp. But then he realizes the inconveniences associated with being nonexistent, like the lack of pay; and Hawkeye begins to worry about how the news is affecting his father, whom he can’t contact. The episode ends with Hawkeye deciding to join the other corpses and get shipped out, and though at first he refuses to listen to B.J.’s call for help with the incoming wounded, Hawkeye eventually lets duty trump petulance, and he hops off the bus to go pitch in. Written by future Cheers creators Glen and Les Charles and directed by Alan Alda, “The Late Captain Pierce” is a funny but angry episode, setting the tone for what became M*A*S*H’s best season.
“Hawkeye” (season four, episode 18): Another offbeat season-four winner, “Hawkeye” is ostensibly one long Alan Alda monologue, as Hawkeye crashes his jeep on a remote Korean farm, suffers a concussion, and spends an evening babbling at a family that can’t speak English, trying his best to help them with their own problems while he keeps himself awake. It’s a tour-de-force episode for Alda, who was starting to assume command of the show, even angling to get his character more extended scenes away from the rest of the cast. (Another superior example of Alda taking center stage is season five’s “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind,” in which Hawkeye is temporarily blinded and gets to experience a familiar world in an unfamiliar way.)
“The Interview” (season four, episode 24): Gelbart left M*A*S*H at the end of the fourth season, having helped the show transition from smart-ass tomfoolery to something more frequently somber and daring. Gelbart went out on a series high: “The Interview,” in which real-life reporter Clete Roberts asks scripted questions about life in the Korean War and the cast (mostly) ad-libs responses, in character. Shot in black-and-white, with long takes for the more serious monologues and quick cuts for the jokes, “The Interview” is both unusual and exceptional. M*A*S*H brought Roberts back in season seven for “Our Finest Hour,” using the same framework as “The Interview,” but filling it out with clips from old episodes.
“The Nurses” (season five, episode five): In the movie M*A*S*H, Margaret Houlihan was less a character than a plot device, but the TV series was more sensitive to who Margaret really is: a military brat with a hard exterior and a romantic heart. Loretta Swit had many standout episodes during the run of the show, but none better than “The Nurses,” where her staff undermines her authority—for a good reason—and she lets them know why she’s always so mean to them, in a speech that’s both riveting and heartbreaking.
“Your Hit Parade” (season six, episode 18): In the wake of “The Interview,” M*A*S*H started producing one or two “gimmick episodes” a season, but sometimes a simpler unifying idea produced the best results. “Your Hit Parade” takes a fairly typical M*A*S*H storyline—the camp being flooded with wounded, with no respite in sight—and jazzes it up by having Radar become a DJ during the crisis, playing a new shipment of records over the PA while the surgeons operate. This episode is a lovely, impressionistic half-hour, dotted with jokes, pathos, reminiscences, and snappy tunes.
“Point Of View” (season seven, episode 10): Outside of “The Interview,” “Point Of View” is easily the best of M*A*S*H’s gimmick episodes, with a clever Ken Levine and David Isaacs script that tells a typical M*A*S*H half-hour’s worth of stories while rarely leaving a single spot in post-op. Told from the first-person perspective of a soldier with a throat wound, “Point Of View” has the regular characters stop by to check on “Private Rich,” letting the viewers at home see a side of these people that we rarely see, as they let their guard down a little while coaxing the Private back to health. It’s impressive as a piece of story-construction, and a moving one. (Other noteworthy M*A*S*H gimmick episodes include: “Life Time,” in which an on-screen clock shows how long the doctors have to save a patient from paralysis; “Dreams,” in which the characters drift off and give the viewer a sometimes-shocking look at their subconscious; “Follies Of The Living — Concerns Of The Dead,” which is from the perspective of a patient’s ghost; and “A War For All Seasons,” which relays the 4077th’s experiences in 1951 via a series of connected vignettes.)
“Old Soldiers” (season eight, episode 18): A rare M*A*S*H gem from the ’80s (barely… this episode aired in January of 1980), “Old Soldiers” has some of Harry Morgan’s best moments on the show, as his Colonel Potter returns from a mysterious trip to Tokyo and starts biting everyone’s head off, right when the staff is dealing with an influx of young refugees. Finally, Potter explains himself: The last of his circle of WWI friends has died, leaving him feeling isolated and old. So he toasts his new friends, thanking them for helping to keep him young and useful. Though the actual finale of M*A*S*H came three years later (and is itself very good), “Old Soldiers” could’ve served as fine goodbye, farewell, and amen.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Tuttle” (season one, episode 15), “Sometimes You Hear The Bullet” (season one, episode 17), “The Bus” (season four, episode six), “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” (season four, episode nine), “Mulcahy’s War” (season five, episode eight), “Movie Tonight” (season five, episode 21), “Fallen Idol” (season six, episode two), “The Light That Failed” (season six, episode six), “A Night At Rosie’s” (season seven, episode 23), “Goodbye, Farewell And Amen” (season 11, episode 16)