ReRuns: 40 Years Later, ‘M.A.S.H.’ is Still a Masterpiece

When “M.A.S.H.” premiered, it was a slapstick comedy with humor and hijinks driving many episodes. Over time, the show evolved into a dramatic story with complex characters. 

“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the final, two-hour-long episode of “M.A.S.H.,” aired 40 years ago Feb. 28. The sitcom debuted September 1973 and ran for 11 seasons, telling the story of an army hospital close to the front line of the Korean War. The acronym M.A.S.H. stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. 

When “M.A.S.H.” premiered, it was a slapstick comedy with humor and hijinks driving many episodes. Over time, the show evolved into a dramatic story with complex characters. 

Despite taking place in a war zone, “M.A.S.H.”  doesn’t feature the violence or gore typical of the genre. Instead, it showcased characters trying to maintain sanity through humor and other vices while dealing with the seemingly never-ending flood of wounded soldiers and civilians. 

The main protagonist throughout the series, Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda), embodies this struggle. Hawkeye is a pacifist who rejects military discipline every chance he gets. He’s quick with a joke and spends most of his leisure time drinking, flirting with nurses or playing practical jokes on the rest of camp. 

As a reputable surgeon, Hawkeye’s mischief is excused by his mission to save lives in protest of the war. These values are consistent and unchanging throughout the series, though the same can’t be said for the characters around him. Through recasts and gradual development, the series sacrificed comedy for dramatic eloquence.

The best example of this change was Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Hollihan (Loretta Swit). Margaret was the only other character to have a starring role in “M.A.S.H.” throughout the entire series. In the first four seasons, her character was written in an underdeveloped and blatantly sexist way. Instead of having her own voice, she parrots the racist and hyper-militaristic attitude of show antagonist Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville). 

Things took a dramatic turn in season five when Margaret, who Frank was having an affair with, got engaged to someone else and called it quits with Frank. By the end of the season, Frank’s character was written off, allowing Margaret a chance to flourish. In the remaining seasons, Margaret was depicted as a dedicated nurse with a strong sense of duty and independence. She bonded more with the other characters than in previous seasons and let them see the emotional impact the war had on her. 

Margaret was joined in her development by Corporal Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr). Originally, Klinger as he’s called, was brought on as a one-off joke in a bit wearing women’s clothes in order to be discharged for psychiatric reasons.

It was Klinger’s wit and ingenuity which overshadowed the dresses and allowed him to grow. He got married, divorced and remarried over the course of the series and was eventually promoted to sergeant. When longtime company clerk Radar O’Reilly (Garry Burghoff) left the show in season eight, the role wasn’t recast. Instead, Klinger stepped in and proved just as efficient. 

Beyond the development of key characters, recasts brought life to the show. The first change came at the end of season three, when commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) was killed off. 

In place of the incompetent and adulterous commander came Colonel Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), a wiser and more headstrong character. Similarly, when Hawkeye’s partner-in-crime Captain Trapper John McIntyre left the show the same season, he was replaced by the more wholesome Captain B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell). 

By far the best character change occurred when Frank was replaced by Major Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden) as the Hawkeye’s foil. Charles, while arrogant and selfish due to his affluent background, was a gifted surgeon and a decent human. Unlike Frank, he bonded with the other cast members and let his emotions shine through, even if they were hidden by his snobbery.

It was this cast of characters who set the stage for the final gut punch that was “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen. The episode is one of the least comedic of the series but arguably the best. The characters are asked a simple question: What do you do when the war ends? 

Here, all of the development is put on display as the characters grapple with moving on and saying goodbye both to each other and the series itself. 

Altogether, 40 years after its end and over 50 years after its inception “M.A.S.H.” remains a masterclass in storytelling and character development worth the rewatch.

Aidan Cahill

Aidan Cahill