For the first ten years of my life, I didn't have television. My mom and I had a t.v. and a VCR, but there was no cable, and we lived in a valley between two massive, signal-blocking mountains. It sounds ridiculous, but it's the truth. My earliest exposures to television were through video tapes of M*A*S*H we received in the mail. From just about as early as I can remember, I lived for those tapes. A cassette with three new episodes would arrive every month, and I'd consume it. I have the first four seasons of this show all but memorized, and the great thing is they never depreciate.
A lot of my sense of humour can be traced back to this show. Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce -more commonly known as Hawkeye- and I share a fondness for bad puns. We share a fondness for good puns, too, but those circumstances present themselves so much less frequently. There are occasional moments of slapstick, but it's never something to watch the show for. This is a show more about the one-liners, about not what I'd call underacting, but about balancing the outright hilarious with the wry observation. I've been watching this show for sixteen years, and I'm still noticing new jokes. The number of sexual jokes they got away with in the seventies (Hawkeye walks into a tent to find Hot Lips giving Frank Burns a back massage with a hand vibrator: "I've always said it; behind every great man, there's a woman with a vibrator.") is incredible. That they got away with so much is a tribute to the writing. There's an early episode about a gay soldier, and it's handled so delicately that it took me until I was twenty-one to notice.
M*A*S*H was one of the first shows to allow its characters to change. The Hawkeye of the Pilot episode is not the same Hawkeye we say goodbye to (albeit in an unfulfilling manner) in "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen." Major Houlihan went from an uptight stickler for the rules to an understanding and caring individual, prone to relapses though she may occasionally be. Klinger stops wearing dresses, which is remarkable for the fact that they did not allow the dresses to ultimately define the character. When he stepped into uniform, he was still a full human being, with a story and characteristics we cared about. The show could have run for six or seven successful years without striving to make such changes, but it never stood still.
There were some remarkable individual episodes, and the show constantly tackled big themes. There's a joke in Futurama where a doctor, imitating Alan Alda in this show, has a switch that goes from something like "Funny" to "Maudlin." The show, at times, didn't handle the balance well, but it so often did that you can hardly hold the failed moments against it. Season seven includes an episode about the dreams experienced by the officers as they are deprived of sleep. I have not seen it since I was eight or nine, but I can still remember it clear as day. There are not a lot of laughs in that half-hour. It was a genuinely troubling episode. At the time, I found it terrifying.
The show also liked to shake things up, which is unusual in a successful sitcom. When Larry Linville, who'd portrayed Frank Burns for three seasons, left the show, they replaced him not with a character of similar description, but almost his polar opposite. Charles Emerson Winchester III, a man of great ego and towering intellect, took his place, providing lead character Hawkeye not with a foil of interminably inferior status, but with a man who was definitely his equal, and arguably his better. When you're the highest rated show on television, there's no reason to change the status quo like that. But M*A*S*H never shied away from a challenge.