Up until its fourth season, "M*A*S*H," like its movie antecedent, had been funny and innocuous. Most of the episodes revolved around irreverent surgeons Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper (Wayne Rogers) trying to help some war orphan or down-on-his-luck private. In each episode, they battled Army red tape and its absurd policies. They couldn't much count on Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), their ineffective, wishy-washy commanding officer; he relied heavily on his company clerk, "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) to get the job done. But Hawkeye and Trapper's biggest opposition came in the form of by-the-book McCarthyites (and illicit lovers) Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and head nurse Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit).
Larry Gelbart and Laurence Marks, among others, wrote the consistently funny scripts. You'd think the limitations of the Hawkeye/Trapper vs. The Army formula would wear thin fast, but even in its third season, "M*A*S*H" only seemed to be getting better, not worse.
Then fate stepped in. Two of its three leads – Rogers and Stevenson – suddenly left the show. Many thought "M*A*S*H" would go into the toilet, ratings-wise. Up to that point, no show had taken that big of a cast hit and survived. But someone, somewhere, came up with an ingenious solution: replace Trapper and Henry with opposing, rather than similar, characters. Henry's wimpy leader was replaced with a "regular army" colonel, Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), a tough-as-nails former cavalryman going back to World War I. Trapper's boozing playboy made way for devoted family man B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell). These characters added an extraordinary freshness just when the show needed it most. Better still, they had a pliable complexity that better suited the program's move away from the sort of broad slapstick and wild sight gags which would soon disappear from the show altogether.
Eighteen episodes into "M*A*S*H's" first season came "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet," the classic show in which an old friend of Hawkeye's dies during surgery. It was the first episode to mix comedy with real, immediate tragedy, the first episode to express genuine emotion about the war. Acclaimed as it was, there was hardly anything else like it until the last episode of the third season, "Abyssinia, Henry," which cruelly though appropriately reminded both the show's characters and its audience that "M*A*S*H," ultimately, was a show about people trapped in the middle of a war. If the first three seasons were about characters trying to keep their sanity, to shrug off the war with booze and sex, the shows that followed proved that their minds and emotions were no more safe near the front lines than their bodies were. Not one continuing character would return home unscathed. In its fourth season "M*A*S*H" became angry, frustrating, sad, joyous, human.
That fourth season was the turning point; this is where "M*A*S*H" went from being a good show to a great one. It includes such well-written episodes as "Dear Mildred," in which Radar saves a horse and presents it to his new colonel; "Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?" in which a wounded soldier claims to be Jesus Christ; "Hawkeye," with Alda's character is wounded and has a running monologue with a Korean family; and especially "The Interview," the famous episode filmed in black and white and presented like a cinema verité documentary.
"M*A*S*H" barely missed a beat for the next half-dozen years, though in its final seasons, the show became sloppy and uneven. There was an over-reliance on studio sets for exteriors, some of the humor became forced, the drama was occasionally pretentious, and even some of the performances became downright bad. But even "M*A*S*H's" last season had its share of fine episodes, and its final episode rightly became an instant classic.
Video & Audio
I looked at several episodes from discs 1 & 3, and these have the same qualities as the earlier sets. At a time when most half-hour comedies were three-camera shows shot on (now prehistoric) one-inch tape, "M*A*S*H" was filmed in standard 35mm. This is a decided advantage today, though the compression of so many shows (about four hours worth) onto each disc has its drawbacks. Moreover, "M*A*S*H" was so phenomenally successful in syndication that its original elements seem to suffer from over-printing. The shows basically look fine, just not impressive. The mono sound is no better or worse than similar TV shows from the period. As with the other seasons, Fox has provided an optional audio track without the canned laughter.
One interesting note: The episode that introduces B.J. Hunnicut, "Welcome to Korea," is presented in its original hour-long form. In syndication, this episode is generally re-edited into two half-hour shows.