100 Pilots in 100 Days: M*A*S*H

When it was originally on: 1972-1983

Original network: CBS

Where you can stream it now: Hulu

Had I seen it before: I remember this show airing on TV Land when I was a small child, but I’m not sure I was ever truly watching it. I don’t remember any specific plot lines, but I have vague memories of the different characters and general premise.

For what it’s worth, I’m also unfamiliar with the prior incarnations of M*A*S*H that came before the sitcom. First there was a novel in 1968, and then a movie based on that novel in 1970. The tv show premiered in 1972. 

What IMDb says: The staff of an Army hospital in the Korean War find that laughter is the best way to deal with their situation.

Why I picked it: Each generation gets maybe 3 shows with the impact that M*A*S*H had, tops. It lasted for 11 seasons. Its finale is THE most viewed television episode OF. ALL. TIME (source). A TV fan who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with M*A*S*H is like a film buff who hasn’t seen Casablanca. 

Furthermore, I’m always intrigued by shows that experiment with our notions of comedy and drama, and M*A*S*H is perhaps the earliest example of this. While I suppose one could technically define M*A*S*H as a workplace comedy, it’s certainly not what typically comes to mind when think of workplace comedies. Here, people can die. Our protagonists are struggling with much heavier issues than a broken copier or a Michael Scott-esque boss. From my understanding, M*A*S*H is a show that could lean more comedic or dramatic depending on the episode, and so I was hella curious to see how the pilot threads that needle. 

What I liked: This is a remarkably good pilot, especially for a half-hour sitcom. It’s entertaining. There’s a clear narrative that gives us great insight into our main characters and the world they live in. By the end, we feel like we have a great sense of the hijinks future episodes might hold, and we’re charmed enough to actually watch said episodes. 

The plot of this revolves around Hawkeye and Trapper John raffling off a weekend trip to Tokyo to help send one of their younger co-workers, Ho-Jon to college.  Various rules are broken along the way, both in terms of official military protocol and generally understood ethics. As weird as it sounds, the character that comes to mind when I think of Hawkeye is Louise Belcher. He has that same energy that drives stories forward, pursuing whatever he wants and casually disregarding any obstacles that come up along the way.  Yet at the same time, Hawkeye’s motive to send Ho Jon to college is so pure and good that we can’t help but find him endearing all the same.

One of the most genius things this pilot does is have Hawkeye and Trapper John almost get fired for their obviously fireable offense. Instead, some Canadien soldiers need medical help, and the need for surgeons is too dire. The general who had initially flown in to fire our heroes says they’re great surgeons, and makes sure the colonel knows to hold onto them. This not only helps establish our heroes as likable people despite some of their not-so-likable actions earlier in the episode, but it also sets up a show where Hawkeye can continue his antics and anyone who’s seen the pilot isn’t going to ask “how haven’t they fired him by now?” We get the sense that there will be more ridiculous sitcom schemes for years to come, yet Hawkeye and Trapper John will never risk losing their jobs over it.

Writer Larry Gelbart also makes an incredibly smart choice in how he deemphasizes the horrors of war. I can’t help but think that if this show were being made today for say Netflix or HBO, there would be a lot of gratuitous gory surgery scenes that were put in for the sake of “making it real.” That’s not how M*A*S*H rolls though. Instead, the show takes it for granted that the audience already knows war sucks. Our backdrop is the Korean war, and everyday our characters see horribly mutated bodies on the brink of death. The show knows it doesn’t have to beat us over the head with how depressing that is. 

Instead, we focus on the parts of the M*A*S*H lifestyle that the audience might not know about. We learn about the petty gossip of who’s hooking up with who. We focus on what the characters do between surgeries to try to make the best of things. How do they throw parties? If characters can’t go home, what’s the next best thing?

What I didn’t like: The pilot is populated with characters who are virtually indistinguishable from one another. It’s hard to know which ones will go on to be substantial parts of the series, and who’s just here for a line or two. Even Hawkeye’s sidekick, Trapper John, doesn’t really pop as a character despite getting almost the same amount of screen time. I wish there was a little bit more contrast between this dynamic duo, enough so that I could see how conflict might happen between them without me questioning their friendship. Think Gus and Shawn from Psych (a pilot I’ve also reviewed!)

That being said, there’s only so much someone can do with 22 minutes, and I can see how trying to characterize too many people too quickly would’ve done more harm than good. Hawkeye is a strong enough protagonist to carry this first episode, and I feel like I can safely assume that the show fleshes out its other characters in due time. 

Do I want to watch Ep. 2: I’d actually love to finish this whole series someday. It has possibly the most iconic finale of television history, and my enjoyment of the pilot helped me see why so many people loved this show for as long as they did. 


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