M*A*S*H Season 1 Review

There aren't many films that generate a television series that ultimately improves upon the original movie, but M*A*S*H is one of them. The series is perhaps rightly considered the greatest of all time, and ran for a phenomenal eleven straight years (1972-1983 - with two hundred and fifty one episodes produced) on peak-time television. Indeed, the final 'farewell' episode broke records in terms of audience ratings. The original film, directed by the emerging Robert Altman, was released in 1970 to critical acclaim and rendered Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould a hot screen-pairing. It was an offbeat comedy that received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and won an Oscar for its adapted script. Rather than repeat material, click here for details about the film.

Essentially, the television series spin-off of M*A*S*H couldn't lose. The movie set was still available for use and as Fox Studios owned the rights to the story they knew that the series would thus prove to be inexpensive to produce. Gene Reynolds was hired to produce the show, who in turn hired Larry Gelbart to write the pilot show's script. The only thing left was to cast new stars who wouldn't command the high salaries of Sutherland and Gould (the two didn't enjoy filming M*A*S*H much anyhow). First to be cast was Gary Burghoff, the only surviving actor from the movie, as Eugene "Radar" O'Reilly. As McIntyre, the who was originally played by Elliott Gould, Wayne Rogers was cast, although fans who became attached to the series later on in its run might not recognise him, since he fell out with producers by the fourth series and quit. McLean Stevenson was cast as Henry Blake, and the role of Hawkeye, originally played by Donald Sutherland, was the last character to be cast, although Alan Alda eventually gave in and accepted the role that would forever stamp him in audience's hearts. As "Hot Lips" Houlihan, Sally Kellerman, who was Oscar nominated for her performance in the movie, was replaced by Loretta Swit. Beloved character Maxwell Q. Klinger (Jamie Farr) was only supposed to be a one-off character, but was so popular his presence grew and grew as the series ran its course, and so fans might be surprised to see only a few scattered appearances of Klinger in the show's first series.

The complete first series of M*A*S*H has been released by Fox over a three disc set. The episodes are presented in broadcast order, which suggests that they were produced in a different order than the order they were shown. Here is a brief synopsis of the episodes featured, since the packaging lacks any sort of description other than chapter listings.

What makes M*A*S*H such an excellent and successful television series is that it rarely panders to farcical comedy. Although the material is mostly suited to familial entertainment, the tone and subject matter contained within the episodes are mostly adult in terms of importance. Kurt Vonnegut always argued that the more unbearable life is, the more one must laugh to compensate, and M*A*S*H complements this notion perfectly. Hawkeye and McIntyre are gifted surgeons working tremendously long shifts in the field of duty, and their actions and persona perfectly generates sympathy from the audience. It's as if they have to resort to childish 'goofing-around' in order to maintain their own thin strand of sanity. Although 'officially' set during the fifties Korean War, most observers noticed the rather obvious allusions to the Vietnam War, and M*A*S*H has, if anything, reflected more so on the latter conflict. Rather cleverly, the series serves to suggest the futility of war by only showing the aftermath of battle; you rarely see actual conflicts, just the scenes afterwards where wounded soldiers need repair. Surely this is enough to paint war as absurd.

At just over twenty-five minutes an episode, M*A*S*H is a great time filler when you are stuck for a quick fix, or unsure about what to bridge two main features with. Despite the short length, the episodes never appear rushed or lightweight. If anything, there is enough material in a single episode to fill an hour running time. Even if the main premise of M*A*S*H seems fixed in its limitations, the episodes never appear repetitive in their themes. M*A*S*H is so expertly structured as a weekly sitcom that it is always first and foremost a humourous vehicle, followed secondly by serious issues, such as it's subtle attack at the American involvement in Korea (Vietnam) and at the social war in America itself. The late sixties heralded momentous social change in western world, with a social-war taking place, due mainly to issues such as the nation's controversial involvement in Vietnam. This event divided the nation, with notions such as liberalism, counter-commercialist-culture and anti-war protests being locked in battle with more traditional notions, such as conservatism, the US government, and the military themselves who were involved in Vietnam. In essence, M*A*S*H suggests that the military themselves are divided into these two ideologies. On one side, the military is a lifeless organisation based too heavily on rank, bureaucracy, war and patriotism. On the other side, the military contains a small group of people, lead by Hawkeye, who maintain liberal attitudes and champion the peace ethic, and yet are forced to bend and subvert almost every rule in order to allow common sense and decency to prevail.

Guest stars have constantly been spotted in various episodes, and even in the first series, names such as Leslie Nielsen (of The Naked Gun and Airplane! fame) and Ron Howard, star of Happy Days and now a successful director likely to win this year's Best Director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind.

It's easy to forget that this is only a review of the first series of M*A*S*H. The show hit its peak around series three or four, and of course was only finding its feet during the episodes you will see here. Even so, as a fine introduction to the series, or as a classic example of superior comedy wit mixed with social comment, or even as a cornerstone to any television series DVD collection, M*A*S*H is a must-own.

Unfortunately, the picture quality of the episodes is not as pleasing as one might have hoped. Generally, the quality is perfectly acceptable, but there are occasions in which certain sequences exhibit excessive print damage or grain. This may well be the fault of the original masters themselves, and if this is the case then Fox have done a good job ensuring that the episodes still look fairly good on a visual sense. Presented in the original television ratio of 1.33:1.

The sound is presented crisply and clearly but is recorded at a very low volume, and is only featured in the original mono. What's interesting however, is the viewer has the option to watch the episodes with or without the canned laughter track, and the latter option is by far-and-away the better, more suitable option. Canned laughter, due to its cut-and-paste nature, never feels right due to the audience's laughter rarely matching the scale necessary for the funny moments - slightly humourous sequences are met with uproarious laughter, and this is farcical if audience reception doesn't equate with what's on show. Also, M*A*S*H contains humour so hilarious and yet so subtle that each viewer will laugh at different moments anyhow.

Menu: A static menu, simply containing the names of the episodes and a photo still.

Packaging: Featured in a double-amaray casing which houses the three discs, the packaging contains a booklet featuring credits for each episode.


Sadly, all of the M*A*S*H extras seem confined to the movie release, and so this version is devoid of extras. Even so, the episodes have at least been giving chapter stops, which is encouraging.

A classic first series of arguably the greatest television show ever, M*A*S*H isn't overwhelming in any of its technical departments, but should still be snapped up by anyone even slightly interested in the show.

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