Adapted for television by legendary comedy writer Larry Gelbart, the series has long since supplanted Altman's film in the public's consciousness. Life and death at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War doesn't seem like ripe fodder for a comedy series, but M*A*S*H masterfully balanced laughter and tears (less so in its later, more preachy seasons). It often does play better without a laugh track (a viewing option for all episodes). During its run, M*A*S*H survived several delicate operations, including the departure of Gelbart after season 4 and the loss of core ensemble members McLean Stevenson as Col. Henry Blake and Wayne Rogers as Trapper John (after season 3), Larry Linville as Frank Burns (after season 5) and Gary Burghoff (a veteran of the original film) as Radar (after season 8). The show thrived with the introduction of some new blood, Henry Morgan as "regular Army" Col. Potter and Mike Farrell as compassionate BJ (season 4) and David Ogden Stiers as elitist Charles Emerson Winchester III (season 6).
M*A*S*H was honored with the prestigious Peabody Award "for the depth of its humor and the manner in which comedy is used to lift the spirit and, as well, to offer a profound statement on the nature of war." This was a sitcom that did not always leave you laughing, as witness the classic season 3 episode "Abyssinia, Henry." And throughout its run, M*A*S*H broke the sitcom mold with several episodes, including "The Interview" (season 4), in which Clete Roberts interviews the staff of the 4077th, "Point of View" (season 7), subjectively seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier and "Life Time" (season 8), which unfolds in real time. M*A*S*H boasted one of television's greatest ensembles, fully embodied characters who each became icons, most notably Alan Alda, who served with distinction as Hawkeye, the series' soul and conscience. But a special salute to Loretta Switt, whose Margaret Houlihan went from "Hot Lips" to nobody's pushover. From the "Pilot" to the feature-length finale, "Goodbye, Farewell & Amen," still the most-watched episode in history, this essential (but not so much if you bought the individual season sets) collection honors one of television's greatest half-hours. --Donald Liebenson