Synopsis by Hal Erickson
One of the most famous and successful sitcoms of all time, M*A*S*H was based on the 1970 Robert Altman theatrical film of the same name--which, in turn, was inspired by an autobiographical novel by a former Army doctor, writing pseudonymously as Richard Hooker. Although set during the Korean War of 1950-1953, the staunch antiwar trappings of M*A*S*H, coupled with its relentlessly irreverent treatment of the military "big brass", were very much in tune with the sentiments of the Vietnam War era, during which both the film and the TV series were spawned. The action took place within the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (hence the anagrammatic title), a unit stationed behind the lines in South Korea. Most of the characters on the CBS television series had been introduced in the novel and film, but only one of the film's actors was carried over to the TV version. The main players were two surgeons, Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda) and Captain "Trapper" John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers), who though dedicated to their work were determined to has as much fun as possible during their off-hours, to break as many rules and regulations as traffic would allow, and to dally with as many pretty nurses as time permitted. The 4077th's commanding officer during the series' first three seasons was easygoing Lt. Col. Henry Blake (Maclean Stevenson, who though he regarded the operating room as his main priority, would sooner go fishing or goof off than anything else. The laid-back demeanor of Hawkeye, Trapper and Blake was not shared by uptight, arrogant, anal-retentive, xenophobic and generally inept surgeon Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville), whose strict adherence to Rules and Regulations usually ended up backfiring on him, or resulted in practical jokes at his expense. Also putting a damper on the fun-and-games was "regular Army" head nurse Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit), who would have liked nothing better than to see Hawkeye and Trapper. court-martialed. But though Margaret was more competent at her job than Frank Burns, she too became an object of ridicule, principally because she and the very married Burns were carrying on a torrid clandestine romance--which was why she was saddled with the demeaning nickname "Hot Lips." Rounding out the series' first-season regulars was the 4077th's timid, bespectacled, uncannily clairvoyant and endlessly resourceful company clerk, Cpl. Walter "Radar" O'Reilly--played by the same actor who essayed the role in the movie version of M*A*S*H, Gary Burghoff. In additon to the above-mentioned regulars, there were any number of recurring characters who wove in and out of the proceedings during season one, notably the 4077th's mild-mannered chaplain Father John Mulcahy, played in the pilot episode by George Morgan and thereafter by William Christopher); African American surgeon Spearchucker Jones (Timothy Brown); the well-named orderly Ugly John (John Orchard); sexy nurses Maggie Dish (Karen Phillip) and Leslie Scorch (Linda Meikeljohn), Ginger Ballis (Odessa Cleveland) and Maggie Cutler (Marcia Strassman); and the officer's Korean houseboy Ho-John (Patrick Adiarte). Another peripheral character, intended as one-shot "gag" appearance, was Corporal Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr), a doctor's aide who was so determined to get discharged from the Army on a "Section 8" that he always dressed in women's clothing. After his first fleeting appearance on M*A*S*H's seventh episode, Klinger proved so popular that he became a recurring character--and, like Father Mulcahy, ultimately a full-fledged regular. The first-season episodes of M*A*S*H are easily distinguishable from later installments in the series in several respects: there was more background music and a louder laughtrack (except during the operating-room scenes, in which canned laughter was never, ever heard); the practical jokes were crueler; the higher-ranking officers were almost invariably buffoons; and Hawkeye and Trapper were more hedonistic in their behavior towards the opposite sex. Opening to lukewarm reviews and mediocre ratings, M*A*S*H slowly but surely built up a following thanks to that old reliable known as "word of mouth". This came as something of a surprise to its parent network CBS, which had been none too enthusiastic about the project in the first place, and had accordingly scheduled the program as a "throwaway" opposite NBC's Sunday-night blockbuster The Wonderful World of Disney. But CBS eventually got the message, and moved M*A*S*H to a more desirable Saturday-night slot for its second season.