Directed by Gene Reynolds
Written by Larry Gelbart
Original air date: September 17, 1972
Any film buff knows the legacy of Robert Altman’s 1970 black comedy film MASH. First realizing that you’re laughing hysterically and then intellectualizing that the context of the humour is a “meatball surgery army base” in the middle of the Korean War says some interesting things about where we can find comedy. When Larry Gelbart went to adapt the film for television he kept that dark comedy style, mixing laughs with the daily reminder of war and tragedy and the show was successful for eleven seasons ending in 1983 with what is recognized as one of the greatest finales in the history of television. That legacy though, often overshadows the early seasons and in particular, the pilot episode. Starkly funny and all-encompassing of the elements that would make MASH a classic of comedic television, “Pilot” is one of the best first episodes ever to air on tv.
The first minute takes us around the camp of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital with a few joking introductions to the various characters (including a great intro to the relationship of Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan) and then leads into the title sequence when helicopters arrive to bring wounded for surgery. A balance is struck throughout the episode of humour and tragedy: the war and its effects on the doctors are contrasted with their coping with humour and sarcasm. The rest of the episode runs the gambit of jokes from MASH’s first three seasons, the mischievous (and unfortunately slightly sexist) acts of Hawkeye and Trapper John, the clueless Colonel Henry Blake and his near-psychic Company Clerk Radar, the loveably hateable nitwit Frank Burns.
The best thing that they introduce in this episode is the concept of being “regular army.” Above all else, MASH is political (especially in the later seasons) and a lot of that stems from the conflict between the regular army and the draftees and doctors. Because so many from the MASH outfit were drafted, their opposition to both the war in general and the hierarchy and rules of the army is the most common theme throughout the show’s course and it’s not at a loss here. Towards the end, Hawkeye and Trapper essentially commit mutiny by sedating their commanding officer so they can hold a party. When a general visits the camp unexpectedly and casualties arrive, he sees the two of them work in surgery and refuses to arrest them because they are so effective. This rule breaking is the real message of the episode (despite being one of the more purely humorous episodes the show has to offer): the army’s rules are as futile as the war and Hawkeye and Trapper subvert them both. The episode isn’t perfect (particularly in its portrayal of women) but this is still one of the best episodes the first three seasons has to offer.
– Jonathan Marsellus