Welcome to Seen Anything Good? a monthly series where I tell you which shows to binge-watch when you need help coping with the state of the world.
There are three great American pastimes. The first is obviously baseball. The second is exploiting the working class, and the third is distracting ourselves with fiction to avoid processing our personal issues. As a TV-obsessed girl whose social skills are shaky at best, binge-watching has always been my go-to coping mechanism. Any time I was dealing with something difficult in my life, I’d file through my little mental Rolodex of TV shows and pick out a relevant plot line to help me cope. Kind of like Wandavision, but with less magic and usually more crying. And for the most part, it worked. Escapism can be a useful tool to start processing problems that we’re not fully ready to face yet, and it’s reassuring to know that whatever issue we might be dealing with, someone else has already found a way to wrap it up in under 40 minutes.
Of course, that’s a lot easier when the issue you’re trying to process is like, your parents getting divorced (thanks Psych!), and not a global pandemic that has left millions dead, put the entire world on pause for over a year, and still has no clear end in sight. As much as I’d like to distract myself from all of that by staring at a screen for a few hours, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way I see the world. Nothing feels the same anymore, not even on TV.
It’s been a year, and I still haven’t gotten over the sudden irrational panic I feel whenever a character walks into a crowded bar. Plot points that would have seemed perfectly mundane before the pandemic, like going out to eat or having an ill-advised hookup, just remind me of everything I’m missing out on. A rewatch of Broad City sent me into a week-long depression spiral because I just really miss going on dumb little adventures with my friends. Distraction has become an impossible task. Nothing adequately addresses the issues we’re facing in a way that feels relevant and relatable. At the same time, I refuse to watch anything that actually takes place during the pandemic (sorry Freeform original series Love in the Time of Corona). I don’t want to be reminded of how terrible everything is when I’m trying to escape, but I do want to feel understood. I want to be told that my overwhelming sense of fear and helplessness and anger is justified, because it fucking is. Honestly, the only show that hasn’t made me feel completely insane lately is M*A*S*H.
I know, it seems like a weird pick. Mainly because I do not care about the military in any capacity. I didn’t even watch Dunkirk, and that had Harry Styles in it. For most of my life, I only knew M*A*S*H as some show that I vaguely remembered my grandfather enjoying - sort of comforting in its muted colors and 1970s dialects, but far removed from anything that I might be going through. Watching it now, mid-pandemic, it feels more relevant than most of the current shows I’ve seen lately.
I keep thinking to myself that it didn’t have to be like this. When the pandemic hit, the American government could have chosen to protect people instead of entertaining this ridiculous culture war that is killing more and more people every day. Sometimes I feel so blindingly angry that we’re still stuck in this situation, but anger can only last for so long. Eventually, it fades into helplessness, or maybe numbness, and I just scroll through Twitter hoping that something will make me smile for long enough to forget how bad everything is. And that’s where M*A*S*H comes in.
The show follows the staff of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital as they try to cope with the horrors of the Korean War in any way they can, mostly through puns and practical jokes. As silly as the show could get, it never shied away from the serious trauma that the characters face in every episode, and there’s a pretty even ratio of laughs to genuine gut-wrenching moments. It’s a Good Show - officially. It racked up 109 Emmy nominations over its 11 season run, and is featured on just about every list for the “Greatest Comedies of All Time.” It paved the way for other genre-blending shows, most obviously Scrubs, but also series like Atlanta and Bojack Horseman, which can change in an instant from fun comedies to deep, experimental meditations on the human condition. It was also the first network series to show any nudity, which is kind of fun.
As much as it is about war, it’s not just a war show. Like every great sitcom, the real draw is its characters. M*A*S*H is a classic example of the found family trope, with a cast that shifts and grows - and dies!! - as the story progresses. Alan Alda leads the series as Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, a smartass surgeon with a heart of gold (another one of my favorite tropes) who splits his time between saving lives and trying to shock the people around him into feeling literally anything other than fear or boredom. He’s joined by other wacky but instantly familiar characters, like sweetly-naive farmboy Radar O’Rilley, and white feminist girlboss Margaret Houlihan. The performances are so charming that by the time you get into the later seasons, you’re already on board for an episode that’s just Hawkeye giving a monologue, or the staff trying to entertain themselves during a slow day. It’s one of those series where the characters all come together despite their different philosophies and backgrounds, and it gets me every time.
Although it was set in the 1950s, the show was a clear allegory for the Vietnam war, which was still raging when M*A*S*H began in 1972. It highlights not only the cruelty of war but also the absurdity of American bureaucracy and the idea of doing anything in the name of “patriotism.” The show was a way for Americans to start processing the collective trauma of living through multiple senseless wars, wrapped up in a palatable sitcom format that kept you laughing as you ruminated on just how fucked up things are.
And look, it’s far from a perfect show. Sometimes the antics can be more exhausting than funny, and a lot of the jokes no longer hold up. It was written primarily by a team of white men in the 1970s, and the show’s liberal politics are mostly shown through the white male characters voicing their support for women and people of color rather than allowing those characters to have their own narratives. Also, there’s just a lot of sexual harassment, which is tough to watch. That being said, there’s still a lot of good to be found in M*A*S*H.
Ultimately, it is about a bunch of people stuck somewhere they don’t want to be because the United States government cares more about money than about its people. On an individual level, they still feel an obligation to keep one another safe, but they’re all deeply depressed and scared, and the only way they can get through it is by making dumb little jokes. I don’t know what could be more relevant than that.
As with most sitcoms, there are plenty of skippable episodes, but here are a few I’d recommend starting with.
Season 4, Episode 5: The Late Captain Pierce
Okay, so this one is my favorite episodes out of the entire series. It starts off with the weirdly classic sitcom premise of a character being declared legally dead and builds on that absurdity in an environment where death is an everyday occurrence. What starts as an excuse to throw a living wake grows into a stunning showcase of anger and exhaustion, and eventually resignation. Alan Alda’s performance in the last scene gives me chills every time.
Season 5, Episode 5: The Nurses
M*A*S*H rarely took the time to focus on the women that kept things running in the background of every scene, but this episode puts the nurses front and center. It balances a fun farce premise of trying to sneak one of the women out to spend a night with her husband alongside a really interesting exploration of the loneliness and genuine depression that the characters are dealing with on a daily basis. Also, it’s strangely refreshing to hear someone talk about how they’ve become completely desensitized to death and just see all of the other characters nod along in agreement. Me too, Nurse Walsh.
Season 5, Episode 7: Dear Sigmund
Letter writing is a motif that the show repeatedly visits throughout its 11 seasons, and as cheesy as the voiceovers can sometimes be, it does give a unique and affecting look into how individual characters see the world that they’re inhabiting. In this episode, a visiting Army psychiatrist writes a letter to Sigmund Freud (whom we at Blossom do not support, FYI) analyzing the staff of the 4077th and explaining the drastic measures they take to stay sane during the war. It’s a highlight of all the silliest and saddest parts of M*A*S*H.