Stephanie Watson
March 07, 2015 6:00 am

Guys, the first five seasons of M*A*S*H are now available for streaming on Netflix (along with a bunch of other cool new stuff) and I couldn’t be happier — or, technically, sadder. Yeah, if you think the series is a barrel of laughs, then you’re only half right: At times, it will tear out your soul. I highly recommend it!

The dramedy unfolds in a mobile Army surgical hospital at the peak of the Korean War, although when it first aired on CBS back in the early ’70s, the writers were no doubt working out the demons of the more recent Vietnam (much like the Robert Altman movie it was based on). It’s one of those shows that your parents likely watched, so you might already have a few memories of the martini-swilling surgeons buried somewhere in your subconscious, or at least its haunting theme song, the actual title of which is “Suicide Is Painless.” I first became aware of it after my older brother started watching it every day during lunch, and a whopping 10 years later, I finally finished the long and emotionally draining journey that was collecting and binging all 11 seasons on DVD. Needless to say, I’m heartbroken that it’s over. I’ve witnessed every tear, every laugh, and every silly hat the show has to offer. But for some of you, that journey could be only just beginning, in which case, let me share with you a few things that you have to look forward to:

1. Hawkeye and his painfully quick wit

Hawkeye: Well, he’s completely paralyzed on one side, and his EEG shows severe damage
Reporter
: EEG?
Hawkeye: Yeah, electroencephalogram. Reporter: How do you spell that? Hawkeye: I personally spell it EEG.

If you were to mix Groucho Marx with, well, Alan Alda, you’d get Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, surgeon and professional flirt. Now I’m very picky when it comes to ranking my favorite characters of all time, but without hesitation I can say that Hawkeye is somewhere in the top three (no higher than Agent Dale Cooper, obviously). Hawk’s epic one-liners and sharp come-backs inspired my fiction writing, and his banter even finds its way into my daily conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve burst into song inappropriately (just like him) or used horrifically cringe-worthy puns to get my point across. I don’t know how the humor of an older, ’50s-era doctor has managed to influence that of a modern-day 24-year-old feminist but somehow it has. Maybe deep down, Hawk was a little ahead of his time.

2. The wonderful character development of Major Margaret Houlihan

M*A*S*H had some great characters, but Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) was definitely among the more complex of them. Known originally as “Hot Lips,” Margaret was a completely different person when the show began, and I’ll come right out and admit it: I didn’t much care for her high-strung, Army-code obsessed character early on. Her lack of dimensions may have been the result of a number of fictional factors, but I suspect it was the male writers’ inability to write for a powerful, sometimes vulnerable woman. As the show developed, they had the good sense to invest more in Margaret. In later seasons, nurses and doctors would critique her coldness, but by then it had a purpose — the war, the sexism, watching young soldiers and civilians die before her eyes? Her aloofness was no longer a joke, really, but a defense mechanism.

Margaret turned away from any man who tried to make her feel like a second-class citizen, including her controlling father, and she essentially had to work twice as hard to get the same, and usually better, results. In one of my favorite Margaret moments, she’s offered a promotion by a colonel whom she practically worships, and we watch the happiness drain from her face as he tells her she’ll have to sleep with him first. From that moment on, it seemed to me that something in her eyes changed forever, and what followed was the most badass speech on women’s rights that I’ve ever seen on a sitcom.

3. Those necessary moments of social progress

M*A*S*H aired in the ’70s and ’80s, and was set in the ’50s, so basically we’re talking about a decidedly unenlightened decade filtered through an only marginally more enlightened era, but the characters and plots are more socially progressive than you might expect. There were a handful of great examples in which the show addressed racism, such as the ousting of the general who sent his soldiers of color off to more dangerous zones, and sexism, as we see Hawkeye and other soldiers change their misogynistic ways over time. It also showed a great sensitivity towards mental illness, which was certainly not the prevailing attitude of either era.

Don’t get me wrong, M*A*S*H isn’t a paragon of social justice (Klinger’s cross-dressing schemes are rather transphobic in hindsight, which is maybe why they were abandoned later in the run), but the morals and messages conveyed by the writers, particularly Alan Alda, who wrote and directed a number of the episodes, was groundbreaking at the time. Since I grew up to eventually write and edit my own social justice site and basically question every problematic thought I ever had, I feel M*A*S*H inadvertently inspired me to look outside my own experiences and really take notice of the discrimination in the world.

4. The devastating, out-of-the-blue sad moments

M*A*S*H was notorious for supplying its fans with a feast of raunchy, silly humor — only to follow it up with something shocking and painfully realistic. Sometimes it was a raucous party interrupted by an influx of wounded soldiers and civilians. Other times, it was the death of a main character, just after he had been given his ticket home. Shows like Scrubs (which also switched from silly to sad in a heartbeat) would follow in its stead, challenging the fait accompli of the happily-ever-after sitcom. Do you ever have a moment when you suddenly get a flash of something awful that happened to one of your favorite fictional characters? Well, for me, most of those moments come from M*A*S*H or Buffy.

5. One of the best finales ever, ever, ever

I’m a bit iffy when it comes to season finales. I’ve been disappointed too many times by rushed conclusions and awkward epilogues (I’m looking at you, Alias). But the movie-length finale  of M*A*S*H was transcendent. Despite the sad endings for a number of characters, it’s so satisfying to finally see others get the closure they deserved. The episode also includes one of the most depressing scenes in the show’s history, which I will never get over, but which I won’t spoil for you. (Have your tissues handy.) It took me so long to finish the series that I felt like the end would never come. Then I realized that’s how each character — how people — felt about the war itself.

Needless to say, M*A*S*H was unique, possibly prescient, and utterly unforgettable. It’s pretty hard to imagine a show ever again taking the risks this one did back then. A politically charged comedy about Iraq or Afghanistan? Set in a war zone? So even if you’re not a fan of hospital dramas or wartime stories, I suggest you start binge-watching on Netflix right now. It’ll ruin your life in the best possible way.

[Images via , , , , here]

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