I bought the first season of M*A*S*H
on DVD the other day (anyone who wants to buy it might like to know it's available at Asda for just over a tenner) so I've been watching quite a bit of it over the last few days.
It's strange to think that it's now thirty years since these episodes were first transmitted and that we're now further away from them than they were from the Korean War they depict. However, they haven't really dated, partly because they were already set in the past when they were made but also because they have a feel that's radically different from other TV from the seventies with really high production quality. You can tell it has its roots in a Robert Altman film as it keeps a lot of the mobile camerawork, multi-strand dialogue and naturalistic acting that's a mark of his films, though interestingly he didn't have much to do with the TV series.
There's an awareness of the darker side of war present from the start, which is quite amazing in itself as when it was first transmitted in 1972, the US was still mired in Vietnam yet here was a TV series that portrayed the US Army as the centre of a web of corruption, staffed by officers who were openly critical of the idea of war. The word 'alcoholic' is never actually spoken yet Hawkeye's dependence on alcohol is pretty clearly indicated in several episodes, while no secret is made of the fact that Trapper, Henry and Frank are all married yet openly conducting affairs while in Korea. The closest modern parallel I can think of would be one of the American networks launching a TV series based on the movie Three Kings
In these early episodes the characters are also quite similar to their original depiction in the film (I haven't read Richard Hooker's novel on which the film was based, so can't comment on the resemblance there) though interestingly the actors cast in the roles don't bear much of a resemblance to their film counterparts (with the exception of Gary Burghoff's Radar, who was of course the only actor to reprise his film role on TV). Frank Burns is the only character to have been notably altered, from the intense brooding of Robert Duvall on film to the pompous buffoon Larry Linville portrayed on TV, though it's an understandable change to make him a lighter character for the TV series as there would be a limit to how often a Duvall-esque performance could be used for laughs on a TV series.
Of course, the power of DVD means that there's one excellent benefit - you can watch all the episodes without a laugh track. I first watched M*A*S*H in the eighties when it was repeated on BBC 2 without the laugh track and once you've seen it without it's very hard to watch it with the laugh track (the way Sky One shows it) mainly because it was made on location, rather than in front of an audience, so the laugh track is clearly added in but also because many of the jokes aren't as obvious as most sitcoms so there's often a gap between punchline and laugh which then obscures the next lines.
Well, I have some time to kill now, so I'm off to watch another episode - I just need to start rationing my watching of them a bit because Season Two isn't released until October.