Seasons 1-3 were known as the Trapper John and Henry Blake seasons. At the end of season three, LTC Henry Blake left to go home and was killed off-screen. After season three finished filming, Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper John, left the series. He was replaced in the first episode of season four by Mike Farrell as B.J. Hunnicutt. Henry would eventually be replaced by Harry Morgan as Col. Potter.
With season four, the series began a transition, the broader comedy being replaced by more thoughtful and dramatic themes, and the rougher characters gaining a more sympathetic streak. Eventually, Frank Burns would leave to be replaced by Charles Emerson Winchester, and the loan carryover actor from the film, Gary Burghoff as Radar O’Reilly, would be discharged. Cpl. Max Klinger would shed the dresses and take over the company clerk duties from Radar. The show would become more biting as the comedy and drama would merge more closely.
Season one introduced the show and characters, bringing much of the flavor of the film onto the television screen. The early episodes were a bit of jumbled affair, the messiness of the film did not provide a coherent storyline or definable characters in a 26 minute format. In the first season, some of the characters would disappear to provide more clarity and continuity.
The series would be produced by television veteran Gene Reynolds with the scripts overseen by Larry Gelbart. Some of the best scripts of those early seasons would be written by Gelbart, Laurence Marks, and the team of Jim Fritzel and Everett Greenbaum. The most obvious reason of the series’ success was the cast, but it was truly the writing that carried the show for eleven seasons.
MASH of course was about Vietnam, but Korea was more acceptable. The show could be a bit preachy in making a point. I found it more effective when the humor was broader and situational. The early seasons were goofier, featured some of the strongest writing, and less concerned about their legacy.
There were 72 episodes produced during the first three seasons. Here are a few of my favorites and a couple of honorable mentions.
Tuttle – Out of convenience, Hawkeye and Trapper make up a doctor named Tuttle. Tuttle is such a great guy that everyone claims to know him and that they are his best friend. When pressed to have Tuttle show up for an award presentation for all the good that he’s done, it is revealed that Tuttle is unavailable, he jumped into a battle but without his parachute. True to his nature, Tuttle has willed his insurance to a charity.
Sometimes You Hear the Bullet – An old friend of Hawkeye’s passes through the unit on his way to battle. He is collecting material for a book. A subplot has Ron Howard as a young soldier who lied about his age to get into the Marines to impress a girl back home. After Hawkeye’s friend is mortally wounded in battle, Hawkeye goes back on his promise and turned the young soldier in to MPs.
The Longjohn Flap – During a very cold stretch, Hawkeye receives a pair of longjohns from home and reluctantly gives them away to someone in need. The longjohns pass from person to person in the camp, in exchange for favors, until they finally make their way back to Hawkeye.
The Army-Navy Game – During the annual football game a large bomb is dropped into camp but does not explode. Laughter ensues as the camp tries to find out who it belongs to until they find out it is not an enemy bomb, it belongs to the CIA. Co-written by McLean Stevenson.
5 O’Clock Charlie – The camp bets on how close the inept North Korean pilot will get to dropping a bomb on an ammo dump located near the camp. Frank convinces General Clayton to provide an anti-aircraft gun for defense of the camp, but the gunnery crew accidentally destroys the ammo dump themselves.
Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde – After three days of surgery without sleep, Hawkeye’s behavior becomes erratic and comical. Even though he is ordered to stand-down, Hawkeye keeps showing up in surgery. Alan Alda co-wrote the episode.
L.I.P. – Hawkeye helps to arrange the marriage of a G.I. and a Korean who have a baby. In order to expedite the case, Hawkeye and Trapper blackmail an investigating officer to sign the paperwork. At the same time, Hawkeye is attempting to make time with a nurse but when he does, discovers she is prejudiced against Koreans.
The Trail of Henry Blake – Henry is brought up charges for various hijinks around the camp, as told in flashback while Henry and Radar are before a court-martial board. The most serious charge involves Henry giving aid to the enemy, which turns out to be North Korean hill people. Co-written by McLean Stevenson.
Carry On, Hawkeye – A flu epidemic leaves only Hawkeye and Margaret well. Hawkeye must rise to occasion to operate the surgery with minimal help. The show was clearly revolving around the Hawkeye character.
Deal Me Out – A poker game serves as the backdrop for this episode. Radar hits a Korean with a truck, who turns out to be a frequent accident victim. The poker clan includes frequent guest, Dr. Sidney Friedman, Army psychiatrist, who still won’t give Klinger a Section 8 discharge.
Henry in Love – Henry returns from a conference in Tokyo convinced he has met his true love, a 21-year old American woman who is more like Henry’s daughter. Henry prepares for her visit to the camp by jogging, dying his hair black and acting like a teenager. When she does visit it is painfully obvious that he is having a midlife crisis, and it becomes even more obvious when she hits on Hawkeye. After a call to his wife back home, Henry realizes his error and can’t wait for his girlfriend to leave. Written by McLean Stevenson.
For Want of a Boot – Hawkeye has a hole in his boot and the supply sergeant won’t help him get the order filled quickly. By way of a series of favors, Hawkeye can get his boot, but like dominoes, one by one they collapse until Hawkeye’s boot order is back where he started.
Crisis – When enemy action cuts the supply lines to the 4077th in the middle of a freezing Korean winter, the unit struggles with a shortage of supplies and heating fuel. To save heat, all the guys must bunk together. It is discovered that Frank has heated socks, which sets off a battle.
Adams Ribs – Dissatisfied with the same camp food day after day, Hawkeye arranges to have a shipment of ribs sent to Korea from Chicago. The problem is how to get them through the military bureaucracy, which he eventually does but has to share some of his ribs with a shipping sergeant.
Iron Guts Kelly – A visiting general dies while in the company of Major Houlihan. Hawkeye and Trapper come to the rescue, much to Frank’s annoyance. The general’s aide arranges for the general to be driven into a fire zone, so he can officially die in combat, but first the body is lost before he is sent to an area where the aide arranges artillery.
Honorable Mention:The Ringbanger (Leslie Nielsen guest-stars as a general whose actions provide higher than normal casualties), Payday (Hawkeye is the paymaster and a mistake in the amount of money causes misery as no good deed goes unpunished), Private Charles Lamb (the Greeks want to express their thanks so they arrange a traditional dinner including lamb), Big Mac (Gen MacArthur announces he is going to visit the camp), The General Flipped at Dawn (a crazy general visits the camp, played by Harry Morgan), Dear Dad (the first episode built around a letter home describing the crazy things around the camp), Dear Dad…Again (another letter home).