Larry Gelbart John J. O'Connor - Essay

John J. O'Connor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From any angle, "M∗A∗S∗H" is this season's most interesting new entry. Set in "Korea 1950, a hundred years ago," the series has been "developed for TV" by Larry Gelbart from the novel and the Robert Altman film of the same name….

The series is likely to be no less controversial. On one side, some are going to note resemblances between Korea and Vietnam, and the charge will be made that the TV comedy trivializes a serious situation. On the other side, some are going to perceive that the military is portrayed as moronic, and the charge will be made that the series is subversive.

Using the premise, however, that black or absurd humor performs a legitimate function, in this case pushing personal existence to the limits of absurdity to cope with the absurdity of war, the real issue centers on the artistic persuasiveness and integrity of the TV series.

The first episode, written by Mr. Gelbart …, met the demands of this issue with surprising effectiveness. Brightly paced, it introduced its stable of wacky combat surgeons in a plot to raise money to send a Korean houseboy-martini mixer to medical school ("American has sent thousands of boys to Korea; the least we can do is send one Korean boy to America").

For television, the editing was refreshingly brisk and the humor unusually adult. Tomorrow evening, however, in the second episode …, the pacing and the comedy show distinct signs of slackening. Revolving around the routines of a Korean blackmarketeer, the story degenerates into standard situation-comedy skits.

"M∗A∗S∗H" could be a major innovation for television. Or it could slip quietly into the category of "Hogan's Heroes."

John J. O'Connor, "TV: C.B.S. Still Serious about Serious Comedies," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1972, p. 62.