Reviews of the Pilot

Here are a selection of reviews for “M*A*S*H – The Pilot,” including one published months before the series debuted. Most are positive, some worry about the show’s time slot (during its first season, the series was broadcast from 8-8:30PM ET on Sunday nights) and a few are negative. Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts were published in the September 25th, 1972 edition of Broadcasting magazine [1].

“If you saw the movie version of M*A*S*H, you are doubtedly wondering just how badly its off-hand sexuality and bloody black humor fared when confronted with television’s ‘this is going into living rooms all over the nation’ approach to program content.

I can report that it did not fare badly at all, at least not as badly as you might imagine. The sexual candor is toned down, but it has not been banished; and the operating tent humor is still there tho, if my memory serves me, it is not quite so blood red.

But don’t worry about them getting carried away. The sex stops at suggestiveness and a lot of hugging and kissing. When one of the male stars surprises a lovely nurse in shower, he has his eyes closed and faces away from her.

Still, the program’s slotting–it’s scheduled to be shown here at 7 p.m. on Sundays–does seems [sic] a big questionable. Not that the show examines any large amounts material [sic] that is obviously objectionable in such an early evening show, but it is bound to bring down the rath [sic] of those who feel that Sunday evening television should be as pure as the driven snow. M*A*S*H certainly isn’t that pure.

As for the bloody humor, it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to some of TV’s bread and butter westerns and cops and robbers shows in terms of making death an almost trivial event.

But the sexual suggestiveness, tho it is probably some sort of high-water mark for a television comedy series, and the funny lines tossed about by doctors who are up to their elbows in some soldier’s spleen will not by themselves make M*A*S*H a hit.

What I think you will like is the cast, and particularly the supporting players.

Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers are reasonably successful in filling the starring roles of ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre that were created so well in the film by Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould. What promises to make the show a popular one are the zany characters who surround them, including Larry Linville as Maj. Frank Burns and Loretta Switt [sic] as Maj. Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan.

Particularly delightful, at least in the pilot, were McLean Stevenson and Gary Burghoff, as Lt. Col. Blake, the base commander, and his orderly, who anticipates Blake’s every thought. Theirs is the kind of comedy situation that might wear thin after a few shows, but in the short run it is a lot of fun.

The pilot’s plot is a rather poor effort in which Alda and Rogers throw a party and raffle [the winner gets a weekend pass to Tokyo with the most desirable nurse on the base] in order to raise the funds necessary to send their Korean houseboy to school in the States. They are saved from a court martial by their abilities as surgeons, and it all seemed to much like the Hollywood never-never-land story lines that doom so many of television’s comedic attempts.

Fortunately for all concerned, and particularly for you who will be watching it in fall, the plot seems unimportant. It is the fun of getting there, whatever silly place that might be, that promises t be the series’ strong suit.”
J. N., Chicago Tribune – June 15th, 1972 [2]

“They do not expose any naked nurses in the show nor do they spread the bloody innards of the wounded out on the operating table, but the TV version of M*A*S*H still bends the proprieties of television almost to the breaking point.

Hawkeye Pierce [Alan Alda] and Trapper John McIntyre [Wayne Rogers] are as rowdy, lecherous, and disrespectful of authority as they were in the movie. Hot Lips Houlihan [Loretta Swit] and Maj. Frank Burns [Larry Linville] are as blatantly hypocritical about sex. Lt. Col. Henry Blake [McLean Stevenson] has the same trouble keeping the inmates of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital from ‘ruining this war.’

Without the blood and gore, you do not get the same sense of horror that made the film for so many who saw it an anti-war polemic. The operating tent sequences here are filmed in red, but that isn’t the same as focusing the camera down into the wound.

As a wild and wooly satire on army life, however, M*A*S*H will delight anyone who has spent even eight weeks in basic training let alone fought in the war. Hawkeye and Trapper John may not answer the classic question, “How do you get out of this chicken outfit?,” but they are experts at plucking all the feathers.”
Clarence Petersen, Chicago Tribune – September 18th, 1972 [3]

“Like the movie ‘MASH’ and the novel ‘MASH,’ the TV MASH takes a very irreverent attitude toward war. It’s refreshing on a medium that usually takes its war very seriously whether fact or fiction.

The series is obviously less bloody and bawdy than the movie, but it’s bloodier and bawdier than any other TV comedy. At least in the opening session of the series Sunday (on Channel 2 at 8).

In the opening script written by producer Larry Gelbart and directed by executive producer Gene Reynolds, the surgeons, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) hold an auction to raise money to see their Korean houseboy (Patrick Adiarte) to the states to medical school. The prize: a nurse, Lt. Dish (Karen Phillip). Auctioning off weekends with army nurses is not exactly proper military procedure to the army. Nor, for that matter, to Lt. Dish.

How well this sort of thing will go over on Sunday nights at 8 is difficult to say. I wish the show were on at a later hour or a different night. That’s kiddie time–Disneytime. Networks get very nervous about Sunday night. Even CBS.

I was a great admirer of Bob Altman’s movie “MASH” but I don’t think Reynolds and Gelbart have anything to apologize for in the transference to TV. Not the cast, certainly. Alda and Roger are splendid. So is McLean Stevenson as their addle-pated colonel and Gary Berghoff [sic] as his incredible perceptive dogrobber. Loretta Swit as Hot Lips, Larry Linville as the suspicious Maj. Burns, G. Wood as Gen. Hammond–it’s quite a crew. No wonder we didn’t win the Korean War.”
Cecil Smith, Los Angeles Times – September 18th, 1972 [4]

“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 Robert Altman film of the same name. Using dazzling editing techniques, Mr. Altman managed to achieve a balance between insane humor and gruesome war that was thought horrifyingly funny many, thoroughly objectionable by some.

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 premises, 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 and directed by Gene Reynolds,who is producing the series also, 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 (“America has sent thousands of boys to Korea; the least we can do is send one Korean by to America”).

For television, the editing was refreshingly brisk and the humor unusually adult. Tomorrow evening, however, the second episode, written by Burt Styler and directed by Michael O’Herlihy, 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, The New York Times – September 23rd, 1972 [5]

“…might just make it, too. It may have trouble in its time slot, but if so it’ll be moved fast. It’ll be fun.”
Bob Foster, San Mateo Times

“Has a much better chance of surviving because it is an irreverent, offbeat situation comedy which projects a contemporary, adult points of view … of the new season’s harvest of shows it is by far the best.”
Kay Gardella, New York Daily News

“While we still have the ghastly Vietnam war with us, a comedy perspective on repairing bodies during the Korean war just doesn’t register immediately as humorous. A sardonic movie does not always make a TV series hit.”
Bob Williams, New York Post

“The laughs are there but with the compression into a half hour the shifts of mood and tone are often too abrupt.”
Don Freeman, San Diego Union

“It is basically Hogan’s Heroes out of POW camp, in surgery and in another war. No amount of sophomoric naughtiness could change that inescapable finding. The Hawkeye and Trapper John characters were so overwhelmingly fun-loving, so unceasingly wise-guyish and, yes, so generally obnoxious that I almost found myself rooting for Larry Linville’s officious executive officer.”
Tony Lacamera, Boston Herald-Traveler-Record American

“Once the initial nausea is overcome … it is hilarious.”
Terence O’Flaherty, San Francisco Chronicle

“… a surprisingly well-done retread job and I hope Gelbart and Reynolds can keep it going in such good style.”
Will Jones, Minneapolis Tribune

“With the canned laughter toned down, I thought the show came off rather well, although the introduction of so many characters in the opening may be puzzling to the people who did not see the film on which the series was based.”
Ed Swinney, Houston Post

“… doesn’t provide an exact replica of the far-out movie–TV isn’t ready for nudity, explicit sex, and uninhibited combat zone gore and gags–but it comes surprisingly close…”
Harry Harris, Philadelphia Inquirer

Works Cited:

1 “Reviews, cont’d: Critics get more together.” Broadcasting. 25 Sep. 1972: 38.
2 J. N. “An Early Glimpse of the Fall Season.” Chicago Tribune. 15 Jun. 1972: B25.
3 Petersen, Clarence. “Sunday on CBS Short on Family Fare.” Chicago Tribune. 18 Sep. 1972: C13.
4 Smith, Cecil. “TV Reviews: MASH Moves to the Home Screen.” Los Angeles Times. 18 Sep. 1972: E19.
5 O’Connor, John J. “TV: C.B.S. Still Serious About Series Comedies.” New York Times. 23 Sep. 1972: 62.

Originally published on September 16th, 2012
Last updated November 10th, 2013

2 Replies to “Reviews of the Pilot”

  1. Here’s another to add to your impressive collection of ‘M*A*S*H’ pilot reviews:

    From Variety September 20, 1972

    With Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, Larry Linville, Gary Burghoff, Karen Philipp, Timothy Brown, Patrick Adiarte, Lind Melklejohn, John Orchard, George Morgan, B. Kirby Jr., Laura Miller, G. Wood, Odessa Cleveland
    Producer-Director: Gene Reynolds
    Writer: Larry Gelbart
    30 Mins., Sun., 8 p.m.

    CBS is to be commended for its courage in bringing viewers the lighter side of the long-running Southeast Asian conflict.
    For there is this silent majority in America which is sick and tired of all the talk about nepalm, smart bombs, anti-personnel boms, defoilants, tiger cages, the CIA hero-in traffic, bombed-out villages, churches and homes, slant-eyed refugees, the Saigon black market and totalitarian goverment and whining minority grunts with a dope problem.
    This is the American military establishment as good Americans have longed to see it again, a bunch of swell guys, booze and broad-loving brass, who are nevertheless right there with the good old American medical knowhow — a stitch in time, so to speak. Hoo boy! Goodbye, Dismal Seapage, O.; hello Korea.
    The frolicsome cast is headed by Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers as a couple of merrymaking combat surgeons. They distill their own martinis, are constantly on the make for nurses and tell the general what he can do with scalpel. But in the surgical tent when the grunts arrive on stretchers off the mercy copters, these boys are all dedication and medical skill, as even the general must admit. In their everlasting wisdom and sensitivity to viewer feelings, the producers have kept the wounded grunts under the knife out of sight.
    And as an example of the depth of this production awareness, when a shipment of grunts arrives to break up a fund-raising party, the troops are identified as Canadians who tried to make it up Hill 55.
    You might wonder what the funds are for. They are for love-able houseboy Ho Jon’s education in America. It should be noted that the kid is in one piece.
    In the movie which the heart comedy is based upon, the surgeons at work were drenched in blood. It was ghastly. There may be some carping and bleeding hearts around who would insist that this reality lends some dramatic text to all the merrymaking. But the majority will certainly agree that tv’s ever antiseptic creators have been wise to clean it up. As ‘MASH’ emerges in the context of the tube, it is a compliment to the tenacity and courage the medium has displayed in its news coverage of the war.
    The late Lenny Bruce, who had few peers in the line of black comedy, once philosophized that comedy is tragedy — plus time. Some might wonder if CBS’s timing is right on this cleaned up ‘MASH’.



    In a separate table as part of their Annual Radio-TV Review & Preview pullout, Variety reported that ‘M.A.S.H.’ season one episodes had been licensed by CBS for a fee of $95k paid to 20th-Fox TV per half-hour. Comparable CBS comedy license fees for that season were ‘All in the Family’ ($105k), ‘Anna & the King’ ($95k), ‘The Bob Newhart Show’ ($100k), ‘Bridget Loves Bernie’ ($95k), ‘The Doris Day Show’ ($105k), ‘Here’s Lucy’ ($135k), ‘Maude’ ($95k), ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ ($100k), ‘The New Dick Van Dyke Show’ ($103k) and ‘The Sandy Duncan Show’ ($105k).

    I can’t find a rating yet for the ‘M*A*S*H’ preem, but I do remember it opened poorly, pulled down by awful lead-in Nielsens from ‘Anna & The King’.

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