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Why 'M.A.S.H.' still reigns supreme, even after 35 years

MASH TV cast 1975. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In today's "Golden Age of TV," it may seem that everyone watches "Game of Thrones." Its viewership continues to grow, even after seven seasons. The last episode that aired, 2017's season seven finale, attracted a series high of 16.5 million viewers.

But those numbers are minuscule compared to the audience that tuned in to "M*A*S*H," a sitcom about a U.S. medical team serving in the Korean War. More than 106 million people watched its finale, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," which aired on CBS 35 years ago today. The episode was so highly anticipated that 30-second advertising slots sold for $450,000, more than some slots for 1983's Super Bowl.

An estimated million viewers in New York City alone used the toilet after the show ended, pouring 6.7 million gallons of water through the city's sewers, United Press International reported at the time. "In speaking to engineers who've been around 30 or 40 years, they haven't encountered anything like this before," Peter Barrett, a spokesman for the city Department of Environmental Protection, told UPI.

The episode held the record for the most-watched show from 1983 until 2010, when the Super Bowl pitting the Indianapolis Colts against the post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans Saints edged it out by half a million viewers. But that comparison is skewed, as there were 83.3 million homes with televisions in 1983 and 115 million in 2010, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, no other scripted television show has come close to touching the "M*A*S*H" finale. These finales tried (stats via the New York Times):

"Cheers": 80.4 million on NBC in 1993.

"Seinfeld": 76.3 million on NBC in 1998.

"Friends": 52.5 million on NBC in 2004.

"M*A*S*H," a bittersweet, irreverent critique of war, captured a national feeling. It debuted in September 1972, a year before the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War. The nation was glued to live broadcasts of the war on the evening news.

"We wanted to say that war was futile and to represent it as a failure on everybody's part that people had to kill each other to make a point," the show's co-creator Larry Gelbert said.

The show followed a group of surgeons and nurses - including Capt. Benjamin Franklin 'Hawkeye' Pierce (Alan Alda), Maj. Margaret 'Hot Lips' Houlihan (Loretta Swit) and Cpl. Walter 'Radar' O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) - in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital stationed in Uijeongbu, South Korea, during the Korean War.

At the time, half-hour shows were comedies, and "M*A*S*H," which was based on the Robert Altman 1970 film of the same name, was ostensibly a comedy as well. But it was also a commentary about the horror of war.

"The show's action derives from the grim work which the MASH staff tries to forget by crazy after-hours antics," co-creator Gene Reynolds told The Post in 1973. "Somehow, these help them stay sane."

It did this largely through two plotlines, "usually with at least one story in the comedic vein and another dramatic," as was noted in the Archive of American Television. This technique would later be called the "dramedy," one of the most popular current formats on television.

And by airing during the Vietnam War but setting itself in Korea, the show was able to be a "commentary on the futility of all war, and the inherent madness of military life, no matter the era," as critic Noel Murray wrote in the A.V. Club.

Further setting the show apart from other sitcoms at the time was the desire of creators Gelbart and Reynolds' to broadcast the show without a laugh track, or prerecorded laughter.

CBS did not always agree with their vision. The network fought them on the laugh track, until they reached a compromise: It would only have a light "chuckle track," which would never play during scenes in the surgical tent, according to IMDb. When the BBC later aired the show, it omitted the laugh track entirely.

The network also thought the show got too serious.

One of the first episodes to keep audiences laughing before delivering a realistic, sober gut-punch about the horrors of war was in "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet," which aired on January 28, 1973. In the episode, Hawkeye's old friend, war correspondent Tommy Gillis, visits the 4077th and heads to the front lines. The two pal around, drinking martinis and laughing.

Later in the episode, Gillis dies on the operating table.

In an emotional monologue, Col. Henry Blake (McLean Steveson) tells Hawkeye, "Look, all I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war and rule No. 1 is young men die. And rule No. 2 is doctors can't change rule No. 1."

Burt Metcalfe, an executive producer, director and writer on the show, told the Hollywood Reporter, "At the end of that season, this jerky CBS executive comes into our offices and says, 'Let me tell you guys how you ruined M*A*S*H, and cites that episode."

"It's just so far from the truth," he added.

In fact, the network almost canceled the show after its first seasons, as the former Washington Post's TV critic Lawrence Laurent wrote in 1973. That would have been a poor decision, Laurent added, as the show offered "some of TV's rare, but genuine, comedy."

Eventually, CBS decided Laurent and the show's dedicated fans were onto something, and it moved "M*A*S*H," to the 9:30 p.m. Saturday slot for its third season, between "All in the Family" and "Mary Tyler Moore."

The show's creators still refused to tone it down. If anything, they steadily increased the show's drama through the years, without forgoing the comedy. For example, the show did something almost unheard of on television at the time: it killed off Col. Henry Blake, a beloved character, despite the network's hesitation.

"We resolved that instead of doing an episode in which yet another actor leaves yet another series, we would try to have [Blake's] departure make a point, one that was consistent with the series's attitude regarding the wastefulness of war; we would have that character die as a result of the conflict," Gelbart wrote, according to Snopes. "After three years of showing faceless bit players and extras portraying dying or dead servicemen, here was an opportunity to have a character die that our audience knew and loved, one whose death would mean something to them."

In the episode, titled "Abyssinia, Henry," Blake is discharged, but his plane is shot down over Japan, and he dies.

"We got so much mail. Some people thought it was great and others were very upset. 'You made my little kid cry!'" Metcalfe told the Hollywood Reporter. " ... We got a letter from a 15-year-old girl who said she understood our motives. 'I feel that I have joined that all too non-inclusive fraternity of those who have lost a dear one overseas.' I thought that was such an incredible observation by someone so young. That was the response we were hoping for."

The show's popularity continued to climb for more than a decade. It attracted an array of guest stars over the years including Patrick Swayze, John Ritter, Laurence Fishburne, Pat Morita, Rita Wilson, George Wendt, Shelley Long, Ed Begley Jr., Blythe Danner, Teri Garr, and Andrew Dice Clay.

The show lasted for 11 seasons, at which point the show's producers and writing team chose to take it off the air "to protect itself from devolution," as Metcalfe told Smithsonian.

The finale is still available to watch on various platforms. It wouldn't be right to offer spoilers, but rest assured that each characters gets his or her own unique sendoff - some heartwarming and, in typical "M*A*S*H" fashion, some gut-wrenching.

Story by Travis M. Andrews. Andrews is a reporter for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Previously, he was an editor for Southern Living and a pop culture and tech contributor for Mashable.