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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that M*A*S*H is an outstanding dark comedy set during the Korean War at a mobile military hospital. Based on the classic 1970 movie, the show includes scenes of operating rooms with visible blood, wounded soldiers writhing in pain, and frank discussion of death. Though many of the characters are pro-military, the main characters are firmly anti-war and speak regularly and cynically about war and the military. Many episodes include veiled discussions of sexual activity, and there's some kissing and groping, though it's usually in a comedic context. Several characters drink regularly, one cross-dresses in an attempt to get sent home, and most are prone to playing practical jokes on each other. Older tweens and young teens will likely enjoy the show for Hawkeye's wisecracks and the broader humor, but its more subtle messages may not kick in until kids are older.
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What's the story?
M*A*S*H is a classic black comedy set during the Korean War that took an anti-war stance during a raw time in American political history. Spanning almost the entire decade of the 1970s, the show spoke for the many people disillusioned with the Vietnam War and its surrounding political climate. The ensemble cast includes Alan Alda as Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, the chief surgeon with a cynical perspective and acerbic wit; Jamie Farr as Maxwell Q. Klinger, the wacky clerk who crossdresses in hopes of getting discharged; and Loretta Swit as Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, the head nurse with a sincere loyalty to the army and her work. Most of the action takes place at the 4077 MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit in Korea and the storylines are set against constant helicopter deliveries of wounded servicemen and their subsequent surgeries and recoveries (or deaths). Episodes follow everyday dramas, from playing practical jokes on "Hot Lips" and her married suitor, Frank Burns (Larry Linville), to protecting Klinger from an angry villager who thinks he has dishonored her daughter.
Is it any good?
Throughout the action, physical humor and dead-on wit keep the atmosphere light, though the ugliness of war pokes constantly through the façade. Some episodes, particularly later in the series, departed from the normal format, including a group of episodes where Hawkeye sees a psychologist and the shows are mostly monologue. Many think some of the later shows also became more heavy handed with its moralizing tone and lost some of the initial comedic spark.
Parents will want younger viewers to stay away. The dark theme of war and sometimes complex, adult humor may go over some kids' heads, but the bloody operating room scenes, frequent allusions to sex and female body parts, and the miniature distillery in Hawkeye's tent won't. It's hard to imagine mature teens showing much interest in M*A*S*H, since it tells a story so far removed from their reality, but perhaps the timeliness of war and the discussion of America's military role in the world will draw their attention. Parents may want to be available to help teens draw connections between then and now.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about war and the military and how it's portrayed on M*A*S*H. What do parents and teens know about the Korean and Vietnam wars? What are teens' thoughts on the current war(s)? Would teens serve in the military during a war they didn't believe in? Why or why not?
What was the relationship between the show's military personnel and the Korean villagers? Do you think that was realistic and/or consistent with the military's relationship with other civilians in conflict zones?
What purpose does humor serve in talking about the serious subject of war? Does the show successfully balance comedy and drama?
For teens and adults who've seen the film that M*A*S*H was based on, which version do you prefer? Why?
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