“Which shows had the greatest collection of characters of all time?”

That was the question I agreed to tackle, and it seemed simple enough — at least, until the elimination game began, and settling on criteria became an issue.

The best characters, or the best cast? Comedy or drama? Volume or quality? How to distinguish characters from the overall show? Could a program with a great couple of leads — say, Felix and Oscar — overcome a brilliant ensemble, such as “Cheers,” “Frasier” or “Everybody Loves Raymond,” where every player delivered laughs? Normally, a full house (but not the “Full House”) beats a pair of aces.

Then there’s the question of nostalgia, or how one could even begin to compare the current century with beloved programs birthed in the 1950s or ’60s, much less the quality explosion that occurred in the ’70s and ’80s. In terms of complexity, there’s simply no Watergate-era equivalent of “Breaking Bad,” “Lost” or “Mad Men.”

Finally, there’s the little matter of longevity, and — in some instances — weathering a shifting assortment of characters. Should “MASH” earn extra credit for replacing personalities like Trapper John and Henry Blake with the equally appealing B.J. Hunnicutt and Sherman Potter? And what about “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” siring all those spinoffs?

If this sort of barroom exercise can’t really produce a “right” answer, it seems easy enough to come up with a lot of wrong ones. And frankly, trying to pick from among series like “All in the Family,” “The Honeymooners” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” is one of those decisions that could change daily, in the same way preferring Willie Mays or Henry Aaron might change depending on mood, or the theoretical needs of one’s fictional baseball team.

So rather than argue pros and cons — or seek to convince fans of “The Wire” and “The Sopranos,” or “The West Wing” and “Hill Street Blues,” why those dramatic titans shouldn’t top the list — here’s a brief case for the show that does. (Regarding the great HBO shows, one can argue the sheer tonnage of certain casts actually dilutes the characters for these purposes.)

Aside from running 11 seasons, “MASH” popularized the concept of “dramedy” — effortlessly shifting between comedy and drama — before the term was even coined. Anchored by Alan Alda, the cast was deep, distinguished and survived considerable turnover.

Although not as fruitful as “Mary Tyler Moore” (which amounts to a sort-of runner-up) in begetting spinoffs, even the broadest characters on “MASH” were allowed moments of genuine pathos, and the backdrop of the Korean war — overlapping with Vietnam — gave a resonance to the silliness.

“MASH” also featured some of TV’s most memorable exits, offering a poignant reminder that life, combat and the series itself marched on.

The show’s finale, of course, reigned for years as the most-watched event in TV history before rising population levels caught up with it, but the rating and share (more than 60% of U.S. homes tuned in) remain unassailable.

There was a reason for that. A lot of great TV characters have come and gone, but “MASH” finally gets the edge over the rest. It was a class act, with a cast that could uniformly point to the show as the best work of their careers — right until that helicopter made its last ride over the horizon.

So there it is. Final answer.

Just don’t hold me to it.

Emmy Commemorative 2012
Critic says ‘MASH’ top show of character
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