Critic says ‘MASH’ top show of character

Emmy Commemorative 2012

“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
Anti-heroes | At your service | Authorities | Crimesolvers | Father Figures | Goundbreakers | Height of Hijinx | Heroes | Inseparable Duos | Journeyers | Ones of a kind

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • T.J. Dillashaw, right, kicks Cody Garbrandt

    Disney Plans UFC Broadcast for FX

    UFC matches will return to FX  – but not on a permanent basis. ESPN has been showing preliminary bouts to UFC pay-per-view events for the last while on ESPN and ESPN2, and then showing the main card on its ESPN+ subscription video service. In September, the early lineup will air on FX, which the UFC [...]

  • George RR Martin

    George R.R. Martin Says HBO's 'Game of Thrones' Ending Won't Influence Future Novels

    Geroge R.R. Martin is sticking to his original plan when it comes to the future of “Game of Thrones.” In an interview with The Observer, Martin claimed that HBO’s controversial ending for the series would have no affect on the endings of the last two novels. “No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything at all,” [...]

  • Listen: 'Pennyworth' Producer Talks Delving into

    Listen: 'Pennyworth' Executive Producer Talks Delving into Alfred's Backstory

    Bruno Heller may have served as an executive producer on the Batman-inspired series “Gotham” for the past five years, but it’s actually real-life people (not superheroes) that intrigue the producer the most. It’s for that exact reason that Heller’s newest series finds him exploring the origin stories of Batman’s butler Alfred in the Epix drama [...]

  • "Trust Issues" - Dylan and Lizzie

    'Instinct' Canceled After Two Seasons

    CBS has canceled “Instinct” after two seasons. Series creator Michael Rauch announced the cancellation Friday on Twitter, writing, “I’m very sad to relay the news that @instinctcbs won’t be renewed for a 3rd season. We will double up this Sunday and our season/series finale will be Aug 25.” Rauch also thanked series stars Alan Cumming [...]

  • Maisel Day

    My Mostly OK Maisel Day (Column)

    When Amazon announced its first-ever Maisel Day, I was intrigued. For one day, Aug. 15, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans and Angelenos (fangelenos?) could hit up various restaurants, theaters and retailers throughout Los Angeles for special deals, all at 1959 prices. Among the gems: $2.50 makeovers, $0.99 pastrami sandwiches and $0.30 for a gallon of [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley' Final

    TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley's' Final Season Sets October Premiere Date

    In today’s roundup, “Silicon Valley” returns to HBO on Oct. 27 and Quibi greenlights a new cooking competition show “Dismantled.” DATES The fifth season of Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders” will premiere on the streamer Oct. 4. The newest season will continue to follow one gangster family in the lawless streets of Birmingham, UK during the midst [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content