Unlike other TV sitcoms which are typically shot in one session on a sound stage in front of a live audience, M*A*S*H was filmed over several days either on-location at the Fox ranch or on Sound Stage 9 in the Fox studios. Freed of the limitations of a live audience, the show directors and screenwriters had the freedom to experiment with unusual camera angles and story-telling strategies. As a result, the 11 seasons of M*A*S*H would feature some unusual and innovative narrative formats.
The "letter home"Edit
The "letter home" narrative format was one where a character writes a letter to someone, usually a relative at home, describing some aspect of life at the 4077th. This format gave the character an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings which would be otherwise difficult to do. The characters can occasionally breach the fourth wall, for example to explain something in detail or to say something to the audience.
The letter format also gave screenwriters an opportunity to use plot ideas which would be too small to form episodes of their own. Several such plot lines could be narrated by the letter-writer, with his voiceover providing the transition and link. The letter home strategy became one of the staples of the series and was probably in danger of being overused. Eventually, many members of the main cast would have episodes based on this format. Examples of the letter-home format are:
- "Pilot Episode" (Season 1) - starts with Hawkeye narrating a letter to his father. He takes the opportunity to explain meatball surgery, as much for the audience as for his father. The letter format is not, however, continued after the first few minutes of the episode.
- "Dear Dad" (Season 1) - a Christmas episode where Hawkeye narrates various happenings during the yuletide season. In his conclusion, he takes the opportunity to introduce the various MASH personnel and send Christmas greetings on their behalf to his dad (and also, through the fourth wall, to the audience).
- "Dear Dad...Again" (Season 1)
- "Radar's Report" (Season 2) - Another innovative use of the letter format. This time the letter is in the form of a report to headquarters. Narrated by Radar, it is the vehicle for several small plotlines involving a prisoner of war, Hawkeye's brief but serious affair with a nurse and Klinger's first encounter with Sidney Freedman.
- "Dear Dad...Three" (Season 2)
- "A Full Rich Day" (Season 3)- Hawkeye narrates a letter to his dad on a tape recorder. He explains the concept of triage to his dad (this is mainly for the benefit of the audience--his dad is also a doctor!).
- "Private Charles Lamb" (Season 3) - Hawkeye again writes to his dad. The brief voiceover at the beginning is mainly a device for mentioning the many other allied nations with troops fighting alongside the US. This is mainly to explain the presence of the Greek troops in the hospital. The Greek style Easter party held for them forms the main plot of the episode.
- "Bulletin Board" (Season 3) - Trapper writes a letter to his daughter Becky in which he describes his swampmates Hawkeye and Frank Burns.
- "Dear Mildred" (Season 4) - Potter writes home.
- "Dear Peggy" (Season 4) - Now B.J.'s turn.
- "Dear Ma" (Season 4) - Not to be outdone, Radar's turn.
- "Dear Sigmund" (Season 5) - another innovative episode where Sidney Freedman writes his diary in the form of a letter to Sigmund Freud, recording his observations about the mental state of the MASH 4077th personnel.
- "The Most Unforgettable Characters" (Season 5) - like "Radar's Report". Radar narrates the duty log which he is preparing for HQ, but this time he uses the purpliest of purple prose which he is picking up from a correspondence course in creative writing.
- "The Winchester Tapes" (Season 6) - Winchester now, he dictates his letter to his parents into a tape recorder.
- "Dear Comrade" (Season 7) - another innovative episode where a Korean spy posing as a houseboy writes to his intelligence chief. We get a view of the MASH people as seen through the eyes of the enemy.
- "Dear Sis" (Season 7) - Father Mulcahy writes a letter to his sister, reflecting on how useless he feels.
- "Dear Uncle Abdul" (Season 8) - Klinger writes to his uncle.
- "Letters" (Season 9) - The MASH receives a batch of letters written by a class of school children in Hawkeye's hometown. Each of the main characters write letters in reply.
- Where There's a Will, There's a War (Season 10) - Not a "letter home" per se, but Hawkeye reflects his thoughts on each of his 4077th co-workers as he writes out his last will and testament during a particularly difficult assignment at Battalion Aid.
Season 4 "The Interview" was made in the form of a mock documentary. Clete Roberts, who actually served as a war correspondent in World War II and Korea, played himself in the episode, bringing in a film crew to record the thoughts and feelings of the 4077th personnel. This format-busting episode is the only one in the series filmed completely in black and white and is considered by many fans to be among the best episode ever. It was also the last episode to be written by Larry Gelbart. According to him, some answers to the interviewer's questions were scripted while others were left for the cast to improvise either during rehearsal or even during the actual filming.
The success of The Interview was followed up in Season 7 two parter "Our Finest Hour". Here Clete Roberts visits the 4077th again to interview the personnel. This episode is slightly different from the previous mockumentary in that clips of previous episodes are shown, including clips of the departed Henry Blake, Frank Burns and Trapper.
First person camera viewEdit
In "Point of View" (Season 7) the directors took the innovative approach of having the camera take the point of view of a character, in this case, that of a soldier from the time he is wounded, through his evacuation by chopper to the MASH, his treatment there until the time he is shipped out to be sent home. This kind of camera technique is seldom tried and can be risky because it could turn out very weird results if done incorrectly. Faces of people speaking to the character/camera could look too large and there would also be awkwardness if the character had to speak. In this episode the awkwardness was avoided by having the character have a throat wound so he couldn't speak most of the time. The result was a successful episode, generally felt to be among the best, plus we get many good aerial views of the MASH camp as the chopper approached for landing.
An episode in real timeEdit
In "Life Time" (Season 8), the 4077th receives a patient who has a lacerated aorta which must be repaired within 20 minutes or he will be paralyzed or die of renal failure. A clock is superimposed on the screen from the point Hawkeye applies his hand to the damaged vessel and presses it against the spinal column. The 4077th rushes to perform the surgery in time as the "clock" ticks.
In other series, bottle shows, where all the action takes place in one location, are typically produced towards the end of a season to save on budget, the need for extras, props and sets. Such bottle shows typical emphasize character development. In M*A*S*H, bottle shows were attempted for a variety of other reasons, such as when a change of scenery was desired, or to emphasize a certain location. Examples of bottle shows are:
- "O.R." (Season 3). This episode is set entirely in the O.R., the scrub room and the rest area outside. Each surgeon goes through a personal struggle--Hawkeye has to attempt an untried method to resuscitate a patient while Henry has to make a decision to leave a patient, who is beyond help, to die.
- "The Bus" (Season 4). The MASH doctors and Radar are traveling back to the 4077th on a bus but they end up taking a wrong turn and getting lost. The entire action takes place in and around a bus during the episode.
- "Hawkeye" (Season 4). Hawkeye's jeep flips over outside a Korean house. With kinda the help of the Koreans, Hawkeye tries to stay out of a coma. Hawkeye is the only main cast character in this episode.
- "Follies of the Living-Concerns of the Dead" (Season 10). While suffering an extreme fever, Klinger is the only one who can see and is able to converse with a recently deceased soldier.
- "Dreams" (Season 8). The main characters, suffering from exhaustion after literally days of non-stop surgery, find no relief in their short sleep breaks as each one experiences a dream directly related to the war.
This is done only once, in the Season 4 episode "Hawkeye". Hawkeye has had a jeep accident and seeks shelter in a Korean family's home. He is afraid he may have concussion so he must keep talking in order to remain conscious. The Korean family cannot speak English so Hawkeye is essentially talking to himself throughout the whole episode. No other main cast member appears.
Entire year in one episodeEdit
(work in progress)