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In a classic M*A*S*H, the staff held its own Olympics

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie or TV show coming out that week. This week: In honor of the Olympics, and the Olympic-themed episode of NBC’s Superstore, we’re revisiting our favorite episodes about intra-office competition.

M*A*S*H, “The M*A*S*H Olympics” (season six, episode 10; originally aired 11/22/1977)

The tone and style of M*A*S*H changed some over its 11 seasons, as cast members and writers shuffled in and out, and as the tastes of the American television audience shifted back toward broader humor. But throughout its run, the sitcom had a few constants: a social conscience, a grounding in history, and an understanding that the show wasn’t just about war. In a lot of ways, M*A*S*H was a workplace comedy, following a group of men and women just trying to stave off boredom and get through another day, alongside people who often got on their nerves. The big difference was that the “office” here was a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital—the 4077th—and the coworkers had been yanked out of their mid-century American lives to live full-time in a remote part of Korea.

One of the longstanding jokes about M*A*S*H was that the show lasted nearly four times as long as the Korean War did. But while the series never cared too much about continuity, its writers did occasionally try to connect their stories to actual historical events. In 1977, writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs had the staff of the 4077th become obsessed with the 1952 Summer Olympics. The resulting episode, “The M*A*S*H Olympics,” combines actual newsreel footage from Helsinki with a plot that sees the doctors and nurses go up against each other in a series of physical challenges—originally intended as a way for them all to get into shape, but eventually becoming a grudge match between fiercely competitive friends.

The games are a callback of sorts (albeit likely unintentionally) to the original 1970 M*A*S*H movie, which ends with the doctors playing football against a rival camp. In the film, sports is a metaphor for the kind of macho shenanigans that lead to war. On TV, the camp Olympics illustrate how even an event meant to bring people together can devolve into pettiness and destructive showboating. As tent-mates Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) coach their respective teams, they turn something fun into a passive-aggressive expression of pent-up resentment, born from long months and years of being stuck together. The collateral damage to their rivalry is nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan’s (Loretta Swit) planned leave with her husband (above), who gets sucked into the Olympic mania.

Yet as often happens with this show, “The M*A*S*H Olympics” is an entertaining half-hour because it celebrates the ingenious ways people find to entertain each other when they’re somewhere they’d rather not be. This is a fast-paced episode, and a little heavier on the slapstick than usual because of the physicality of the competition. But it has M*A*S*H’s usual core of humanity, which helped keep the series on the air for over a decade. Ordinarily, no one would want to spend time in a war zone—even for just 30 minutes a week. But Americans tuned in by the tens of millions to hang out with people a lot like themselves: hardworking folks who knew how to make the best of a bad situation.

Availability: The complete run of M*A*S*H is available in various configurations via multiple 20th Century Fox DVD sets.

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