Thus the contract with the audience that usually obtains with sitcoms and other genres was allowed to be modified. It was Alda's belief that once the program gained its viewers' trust and affection, the show could then deviate from rigid expectations: "The audience made a pact with us. We could be as imaginative and exploratory as we wanted . . . because they knew we would never be wanton with them" (Corliss, 65). As the program became a hit, this popularity gained for its producers unprecedented freedom from the network as well as the audience (which was light-years ahead of the network executives). According to Larry Gelbart, "As our ratings climbed, corporate resistance fell. . . . I am convinced that we achieved a creative freedom unheard of in the medium before or since" (Gelbart, 25). The program was equally popular with young and old, men and women (Dougherty, 8). Besides being well written, well acted, and funny, it evidently had something for everyone in the audience, including farce and feeling, buffoonery and literary allusions. The character of Radar, for example, was designed for his appeal to children and older women.
Thus, the audience's loyal acceptance of whatever M*A*S*H dished out allowed changes of tone; it became possible to drop completely any pretense of being a comedy for all or part of some episodes. The show's creators also experimented with formal innovations. As often as not, the structure abandoned the classical sitcom formula in which the "situation" is disturbed but the order is resolved within twenty-four minutes. Indeed, there are any number of episodes that have no plot at all. One frequent substitute format
is the "letter home" (written by any of the principals, or even a visiting shrink) in which a voice-over provides some narrative structure.
Another episode ("Hawkeye," season four) consists solely of a monologue, in which Pierce, who has sustained a head wound, keeps talking to a family of noncomprehending Koreans so as not to lose consciousness. (This episode is one of the few that were allowed to be aired without a laugh track.) The elegance of this episode is that it takes to an extreme one of Hawkeye's best-known tendencies: volubility. His character has a wisecrack for every occasion, a love of wordplay and alliteration, and a tendency to deliver orations on any occasion (hence the ode to the thumb in "Hawkeye" or the ode to the "tushie" in "Dear Ma" [season four]).
Perhaps the most acclaimed episode is "The Interview," an episode shot in black and white in which the characters are interviewed as if for a stateside newsreel. Although the writers made a number of suggestions, much of this episode was improvised by the actors, who by this time (season four) had become greatly involved with the development of their characters.
Another deviation from convention was the "Dreams" episode (season eight), which ventures into surrealistic representations of the characters' anxieties as they take cat-naps during an operating marathon.
If the above experiments delve into the feelings of the medics, several other experiments emphasize the ordeals of the patients. "Point of View" (year seven) is filmed entirely from the literal perspective of a wounded soldier who cannot talk. "Life Time" (season eight) superimposes a clock on bottom right of the image as we go through the twenty-four minute rescue with a wounded soldier who risks paralysis if surgery isn't undergone within twenty minutes.