The pilot episode of “M*A*S*H,” which aired on Sept. 17, 1972, on CBS, lets you know immediately where and when you are. Sort of. “KOREA 1950,” the opening titles read. “A HUNDRED YEARS AGO.”
The Korean War could indeed seem a century away from 1972, separated by a gulf of cultural change and social upheaval. But as a subject, it was also entirely current, given that America was then fighting another bloody war, in Vietnam. The covert operation “M*A*S*H” pulled off was to deliver a timely satire camouflaged as a period comedy.
The year before, CBS had premiered Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” a battlefield dispatch from an American living room. But “M*A*S*H” was another level of escalation, sending up the lunacy of war even as Walter Cronkite was still reading the news about it. The caption acknowledged the risk by winking at it: Who, us, making topical commentary?