Setting a record for an HBO series, the final episode of Game of Thrones drew an audience of 19.3 million people in the US. That’s more than the opening-weekend attendance of most movies — John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum sold only 6.3 million tickets in North America in its franchise-best debut, for instance, while new record holder Avengers: Endgame brought in an astonishing crowd of 39.6 million domestically in its first few days (the Marvel Cinematic Universe “finale” has so far sold what would seem to be a whopping 85.6 million tickets in the US and Canada). That’s still a rather minuscule amount of people compared to the audience that tuned in for the series finale of M*A*S*H: 105.97 million.
More than 35 years later, that two-hour (minus commercials) program, titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” remains the most-watched TV episode in history, never mind the most-watched finale. That was more than half the TVs in America at the time. And it was the champion for any kind of TV broadcast up until the 2010 Super Bowl managed to finally draw a bigger audience, and subsequent Super Bowls also topped the M*A*S*H finale through 2017 (the last two games fell short). Fewer homes had television sets back in 1983, though (so ratings “‘share” was different), and many fans in California had to miss “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” on the night because of storm-causing power outages.
Of course, people watch TV differently today. There’s DVR, and there are plenty who’ll watch the Game of Thrones ending (“The Iron Throne”) someday. But the M*A*S*H finale also went beyond its initial ratings. Even before (or without) accounting for viewers of the reruns or syndicated airings or Netflix streams of the show, there were those Californians who missed the episode in its original airing on CBS on February 28, 1983, who would catch up almost a month later. It should also be pointed out that the total US viewership of “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” is known to be 121.6 million, which is the number of Americans who tuned in to at least six minutes of the episode. The success was no fluke, either. CBS knew enough to charge an unprecedented amount ($450,000 — about $1.2 million today) for each 30-second commercial aired during the television event.
So, what was it about M*A*S*H that made its conclusion so popular? Was there just nothing else on? On the night of February 28, 1983, the show’s network competition over its two and a half hour airtime included a made-for-television disaster movie titled The Night the Bridge Fell Down on NBC, a Frontline episode on gun control and then a Wagner-focused episode of Great Performances on PBS, and on ABC, the reality show That’s Incredible! followed by the broadcast premiere of the Richard Gere movie American Gigolo. On cable, HBO was showing Sharky’s Machine and Showtime had the hit movie Diner, and of course, there were other channels with old movies and other various programming. The biggest movies in theaters at the time were still Tootsie, Gandhi, and 48 HRS., all a few months into their release, and E.T. in its 39th week.
M*A*S*H was the preferred entertainment for the majority of the country that night because the show was simply that beloved. Based on the Robert Altman movie of the same name, the half-hour single-camera series debuted more than a decade earlier, in the fall of 1972. Set during the Korean War and following a US Army Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) led by the wisecracking Chief Surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda), the comedy arrived as the Vietnam War was still going on and resonated with a nation that continued to tune in to reports from the conflict on the nightly news. Like a number of sitcoms of the era, M*A*S*H dealt with important and timely themes (in its second season, it appropriately followed All in the Family), but it became even more serious over time. Some would even classify it as more a drama that was often funny than a comedy that was sometimes tragic as it progressed. Yet it was never too biased politically to alienate anyone who did support the troops or sided with the liberal intellectual “Hawkeye,” who was, over time, portrayed as imperfect to a level of antihero status.
For a show that went through as many creative decisions and personnel as M*A*S*H did, viewers could continue to count on the series offering a bit of substance with their amusement, whether it was through historical or political or dramatic elements. But the leading factor in the ongoing success of the show, which was actually almost canceled in its first year due to poor ratings (M*A*S*H went from 46th place in Season 1 to fourth place in Season 2 thanks to a timeslot change), has to be the characters that drove the storytelling episode to episode. Altman’s movie was based on a novel by “Richard Hooker” (Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, aka “Horny”), which was inspired by his own experiences as a MASH unit surgeon during the Korean War. The show was imbued with the humanity of stories based on real events — the production also regularly received suggestions from other veterans and medical professionals — and that kept M*A*S*H and its characters genuine and often relatable.
Sometimes silly, sometimes devastating, all of it stemmed from the true antics and horrors of war, not only as Hornberg knew it but as many Korean War vets attested to, as well. Everybody knew “the real ‘Hawkeye'” over there, apparently. And the rest of the ensemble, played to perfection by a diverse range of individual talents, was anything but fill-in sitcom types or stereotypes of military figures. Meanwhile, not bound by any nonfictional commitment, M*A*S*H was one of the most cleverly plotted sitcoms and influenced many comedy and drama series to come with its multiple-storyline episodes and occasional experiments with structure. One installment from Season 4 in 1976 (“The Interview”) even took a faux-documentary approach decades before The Office popularized the idea. Even that episode was based on a real program, though, ever maintaining that sense of authenticity. M*A*S*H wasn’t always fresh, but then after a while, it was comfortable enough for the fans not to need it to always be original.
By the end of the series, which lasted almost four times as long as the actual Korean War, all the great elements of M*A*S*H culminate in its dramatic finale. Literally signing off with a TV movie, the show is able to fit a lot into “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” Numerous loose ends are tied up as that super-sized 256th episode also had the benefit of a natural endpoint: the last days of the war. With so much time and so many characters to say goodbye, farewell, and amen to, it can seem scattered, but there was no reason to give audiences a more focused and pointed finale. Fans just need the bittersweet ending of seeing things wrapped up and learning what happens to the characters whose fictionally evolved lives they’ve been invested in for 11 years. “Suicide is painless,” as the theme song’s lyrics claim, and even if it’s sad to see it over, a non-gimmicky straightforward finale is, too, though we can also “take that or leave it as [we] please.” But first we, almost all of us, just had to see it.