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Digitizing M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H is my favorite TV show. The characters are all very well defined, identifiable yet deep. The setting provides a comforting familiarity and a contiual sense of urgency. I could write a hundred more sentences but basically I like M*A*S*H.

I've also watched M*A*S*H for most of my life. As a kid with satellite television, we would record it whenever it was on and I would watch it fairly often. I got back into it in my teens, but we eventually traded our satellite television for Netflix. Netflix, for a short did, did have M*A*S*H, so that was my preferred way of watching it.

M*A*S*H left Netflix in 2016, which left me without a way to watch it. Sometime in college, however, I found something interesting: someone had uploaded M*A*S*H to the Internet Archive. Even better, the version they had uploaded did not have a laugh track.

One of the most commonly repeated facts about M*A*S*H is that the creators did not like the sitcom laugh track. They refused to allow it in operating room scenes, they reduced its prevalence throughout the show to the point of many episodes not even including it towards the end of the show's run, and later releases and airings of M*A*S*H often omit the laugh track. I have what I consider a pretty uncontroversial view on laugh tracks; if it's filmed in front of a studio audience, it's fine and sometimes can even add to jokes knowing that they were said in front of an audience. That being said, any show which obviously was not filmed in front of an audience is smothered by laugh tracks. M*A*S*H is obviously one of those shows.

I don't remember my first time watching M*A*S*H without a laugh track. Maybe it was on satellite TV, or maybe it was the previously mentioned upload. In any case, my enjoyment of the show immensely improved once the laugh track was out of the way. I watched through M*A*S*H probably two or three times from that particular Internet Archive upload. Well, skipping the first three seasons. Another point is that basically every episode of M*A*S*H is cut down in re-runs, even on channels that air the show sans laugh track. This upload, however, was clearly from a DVD release, and had no content removed to make room for advertising.

But then, it suddenly vanished. Probably because publicly uploading a full TV show to a website accessible from Google (which is how I found it) isn't a great idea. So the next time I felt like watching M*A*S*H, I was suddenly taken back to the dark ages of a M*A*S*H-less life, the years I spent after its disappearance from Netflix wondering if I'd ever get to see it again.

Well, it's not that dramatic. It's a popular show, I knew it would probably be somewhere. But still, I wondered how long it would be until I had access to it again. Actually, around this time I went to a friend's apartment and happened to see that M*A*S*H was on Hulu. We watched an episode, and I couldn't help but notice it had a laugh track. Absolutely intolerable. I had to take drastic measures.

I mean, at this point you're probably like, just pirate the show, dumbass. Okay fine. I downloaded a copy of the show, no laugh track. Funny enough, it turned out to be the exact copy that was uploaded to the Internet Archive. I'll tell you how I know. Three episodes of that particular copy of the show are broken and don't play correctly. All in the same season, too. Those are:

  1. 4x06 - The Bus
  2. 4x09 - Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler
  3. 4x24 - The Interview

So up to that point, I hadn't actually seen the full series, unedited and without laugh track. And I still couldn't. However, a few years later, after having graduated college and started working, I realize that I should put my money towards important causes. Like getting myself an actual copy of M*A*S*H.

I had read online of a box set of M*A*S*H called the Martinis and Medicine Collection. Notably, it had the option to watch without the laugh track. This was the perfect solution for me, to get the entire show on DVD, digitize it to have the complete show in a digital format, and have a nice physical copy of the show to boot. So I ordered a copy from eBay.

The listing claimed that the set had been only used a few times and was in pretty good condition. This was bullshit. The physical box was fine, but the DVDs were held in cardstock sleeves and clearly had been removed and replaced many, many times. Sure enough, when I tried to digitize them, the program could not get through most of the discs without read errors. Actually, the errors didn't start happening until a few discs in, which made me think I was overestimating the damage to the discs for a short time. In any case, I would not be able to digitize the entire collection.

However, I thought, do I really need to? I already have a mostly complete digital collection. The only issue is three episodes that didn't work. I only really need the DVDs to work for those three episodes. So, I tried ripping the Season 4 DVDs to disc images, then ripping videos from those images. And, to my surprise, there weren't read errors for any of those three episodes, meaning I now had a complete digital copy of M*A*S*H!

And then I watched those episodes.

Something was off. Or, rather, something was not off now that was off before. Something was on.

These episodes were noticably higher quality, both visually and audibly, than the rest of the episodes I already had. Clearly, whoever digitized the copy I had downloaded had compressed the video files, either for long term storage or for smaller upload times. Whatever the reason, I now had three outlier video files. Which, really, is not the biggest problem in the world.

Unless you're me. I spent several days trying to find any other copy of M*A*S*H online. Surely, someone besides me has wanted to digitize this show without a laugh track. Surely, I could find any upload at actual DVD quality, no laugh track, no broken episodes. I could not. At one point, I even looked into downloading an HD copy of the show with laugh track (clearly ripped from Hulu), and transplanting the audio from my collection onto that, so as to get around the mismatching video qualities, but it seems the HD copy of M*A*S*H doesn't perfectly align with the DVD copy.

I was almost ready to give up on this project, just return to my incomplete set of low quality videos and maybe every now and then watch those three black sheep, high quality episodes.

And then, something amazing happened. I'm wandering around the media section of a local franchise of an international big-box store, and what do I find but an unfamiliar release of a familiar program? It's M*A*S*H: The Complete Collection! A new* release of my favorite show! In front of me! For sale!

I purchase this box set, digitize it that night, and now I have a complete set of M*A*S*H, at DVD quality, with no laugh track. As Father Mulcahy once said, "It is true that the meek shall inherit the Earth, but it is equally true that the Lord helps those who help themselves."

Note 1: I have not since gone back to investigate the widescreen HD copy of M*A*S*H that is currently available on Hulu or Disney+. As far as I can tell, it is indeed a new transfer from the original film and not just an upscale, and they even put in the effort to ensure elements like the onscreen clock from "8x11 Life Time" is positioned correctly. However, it does still bother me that the widescreen cropping causes some previously visible elements to no longer be onscreen. Maybe that's pedantic, but I'd much prefer a high quality transfer in the original aspect ratio.

Note 2: The M*A*S*H Complete Collection is not actually new; it came out in 2018, and I bought it in 2021. If I had looked harder, I could have found it before even buying the Maritinis and Medicine Collection, but I simply didn't know about it until the day I bought it. Besides, this story wouldn't be nearly as magical if I had bought that first.