Friday, March 02, 2007

Day 2: Enter the Swamp Thing!

March 2,2007
00:30 hours.

I started slow with the first two episodes. I’m attempting to get through everything in the space of a month, but I have no idea if it’s possible. Mathematically it’s possible, but unfortunately I have to do other things besides watch TV all day. Understand that I do not want to do these things.

PILOTAir Date: September 17, 1972

My parents used to play a game when each evening’s syndicated M*A*S*H reruns would come on before dinner: Name That M*A*S*H Episode. Like Name That Tune, but the bidding was over how few lines of dialogue it will take to ID the episode. It invariably came down to “I can name that episode in one line.” Somehow, even though the subject is the discomfort of people trapped in war, the show is comfort food. Some of that’s simple nostalgia and familiarity, but I think it’s also the show’s palpable feeling of being trapped in the camp with the 4077 staff over time. The show is about being stranded in one place and the enforced familiarity of the characters as they live and work together.

Pilots are always a little weird. The energy is off because nothing is completely established. Actors are finding characters, the tone is not quite focused, the writers haven’t figured out the story templates that will work, and the directors haven’t nailed down a visual signature for the show. If these burdens weren’t enough, the pilot has the tricky one-time task of handling all the exposition that will never be needed again, and tell a coherent, self-contained story. It’s kind of a shame that programs are judged on the strengths of pilots, because they’re a mini-genre of episode that doesn’t play as relaxed and straightforward as normal.

The M*A*S*H pilot, however, is pretty kick-ass.

PLOT: To raise money to send Ho John to college in the United States, Hawkeye and Trapper hold a party and raffle off weekend passes to Tokyo and the company of nubile Nurse Dish.
-Frank gets stuffed in a duffel bag as punishment for breaking the still.
-Frank is drugged, wrapped in bandages, and kept under sedation as preventative measure when he tries to cancel the raffle party.
-Some jerk that’s not William Christopher as Father Mulcahy (it's George Morgan)!
-Starts as a “Dear Dad…” episode, but doesn’t follow through; which begs the question of the entire series being framed as a letter from Pierce to his father.
-Opening title card: KOREA, 1950… A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. Which begs the question of the entire series being framed as a story a spaceman is telling to his space-children on a rocket ship in the future.
OVERSTATED PRAISE FOR PIERCE: “Those two maniacs are the best surgeons I’ve ever seen!”

It’s a solid Hawk & Trap Wacky Scheme plot: the best of these are about Pierce and McIntyre doing something illegal, or slightly immoral, but motivated by basic decency, personal, humanist politics, or dedication to medicine. It’s a trick, of course, to let us enjoy characters acting like cads (or criminals) but not judge them too harshly or lose sight of their core goodness. It’s a trick that makes M*A*S*H tick. Sometimes I think it’s a cheat, and a crutch for the writers. But it works, and it’s so clever and generates so many diverse stories, that mostly I just think it’s a pretty brilliant technique. Everybody – writers, actors and audience - gets to have it both ways, and it showcases the tension that drives the heroes. That they’re superhumanly good at their jobs, that they’re motivated to act out by extreme circumstance, is all just dramatic magnification. Face it: Hawkeye and Trapper John are regular guys who enjoy acting like asses. Hawkeye is joie de vivre put to through the gauntlet.

And the omnipresence hey-but-they’re-great-guys-at-heart trick adds weight to the episodes when it is suspended. And besides: they’re great guys at heart. And yes, they save their hides by demonstrating amazing surgical prowess to General Hammond, was going to have them court marshaled. Lesson: those with skills valuable to society are above the law!

The M*A*S*H pilot cuts pretty swiftly through the exposition chores. It’s tempting to say this is because the Altman film had established the situation and characters, but it doesn’t work for me; the base dynamic is the same, but the sitcom cast completely differentiates the characters from the movie. Anyhow, it cuts “swiftly” but not cleanly. There are several montages. Too many montages. It opens with introductory character vignettes of Frank and Margaret flirting, Hawkeye playing golf, etc… then Radar announces the first incoming wounded of the series, which segues cleverly into the opening title sequence. It’s clever, but it’s still two montages in a row. There’s another one later, a series of flashback gags of Hawkeye stalking Nurse Dish, popping up in her tent, in the showers, etc. There are also some strange intercutting choices that don’t work – a cutaway of Radar tending the incapacitated Frank during the party, and a comic flashback filling in the romantic backstory of General Hammond and Maj. Houlihan.

Alan Alda, Larry Linville and McLean Stevenson have obviously done the most work to construct their characters for the Pilot. I’ve obviously got the 20/20 of hindsight, but Alda gives us dozens of glimpses into aspects of Hawkeye that he’ll flesh out later. Drag-assing into the Swamp after 12 hours in surgery, Alda slumps in his chair and makes the weary, far-away face we’ll get to know well, stares absently into space, or his drink and says "You know... we gotta do it someday: invite all the jokers from the North and the South for a cocktail party. Last man standing on his feet at the end wins the war." These are the moments when Hawkeye’s spirit is closest to breaking. Pierce wracked with sheer exhaustion, and Pierce in Hothead Mode are when he is most prone to indignant, self-righteous speechifying, even when we’re likely to agree with his politics. That’s the masterstroke of the character: the times we most identify with Hawk, he’s being obnoxious and at his hardest to love.

By the end of the pilot, even Hawkeye’s trademark red bathrobe and straw cowboy hat have been established. Except the robe has a dragon on the back.

Alda’s got the charisma, gets the best wisecracks and constructs the most rounded character, but Larry Linville gives the most committed, virtuoso comedy performance. If I were to make a list of sitcom history’s greatest full-body, full-throttle male character performances, it would go:
1. Don Knotts as Barney Fife
2. Jackie Gleason and Art Carney as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton
3. Larry Linville as Frank Burns
4. John Ritter as Jack Tripper
5. Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster

Linville is as meticulous and inventive as any of those guys. His take on Burns is basically to play him as a power-tripping 12-year-old hall monitor. Linville steals the pilot in the funniest scene: Frank comes back to the Swamp to find Hawkeye nosing around by his bunk, freaks out, and smashes Pierce and McIntyre's gin mill. It’s a funny set up, but Linville doesn’t just play it as rising anger. He calibrates almost every line with a new emotional shift giving a whole catalog of specific, recognizable pettiness. Frank enters with angry authority when he sees his personal space is violated, gets suspicious and disbelieving when Hawkeye claims to be perusing the Bible, uses the opportunity to get morally indignant about the raffle party. When Frank gets overwhelmed by his own moral speechifying, he gets confident and way too excited, and starts running around the tent with the still under his arm like a toddler escaping a mandatory bath. Frank pauses right before he throws the still to the ground, wondering if he’s got the balls to do it, which means even if he smashes the still, something’s wrong with his conviction. And after he breaks the still, is he boastful or sneering? No: he immediately looks terrified and remorseful. It’s a lot of detail work on Linville’s part for a kind of thankless role; the guy should get more recognition.

Sooo I probably won’t be blathering about every episode this much, but it’s the Pilot after all.

Things I Learned:
-Lists are pointless.
-The joke of Radar anticipating things before they happen is already annoying.
-I want one of those red bathrobes.

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