Saturday, March 03, 2007

DAY 3: Rules Made To Be Broken

March 3,2007
18:30 hours.

“Requiem for a Lightweight” - Airdate: October 1, 1972
PLOT: Maj. Houlihan transfers new Nurse Cutler because she’s distracting Pierce and McIntyre with her hotness. Trapper John agrees to fight as the 4077’s entry in a boxing tournament in exchange for the return of the nurse.
-Frank’s duffel bag is used as a punching bag.
-Frank crushed under the weight of an unconscious boxer.
-Frank’s name, as stenciled on his duffel, is “FRANK W. BURNS”, which is a funny way to initial the middle name “Marion”.

There aren’t many sitcoms that regularly end with elaborate physical comedy setpieces. Visual and physical humor is not a sitcom strength, as a rule, and those shows that lean on it heavily had been/ would be mostly been gimmick sitcoms aimed at kids: Mr. Ed, The Munsters, Gilligan's Island, Three's Company, etc. The exceptions are Green Acres, that absurdist expose of modern man stranded in a torture-device universe, which is also a gimmick sitcom aimed at kids. M*A*S*H does it, too probably inheriting the large-scale visual gag payoffs from the Robert Altman film, but paying them out with more panache.

Now, every TV program is going to have weak entries over 251 episodes, and there are obviously M*A*S*Hs less successful (or, simply, not as funny) than others. I’m not calling “Requiem” out at all; it’s very funny, especially the climactic boxing match with a punch-drunk Trapper trying to shove an ether-soaked boxing glove in the face of an opponent so massive he “punches out jeeps”. But there are episodes that simply aren’t up to par, and those that are strange because they take particular risks.

M*A*S*H is writers favorite because in equal measure in various episodes:
1) it exercises perfectly structured classic sitcom plotting, with strong, interesting, complex characters, and solid, intertwining A, B & C plots. M*A*S*H is as good a place to study these things as The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver, Andy Griffith or Fawlty Towers. Given the quantity, a better place.

2) the serious soul-searching, political stumping, and expose of the human condition that M*A*S*H offers are the obvious breaks it makes with traditional sitcom form, but there are progenitors in that area, too. Besides the “dramady” (ugh!) tone, M*A*S*H is frequently formally experimental, as well. We’ll get to that as the relevant episodes appear…

3) M*A*S*H risks breaking standard, logical TV writing rules, as if on purpose, as if to test their validity or breaking point. Maybe I’m wrong, and M*A*S*H writers lapsed sometimes like anybody, but it has the ring of experimentation.

In “Requiem for a Lightweight”, for example, though it’s only a few episodes in, hangs a plot on Pierce and McIntyre’s reactions to a host of tertiary characters, most of whom are being newly introduced or one-time guest stars. Plots about the main characters reacting to a one-shot character are generally a weak story choice, and discouraged, but M*A*S*H will get a lot of mileage out of them over the years. The sitcom template is about the ensemble cast interacting, and even the rare bird like the new Extras, which is predicated on the idea that each episode will involve a celebrity guest, the guest star is usually a B plot . In “Requiem”, the babalicious Nurse Cutler, and the human tank opposing boxer, and blustering General Barker are all introduced and Hawk and Trap’s story is largely a reaction to the new characters, until the boxing match. If that weren’t enough, it’s the episode that introduces anesthesiologist Ugly John and William Christopher as the rebooted Father Mulcahy!

Ulp! Hand me a clamp!

Not all this busy character introduction works. As much as I like looking at Marcia Strassman, Cutler is a boring character only there to make Pierce and McIntyre drool. Why not just use the already-established Lt. Dish, or Ginger as the nurse Houlihan wants to relocate? Strassman stays with the show for a while, so maybe Larry Gelbart thought she’d be a breakout character, or that they just needed some actual characters on the nursing staff besides Houlihan.

Anyway, “Requiem” ends up using the new characters to motivate Hawk and Trap into a frenzy, first to over Cutler, then to win the boxing match. So it is more than just a reaction plot centering around minor characters. The guys are theoretically just trying to keep Cutler around to flirt with, which is fine. A moment where Cutler gives them a sad, faraway look as she’s riding out of camp indicates that Hawk and Trap are also feeling a little guilty about Cutler being punished because of their own behavior. They don’t articulate this, but it’s a clear variation of that great M*A*S*H plot trope: motivated by the noble cause, Pierce and McIntyre’s solution leans toward the unethical. McIntyre is such a terrible boxer that Rader accidentally knocks him out during a sparring match, so they decide to knock his opponent out with ether fumes. As Henry says, “I love it! I love it, but I don’t want to know about it!”

The why and how and limits to Pierce’s willingness to fight dirty are fascinating, and in the end, the conflict within the man that M*A*S*H becomes dedicated to exploring.

What the hell is that?

Also, for some reason, the first acts of episode feature the worst blown out and blurry photography I’ve ever seen on a major network sitcom.

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