Thursday, March 29, 2007

I Killed People. Smuggled People. Sold People.: The GRAND THEFT AUTO IV Trailer

After much internet-crashery and website-cloggery (it took yours truly an hour of trying), Rockstar Games unveiled a one minute and three second trailer for the eleventh game in their flagship series, Grand Theft Auto IV. Rockstar's product earns them gamer adoration and lands them in hot water with parental watchdog hysterical types in pretty much equal measure. The short of it is that in terms of subversive, uncouth expression of social dissatisfaction and rowdy satire, Rockstar is the game development equivalent of The Sex Pistols. Puckish rude humor permeates GTA, from visual gags to the plot and game geography itself; the last installment, San Andreas is set in an elaborate, detailed recreation / parody of 1990's Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, with miles of environs in between. Everybody may get chortles from shootouts in front of pastiches of the Hollywood sign or Circus Circus casino, but the locals-only in-jokery deepens as you drive past buildings modeled on the Warner Bros. lot, Randy's Donuts, the Watts Towers... and is anyone outside of the Hollywood area supposed to get excited that the tiny, storefront Tiki Theater, the city's last straight porn theater, is lovingly reproduced? Do kids "get it" when they fly a helicopter into the Chemosphere from Body Double? It's some kind of brilliant joke, the design of this dream Los Angeles, with all the boring parts removed, and renamed "Los Santos", but it's hard to explain. It's satiric city planning.

Speaking of far-flung satire, difficult to unpack, there is the matter of the Grand Theft Auto IV trailer.

For some reason, the GTA IV trailer is modeled on Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi. Seriously. It's funny at first, but the dramatically framed images of the Grand-Theftverse New York City stand-in, Liberty City, are honestly beautiful, the Philip Glass music is sobering enough, that it slides out of parody into something effective, exciting and epic. Then it becomes funny again, because one is inevitably left to wonder: insofar as this is a joke, who is it for?

Q: I've never been able to buy a Philip Glass record, but is that really his Koyaanisqatsi score, or a sound-alike?

A post last November at Dr. Mabuse's Kaliedo-Scope, concerning "Video Games as Art" left me sighing a little. The gist of it is that David Bordwell and Roger Ebert think video games are inherently limited in artistic possibility and cannot achieve the "stature of art" (Ebert's words). I don't have a pressing interest in New Media studies ("I can't figure out the Old Media! Call me when somebody figures out how to program this furshlugginer VCR!"), and I can't believe anyone still bothers getting embroiled in "but is it ART?!" arguments, but the residue of critical bias against video games among popular film writers is irritating. It's unfortunate that Bordwell particularly, who is well-schooled in early cinema, doesn't recognize the parallel to the motion picture art form's struggle for legitimacy. Two points. Or maybe they're questions:

-What does the film critic or theorist have to offer video game studies?, and
-How can other critics play, if we can't, you know, play?:
Now, I have time to play maybe one modern game a year. I'm not purporting to come from some gaming culture insider standpoint. I am aware that some fascinating work and/or warring is going on in the field of game scholarship, regarding the relative value of investigating games as a storytelling medium, or as, er, games. Whether these lively polemics are fruitful or not is someone else's problem. I see major hindrances for critics, commentators and theorists from any other discipline hoping to horn in on the arena or assist in its development.

The first problem is unfortunately "Is the critic good at video games?", and there are sundry corollary problems regarding how we can approach a text that requires mastery of extra-disciplinary talents, a text which fundamentally changes, or is incompletable for different "readers". The sense in which Finnegan's Wake or Gravity's Rainbow (or, say, Salo or INLAND EMPIRE) are "difficult" is pretty different than Metal Gear just being too goddamn hard to beat. How can I hope to say anything about Metal Gear if I can't play for more than 10 minutes? Finishing San Andreas probably took me 100+ hours. The ending of the mission-based storyline (for the game is eternally playable after the narrative proper is concluded, the story-matter remains unexhausted) is rather key to evaluating the game's moral ambiguity... so if you don't see what happens as James Woods' sarcastic CIA agent grows to respect your slovenly gangbanger character... or the realistic way in which crack tears apart the neighborhood community, and thrives on depression and poverty, or any number of other late-game plot points, how can you undertake a thorough reading of the text?

This is all fraught with practical, logistic peril, probably exciting to some, but it kind of gives me a headache. Furthermore, I suspect the games theorists are correct, and the structures and techniques video games use to tell stories leave the rest of the lit crit community stymied. Just because game cut scenes use imitative cinematic language doesn't mean the whole game is cinematic, or the narrative has necessary foundation in film narrative... right?

Rockstar's trailers for 2006's Bully were frankly funnier and more clever than any motion picture comedy coming attractions of last year. The trailers are built on modern film trailer models, with emphasis on narrative, character and cinematic mise en scène; there is no indication of what the screen looks like during play, of play mechanics, or game tasks. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a cheeky/decadent pastiche of Scarface and Miami Vice, and San Andreas parodied/celebrated/criticized -- was immersed in -- '90s black urban cinema. San Andreas demonstrates a deep understanding of the lineage of African American film from wild and woolly '70s blaxploitation to the earnest films of of John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers. The Bully trailers play with tropes of the social commentary black comedy, coming-of-age film, teen sex comedy, and youth nostalgia picture. The GTA IV trailer promises a sort of Moscow On the Hudson with a human traffiking twist, and the trailer is styled after a renowned documentary film. It all points up to fact that film critics could, should, and shall be useful video game commentators.

Film studies is not going to be the key to indigenous video game theory; game theory is. But simply perusing the cursory list of examples above, it is clear that the ladies and gents with a bent toward film genre studies and aesthetics are specially equipped for the job. Game narratives are fundamentally different in structure than film narratives, but they are informed by film genres from surface iconography, to the raw tissue of story. And games have unique methods for investigating genre storytelling that requires a specialist's finesse. I mean, when Rockstar advertised Max Payne 2 "a film noir love story", and is publishing L.A. Noire, a sepia-toned game set in a perfectly reconstructed '40s Los Angeles... well... Never send a ludologist to do a film theorist's job.

So Back to Me: I see I've rambled more than I intended; I was planning on proposing that the open-world "sandbox" structure in the Grand Theft Auto car-chase,-crime-and-mayhem franchise is a close cousin to the amoral landscape of exploitation films. In general, sandbox crime games and exploitation movies suspend or exaggerate real-world rules in favor of colorful metaphor. The resultant carnivalesque space is playful and wild, but the symbolic weight it affords every action lets us seriously investigate our core concerns as human beings -- life and death, love and sex, jet packs and zombies, power and ethics -- in more vivid, envigorating ways than realistic dramatic storytelling allows.

-Bonus Rhetorical Question: Pet Peeve or Legitimate Problem with Lazy Writers?: Comparing a film's plot, in some vague, general sense, to a "video game" is frequent perjorative shorthand for film reviewers. You will see these writers complain when editing seems inspired by "MTV", or when action sequences are like "a comic book." They're using shorthand for media with which they aren't familiar and/or are unwilling to understand. Therefore, don't trust those people.

Update: Okay, so thanks to Wikipedia, there are no in-jokes in the world, and everybody gets the Koyaanisqatsi reference in the GTA IV trailer. Whatever, Wikipedia!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

DAY 7: Ah! Bach!

March 7,2007
19:53 hours.

“Love Story” - Airdate: January 7, 1973
PLOT: Radar is despondent after receiving a “Dear John recording” from home, but immediately falls in love with new nurse Lt. Anderson. Burns and Houlihan plot to break up the romance, as Radar struggles to impress the sophisticated nurse.
-Tricked into groping Pierce’s knee.
-Says Pierce and McIntyre sewed him into his blanket.
-Sexually starved by Margaret.
-High angle shots in the Swamp.
-“Romantic” arrangement of “Suicide is Paineless”
OVERSTATED PRAISE FOR PIERCE: “You know, Hawkeye, you’re a very famous local character!”

Points to Ponder:
One! --- Rrrr. “Love Story” is either the first great Radar-centric episode, or a near miss. The A plot, in which high school dropout and lovable idiot Radar tries to find common ground with brainiac Lt. Anderson is terrific character stuff, buoyed by our natural affection for Radar, and exploring new territory. It finds useful, logical work for Hawk and Trap as secondary characters, tutoring Radar on how to feign sophistication. But the second half of the episode gets overwhelmed with a B plot about Frank and Margaret trying to bust up the relationship, and Pierce and McIntyre giving them a taste of their own medicine. There’s nothing wrong with this silly B plot by itself, and I enjoy when Frank is spurred to official action by nothing more than jealousy, but this is Radar’s story.

Two! ---- Radar has a fiancé? Okay. I’ll buy that Radar has a fiancé he’s never mentioned. What I will not accept is that the ridiculous Southern accents we hear on his 45 rpm Dear John note are the voices of Iowans. Look, I’m an Iowan, and I love that Radar’s a positive, believable Iowan. Radar’s not just Capt. James Kirk namedropping a random home state. You want to know what an Iowan accent sounds like, listen to Gary Burghoff.

Three! ---- Pierce and McIntire lay out rules you need to bluff in intellectual conversation (even if you are an idiot who has never heard of War and Peace, true now as they were in 1951:
a) “That’s highly significant.”
b) “I consider that horse and buggy thinking”
c) “Ah! Bach!”
d) look bored.
e) “Well, I’m partial to the fugue!”
That’s all you need.

DAY 7: Smash Along With Eddie

March 7,2007
19:27 hours.

“Edwina” - Airdate: December 24, 1972
PLOT: Lt. Edwina Ferguson confesses to Lt. Cutler that she is a 28-year-old virgin. The nurses of the 4077th organize to withhold their affections until someone agrees to date the accident-prone Edwina. Capt. Pierce draws the short straw, and prepares for the most harrowing romantic evening ever committed network television.
-Standard-issue insults.
-This plot has little or nothing to do with the war.

“Edwina” is kind of screwed from the start, since it asks us to generate sympathy for a character we’ve never seen before, right from the first scene, in which Edwina freaks out at her own birthday party and runs out of the mess tent. She’s a potentially interesting character (more dimensional than Maj. Houlihan at this point), and Arlene Golonka who plays Edwina is an appealing, funny actress, but she gets shipped out at the end of the episode, undoing any good work of the story. Why does M*A*S*Hhave such a focused disinterest in a well-rounded nurse character? It keeps generating opportunities to get to know the nursing staff – Cutler, Dish, Ginger, ANY of the nurse’s we’ve met so far would be more interesting than, say, Klinger at this point - and ditching them. It’s not just a symptom of M*A*S*Hfinding its feet, either. By the end of the show, Houlihan will become more than a cardboard villain, but it’s pretty much a bust for female characters in the ensemble.

All that said… “Edwina” is pretty funny, and if not for the major transgressions above, it would be a model of form. Each act is a satisfying self-contained comedy premise worthy of its own episode, and they flow naturally, logically into each other: the nurses organizing a 4077th Lysastrata, then Hawkeye suiting up for his date, and finally the big night with Edwina. “Edwina” is sexist, glib about a story where the men are assigned to bone a woman they’re afraid of, and every character comes off as a horny jerk. Edwina wants to lose her virginity (or yeah, yeah, she really needs a friend. Barf.) The men are just a khaki mess of sexual frustration. In clever counterpoint, Frank and Margaret are the only ones getting any, and in a gross/weird/great scene sit in the mess tent watching Hawkeye flirt with Edwina, which simultaneously infuriates them and gets them hot.

As for the big slapstick date scene, Edwina’s single-handed piece-by-piece demolition of both the Swamp and Pierce’s body is well-staged, and uses the set and props inventively, and I like that no one wants to date Edwina because she’s destructive, not some unpleasant personality flaw. However, as with Loretta Swit, Alan Alda is too good a naturalistic actor, and when he screams in pain it’s always more disturbing than funny. Check out the far more successful nearly pantomimed scene of Radar and Trapper helping Hawkeye getting drunk and dressed for his date.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

DAY 6: Epistolary Situationary Comedery

March 6,2007
23:30 hours.

“Dear Dad” - Airdate: December 17, 1972
PLOT: Hawkeye writes a letter to his father, narrating the antics and miseries of the 4077th: Radar is mailing a jeep to Iowa, Henry gives a sex-ed lecture, Trapper helps birth a calf, and Father Mulcahy stops Klinger from murdering people.
-Hawkeye says Frank resembles an enema.
-Pummeled by Klinger
-Smashed in a collapsing tent.
-Hawkeye calls Mulcahy “Red”.
-Hawkeye writes that his Dad lives in Vermont.
RARE, USELESS TIMELINE CLUE: It’s near Christmas, 1951.

“Dear Dad” opens with Hawkeye alone in the Swamp, looking sad and cold, and fixing a drink. The Dear Dad episodes and their later permutations are basically a clearinghouse for sketch comedy ideas the writers didn’t deem worthy of expansion into full episode plots. Because of the general silliness in camp the Dear Dads portray and sketchiness of the dramatic vignettes, it’s neat that the first of these opens with an image of Hawkeye both lonely and sinking into the ironically comfortable routine of the war: it creates a simple air of non-melodramatic melancholy as a backdrop for the comedy bits. This context should be enough to make the juxtaposition work, but unfortunately, Pierce’s letter opens with a thud, as he explains WHY the medical staff makes jokes to alleviate their misery. Come on, M*A*S*H, we get it already!

There’s an interesting attempt to lend coherency to the unconnected stories with running gags. Radar walks through the background of several scenes hauling chunks of the jeep he’s shipping home piece by piece. It doesn’t tie “Dear Dad” together, but does make the camp feel more like a functioning society in which people are going about their business and leading lives, involved in their own stories.

Big Battle In Post-Op: Priest Vs. Transvestite! Father Mulcahy and Maxwell Klinger both get their first scene besides throwaway gags in “Dear Dad”, as they share a story about Klinger flipping out in post-op. Mulcahy and Klinger will later become some of the most engaging secondary characters, but this is pretty ridiculous. Klinger, for no stated reason, is in uniform, but wearing a red bandana around his neck, a good luck charm from his mother, which he insists he has never taken off and will never take off. Yeah, sure. Frank demands the bandana come off, and though he told Klinger not to wear dresses constantly before, for whatever reason this sends Klinger into full-blown crazy mode. It’s a glimpse of later-Klinger’s devotion to family honor and life as a tough street kid, but it’s totally out of character when he slugs Frank, then threatens to blow up the post-op ward with a grenade. It’s insane. More insane than a man wearing a dress. There’s can very funny tension in Klinger between his desire to escape the Army at all costs, and his refusal to compromise his personal moral code. But blowing up patients, an officer and a priest with a grenade would do both. It’d certainly get him a Section 8.

Mulcahy talks Klinger down, because at this point his character is “nice” and has some doubts about his usefulness in a camp that thrives on debauchery, but that’s about it. Sometimes it seems Mulcahy’s heart is a little soft to guide him safely through the war, and I like when he has to struggle with real ethical questions and comes out a better man…. In this case, I’m not sure he shouldn’t just Crazy Klinger over to the MPs,

Which Looney Tune Are You?: Pierce compares Henry Blake to Daffy Duck in his letter. This is obviously wrong, and Frank Burns, with his short temper, petty, selfish drives, and arrogant stupidity is closer to the Chuck-Jones-modified Daffy Duck. There is not a regular M*A*S*H character like Daffy, though I can think of some guest stars that fit the bill. Henry, good natured, easily duped, weekend outdoorsman, is a cheerful, dope of ‘50s suburbia, and most at home in a recliner and house slippers. Henry is clearly Elmer Fudd, or possibly late Porky Pig, once a fedora and briefcase were added to his model sheet. Be sure not to miss Elmer Fudd’s tour de force lecture on “marital sex” in the mess tent.

DAY 6: Bloodhawk

March 6,2007
23:00 hours.

“Germ Warfare” - Airdate: December 10, 1972
PLOT: A North Korean patient needs AB Negative blood, and the only possible donor is Frank. Hawkeye and Trapper procure the pint of blood, but when the patient seems to have hepatitis, they fear Frank may be the source, and endeavor to keep him away
-has his blood stolen.
-has his poop stolen.
-handcuffed to Houlihan against his will.
-Spooky Theremin music during blood donation scene.
-Hawkeye imagines Lt. Dish naked and drinking coffee.

Hawkeye and Trapper steal Frank Burns’ blood as he sleeps. That’s what the episode hinges on. Without his permission, without his knowledge, they stick a needle in his arm, and drain a pint of blood in the middle of the night. There’s worse behavior coming, grosser moral lapses within Pierce, but stealing Frank’s blood is the first strong candidate for the sickest antics, and most fucked-up thing Hawkeye does with his medical training.

Frank demonstrates some antipathy for the North Korean patient, and we are familiar with his ingrained distrust of the enemy, but Hawk and Trap simply take for granted that Frank won’t be willing to donate his blood to a man he considers a prisoner. So they don’t even ask; they don’t even notify Frank that he’s the only possible donor in camp, or point out the potential for decency, Christian duty and Hypocratic oath fulfillment, all of which might play to Frank’s icky sense of pseudo-piety. To dodge the bullet before it’s fired, Frank isn’t hatefully racist as other designated Bad Guys, but naïve, with misplacing trust in institutions that make him feel powerful. Frank could be as easily manipulated as Col. Blake, but too much of the time Pierce is bedeviling him for revenge or amusement. Pierce’s constant bullshit puts Frank on guard, and this entire amateur vampire scheme could have been avoided if Pierce weren’t constantly thinking he can teach Frank a lesson.

There’s an interesting coda to “Germ Warfare”, in which Hawk and Trap seem to realize they’ve done something dubious and bring Frank a bouquet of flowers as a sort of apology. Frank is sitting in the Swamp playing checkers with the POW, and seems to shyly forgive Pierce and McIntyre’s transgression. Does he realize their hearts were in the right place? That he was part of something positive? That he has a capacity to help people that he did not recognize before?

DAY 6: “Who stole my stizzle swick!?”

March 6,2007
22:29 hours.

“I Hate a Mystery” - Airdate: November26, 1972
PLOT: When valuable personal effects are stolen all over camp, Col. Blake investigates the crime wave. Hawkeye becomes persona non grata after the hot merch turns up in his foot locker… and he mounts another investigation to clear his name.
-Picture frame around Frank’s photo of his mother stolen.
-Hawkeye threatens to punch him.
-Disturbing, completely unfunny scene of Houlihan shrieking in horror over her missing hair brushes.
RARE, USELESS TIMELINE CLUE: Hawkeye says it’s “Tuesday, 1951”.

I don’t hate a mystery, so be warned that I’ve got to spoil the ending of the episode. Don’t proceed if, well, you care.

As a sitcom mystery episode, “I Hate a Mystery” doesn’t hold up to, say, any of The Simpsons’ “Crusty Gets Busted”, early Sideshow Bob episodes or “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” It doesn’t have proper clues, investigation, no “suspects” but Hawkeye until the last scene, and the reveal of the culprit and motive is a gyp. Hawkeye invents an elaborate bluff and catches Ho-John, who was swiping stuff to raise money to bribe boarder guards and smuggle his family into South Korea. It’s unsatisfying because Ho-John’s motive is unguessable and has never been mentioned before, and since he’s not a suspect in Pierce’s eyes, Ho-John has no reason to be gathered with the others. He’s only there to get busted.

The episode is still funny, despite narrative deficiencies and tending to slip into the M*A*S*H crutch of multiple sight gag montages. We visit the ensemble in various vignettes as they discover their property has been burgled. This is a neat device that lets us see what is most important to each character. Whatever “I Hate a Mystery”’s shortcomings, it’s a keeper just for a cozy nighttime tent scene of Henry and Leslie. He presents her with a stuffed, mounted fish, which she apparently caught… and she loves it! Their relationship is always treated as a joke, but I find it sweet and a little sad that Henry has a more fulfilling, compatible lover in his mistress than in his wife.

There is a very strong idea in “I Hate a Mystery”, which gets cursory exploration, but doesn’t play out to the end. Hawkeye discovers that all the booty has been stashed in his footlocker, but because of his reputation, nobody believes that he’s been framed. He can’t get a date, the PA announcer makes fun of him, and everyone shuns him. His reputation for what? Being funny and a great surgeon? As a nurse tells him, everyone knows that when he’s not in the operating room, all that motivates Pierce is his own pleasure drive. A reality that Pierce is going to have to face is that though he thinks his flaws are harmless and adorable, and his womanizing, drinking, flippancy, and self-righteousness don’t hurt anyone, he can’t choose how others perceive him. It’s perfectly reasonable that the rest of the camp would believe Hawkeye’s destructive pranks, abuse of people he doesn’t like, and, uh, occasional theft of government property indicates his general character. Frank Burns sums it up nicely, at the beginning of the episode (always a good trick, putting key ideas in the mouth of a character we don’t take seriously), when he tells Hawk “You’re a vice-ridden degenerate, Pierce. I don’t think you even have a heart”. Pierce can shrug this off coming from Frank, and in usual human being style, doesn’t see anything wrong with how he acts until it bites him in the ass.

Also: Introduction of Radar’s teddy bear!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

DAY 4: “I think we’re in the Army!”

March 4,2007
21:04 hours.

“Henry, Please Come Home” - Airdate: November 19, 1972
PLOT: When the 4077 is awarded for its high success rate, Henry is reassigned to a teaching position in Tokyo. With Frank making life more miserable than usual, Hawkeye and Trapper scheme to win Henry back.
-Trapper John: “He’s not a nice person!”
-Overly creative shot framing overwhelms the episode.
-Geishas singing “If I’d Have Known You Were Coming (I’d Have Baked a Cake)”!
OVERSTATED PRAISE FOR PIERCE (& McIntyre): “You’re the two finest cutters I’ve ever been associated with.”

This is, in my estimation, the first perfectly character-driven M*A*S*H episode. Not that there’s a major problem with earlier episodes, but “Come Home” hangs all its plot points no what we know about the characters and how they feel about each other, not just hatching wacky schemes for character-based reasons. So any civilian doctor would jump at the chance to get out of a front line unit, but because Henry Blake is such a man of creature comforts it’s going to be a hard task prying him loose from a comfy new job. Pierce and McIntyre find the leverage they need by exploiting Henry’s unspoken affection for Radar O’Reilly. The episode neatly reminds us of this special relationship as Henry is saying his goodbyes, and gets tongue-tied when he comes to Radar, finally chucking the boy on the chin and blurting “Crazy monkey!” So Radar feigns illness to summon Henry “home”, and there’s a brief panic when the colonel’s fatherly love goes too far and he wants to do an exploratory. “He’s gonna open me!,” Radar gulps. The scene rescues the episode from sappiness: because Henry cares about Radar so much, he almost cuts him open for no reason.

Sight gag-o-rama: Trapper threatens M.P.s with a flyswatter.

Lest we forget M*A*S*H is still finding its feet, there is a lot of visual experimentation in “Come Home” which does not pay off. A dozen shots are framed through foreground elements for no discernable reason, and conversations are shot through a pair of pants hanging on a clothes line, the wooden posts of the Swamp’s tent frame, a jeep windshield, a bedframe, and a closed screen door. This rare stylistic flourish doesn’t signify anything, doesn’t add depth to the frame, and just makes the compositions cluttered and confusing. So what were they thinking? Crazy monkeys.

DAY 4: Henry Almost Dying Is Hilarious…

March 4,2007
21:19 hours.

“Cowboy” - Airdate: November 12, 1972
PLOT: Chopper pilot Cowboy (Billy Green Bush), concerned about his girlfriend’s faithfulness, wants to be sent home with a minor shoulder wound. Meanwhile, a mysterious assassin makes repeated attempts on Col. Blake’s life.
-When exactly does Cowboy find time to slip out of post-op and rig a half dozen deathtraps?

Why yes, Cowboy, you may bring a
non-regulation firearm into post op!

The misdirect that Hawkeye and Trapper may be terrorizing Henry is built up by providing a petty motive for Trapper – after three days of surgery with no sleep, McIntyre tries to steal Henry’s jeep for a date with a nurse – which isn’t very convincing, but is pretty funny. There’s also a laugh-out-loud scene of Henry nervously briefing Frank on the filing system before leaving camp to take refuge elsewhere, but is terrified of opening the potentially booby-trapped file cabinets. McLean Stevenson and Larry Linville play the scene almost motionless, between Henry’s incapacitating jitters and Frank staring in silent contempt and confusion. However, since Frank has been left in command before, it’s unclear why he needs to be shown where daily paperwork is located.

The story mislead is an excuse to get Henry and Cowboy alone in a helicopter, to reveal that the pilot sees no alternative but to murder the colonel. Meanwhile, the letter from home Cowboy has been waiting for arrives, and Radar, Hawk and Trap all get on the radio to read it to the psycho pilot. The letter-reading sequence is a little masterpiece of Good News/ Bad News jokes, as each line of the letter seems to indicate catastrophe, only to turn out happy (e.g.- Trapper groans “Dear… John”, and Cowboy whoops “That’s my real name!”), and Rogers, Alda and Burghoff create a small riot, wringing every drop from a scene that is basically three guys screaming into a microphone.

DAY 4: My Blue Hawkeye

March 4,2007
20:53 hours.

“Bananas, Crackers and Nuts” - Airdate: November 5, 1972
PLOT: Racked with stress, and Frank in charge of camp, Pierce either starts to crack up completely or is faking it. Rather than grant Pierce a few days leave in Tokyo, Frank calls in psychiatrist Capt. Sherman (Stuart Margolin).
-Story about Pierce and McIntyre tying Frank’s toes to his bed and shouting “fire!” and
-Putting Frank in traction with four casts.
-Pierce tells psychiatrist that he’s gay for Frank.
-Dog in hospital bed
-Probable cannibalism
OVERSTATED PRAISE FOR PIERCE: “Pierce has always been a rock!”

“Bananas, Crackers and Nuts” opens on the doctors dragging themselves out of three days without leaving surgery: a new show record!

An original of M*A*S*H is to illustrate how humor in the face of grim war, pranks and joking while surrounded by death and illness are life-affirming, a self-defense for the psyche, essential; not morbid, but vital. Pierce and McIntyre are best equipped against losing themselves to war, because their they combat the rampaging Thanatos drive of war with jocular Eros.

So it’s unpleasant to see Pierce cracking up but continuing to make jokes and act silly, because his defense mechanisms are turning against him. It is arguably more disturbing when Pierce breaks down in unmitigated despair or anger, because his resources have left him completely. Besides, while he’s pushing the envelope, an element of the episode is Hamlet-like blurring between Pierce acting or actually going mad.

The second theme song of M*A*S*H is “My Blue Heaven” which stands in direct contrast to “Suicide is Painless”, and crops up several times in the series, in contexts ironic, joyous, and nostalgic. Both songs romanticize their topic, but “Suicide” is defeatist and “Blue Heaven” is hopeful. Pierce sings “My Blue Heaven” twice in “Bananas, Crackers, and Nuts”, first when he and McIntyre pack their bags for a Tokyo trip that is destined not to happen. The second time, it’s inverted, as Hawkeye deliriously hums the song, sitting in the mess tent in full surgical gear and eats what he insists is a North Korean’s liver. Pierce is primarily putting on a show for Frank and Margaret’s benefit, but they weren’t there to see him and McIntire packing. Pierce has made a private mental connection between the leisure, indulgence and escape of Tokyo and “My Blue Heaven”, and in the mess tent he indulges in a very different pleasure of the flesh, and tries to symbolically eat the war. It’s a comedy bit, but it’s also about Hawkeye’s futile attempt to have his personal antics consume, and internalize the pain around him, rather than buffer against it, or cut through the horror and bullshit of war.

We never find out what Hawkeye was really eating.

This is comedy!

More Points to Ponder:
-The third act is about Hawk, Trap and Radar tricking Capt. Sherman into sexually assaulting Margaret. This is, of course, weird, offensive, and not funny, and even better, it is not the only time M*A*S*H will use this plot.

-An even more frequent M*A*S*H plot? Hawkeye tricks someone into thinking they are insane and/or convinces the rest of the camp someone is insane. This is supposedly the purpose of trying to get the psychiatrist to rape the head nurse: so everyone will think Capt. Sherman is crazy.

Scene to scene, “Bananas, Crackers & Nuts” is funny, but the story is kind of all over the place. It is a challenge to tell a story about an established goofball character reacting to mental strain by acting goofy.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

DAY 3: No War is a Movie, but Some are TV Shows

March 3, 2007
20:05 hours.

“Yankee Doodle Doctor” - Airdate: October 22, 1972
PLOT: General Creighton sends filmmaker Lt. Bricker to the 4077, to make a documentary on MASH units. Hawkeye is cast as the star, but finds Bricker a phony, and volunteers to take over the production entirely.
-Hawkeye tells Frank that his screenwriting stinks.
-“Hawkeye Pierce, warts and all, is kind of the heartbeat of this place!”
-“We’re privileged to work with him!”

“Three hours ago, this man was in the battle. Two hours ago we operated on him. He’s got a 50/50 chance. We win some, we lose some. That’s what it’s all about. No promises. No guaranteed survival. No saints in surgical garb. Our willingness, our experience, our technique are not enough. Guns and bombs and antipersonnel mines have more power to take life than to preserve it. Not a very happy ending for a movie. But then no war is a movie.”

The plot of “Yankee Doodle Doctor” is all an excuse to show the film produced by the 4077 staff, and that story, is pretty weak. It tries hard, jumping through hoops to get a film crew to the camp, then getting rid of the obnoxious director Lt. Barker, and putting Pierce in charge of the doco. And I’ll buy M*A*S*H-logic a lot of the time, but why Barker would have to leave behind the equipment and crew he commands just because Pierce tried to sabotage his film, even the writers are at a loss to explain.

Barker’s an uninspired “Hollywood” stereotype, a pretentious blowhard who blathers about how important his movies are, and falsifies his documentary footage. This is too bad, because M*A*S*H gets so much mileage from great guest stars playing fun characters, and it makes me wonder why the entertainment industry constantly portrays themselves this way. Has anyone ever met a professional filmmaker like this? If so: name names!

Pierce’s direct address speech above is the reason the episode exists. Pierce is both grandstanding and being humble, trying to demystify medical realities, and pointing to the frustrating task of the wartime doctor. It’s not a generalized diatribe against war, but specific to the MASH experience, so Pierce is perfectly qualified to make it. In context of the short film, as the staff watches in the mess tent, it probably comes off as even preachier than it does to the audience at home. All things considered, he’s also underestimating the skills of the medical team – I’d say if you got sent to the 4077, you’ve got a better than 50/50 chance.

There are some interesting character moments in “Yankee Doodle Doctor” beyond just Hawk’s speechmaking.
-It opens with Hawkeye and Trapper having hit a new show record for consecutive hours in surgery (18!), and blowing off steam by… ballroom dancing in the tent for the sole purpose of irritating Frank. I find Pierce a whole lot funnier when he’s either reacting or behaving like a weirdo, than when he’s cracking wise: when Frank asks why they’re acting goofy, Hawkeye exclaims “We’re the CRAZY generation!”

-The “Yankee Doodle Doctor” short within “Yankee Doodle Doctor”, is cute and seems fairly realistic as the kind of home movie made by people who think they’re funny in real life, but don’t have any artistic experience. It’s basically a summer camp talent show comedy sketch where Pierce plays Groucho Marx as a MASH doctor, tending to a terrible and adorable wounded Radar, with the help of Trapper as a simian Harpo and Lt. Cutler playing it earnest and wooden. The highlight of this is what I assume to be a blooper, where Gary Burghoff starts laughing at Alan Alda cutting up and tries to hide it, but they stay in the scene and use it.

-Obnoxious impressions by Hawkeye: Jimmy Cagney, Porky Pig, an extended Groucho Marx in the film, and, uh, a dog.

-Gossips, be sure to check out the last tag scene, in which Hawkeye signs autographs and is surrounded by fans, while Trapper pouts in jealousy and understandable frustration. Witness Wayne Rogers’ pain!

DAY 3: Emancipation Hawk-limation!

March 3,2007
19:38 hours.

“The Moose” - Airdate: October 15, 1972
PLOT: The Swamp crew is disturbed when surly bigot Sgt. Baker drops by camp with his personal slave or “moose”. Hawkeye personally crusades to liberate Yung Hi, the kept woman, only to end up inadvertently with a moose of his own.
-Mildly offensive “Asian” arrangement of “Suicide is Painless”! and
-Gong sound effects when talking to a Korean girl!
-Radar checks out a girl’s butt with a telescope.

Hawkeye Pierce hates racism. We can get behind that. It will fuel a lot of M*A*S*Hepisodes. Pierce also feels the need to teach racists a lesson much of the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, and sometimes we may feel ourselves getting behind him, sometimes not. Pierce is able to order racist Sgt. Baker (believably mean and smug Paul Jenkins) to stop using ethnic slurs, unable to teach Baker what’s wrong with his attitude, or even what’s wrong with buying a human being. When Pierce finally tries to pull rank on Baker and order him to release Yung Hi (Virginia Lee), Baker laughs in the doctor’s face. That’s a neat dramatic moment in “The Moose”. It shows Pierce actually attempting to use Army channels of recourse which he usually shuns, only to find them cut off because no one respects his temporary commission.

In this particular story, though, Pierce isn’t just trying to enlighten someone or make himself feel better, but free Yung Hi. The whole plot is constructed as a great trap to feed off Hawkeye’s guilt and nobility, and complicate and frustrate his basic belief in human rights. He has to stuff himself into uniform to try to give Baker an order. He has to both secure funds and make Baker desperate for cash by cheating the sergeant at cards, essentially putting himself in a position where he’s raising money to buy a slave. The social reality of Yung Hi’s situation is that her family has sold her, and if she ditches her owner, she’s shaming herself and her family; so Hawk’s stuck with a slave who doesn’t want to go, and feels purposeless without a master. If Yung Hi goes home, her family will just sell her again. Etc, and so on. It’s all arguably a little too cute, but the dilemma of the oppressed failing to recognize their position is rich stuff. It’s usually forgotten in free-the-slaves melodrama, but really the crux of the problem of power dynamics, as everyone from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Marx to Foucault has understood. Popular entertainment can handle the load: Mark Twain understood it in Huckleberry Finn. J.K. Rowling understands it in Goblet of Fire. M*A*S*Hunderstands it.

“The Moose” is light going, but it’s the beginning of Pierce recognizing the ideological apparatuses behind the injustice he sees in the world are more complicated than his knee-jerk reactions. More complicated. Not necessarily more powerful. The gang eventually helps Yung Hi liberate herself, by building up her self-image. But it’s telling when Ho John and Radar explain the culture of moose-ownership, and Hawkeye snaps at them as if its their fault. Radar and Ho John just look at Hawk sadly, and though they’re younger, simpler men, they are more plugged into the harsh realities of life.

Fashion Watch! - Spearchucker wears a cool orange hat.

Also: Benny, Yung Hi’s human-traffiking, cigarette-smoking preteen brother is a hilarious character. We want more Benny!

Even Hawkeye cannot believe how cool Benny is!

DAY 3: “What’s That Worm Doing In There?”

March 3,2007
19:13 hours.

“Chief Surgeon Who?” - Airdate: October 8, 1972
PLOT: Frank tries to court marshal Pierce on charges of insubordination. To finally curb their bickering in the operating room, Col. Blake appoints Pierce Chief Surgeon of the 4077. Frank whines up the ladder to General Barker, who drops by to investigate.
-Overhears Col. Blake calling him the biggest horse’s patoot in the outfit.
-Radar smoking a cigar and drinking brandy!
OVERSTATED PRAISE FOR PIERCE: “Pierce is the best cutter in the outfit!”

We’ve gone through these paces before… in the Pilot, actually. We’ll go through them again. Pierce will get in hot water with Army brass, and will pull himself out of the fire simply by demonstrating his medical skills. I buy it as a plot device, because Pierce is unfailing in giving the Army exactly what they drafted him for, and M*A*S*H’s portrayal of the military is not so irrational and reactionary to invalidate their soft spot for Pierce. Besides, the show will play with the device a little over the years. Like the excuses made for why Mulder should be kept working on the FBI’s X-Files, it’s a tidy patch for a potentially disastrous hole in the fabric of the show.

Pierce thinks he’s above the law, because he’s a gifted surgeon. It’s also because he believes he’s a compassionate Good Guy at Heart. That’s his great character flaw, not his drinking, womanizing or slobbiness (though they’re all related, and he’ll be forced to confront them all). It’s not that he consciously believes he’s got special rights, but I think his occasional righteousness is fueled both by his good heart, and the way others treat him in the operating room. Pierce knows he’s a great doctor, and though he only brags about it when he needs to, it manifests when he thinks he knows best for everyone else.

OK, so “Chief Surgeon Who?” is not about Pierce’s personality flaws. M*A*S*Hreally won’t be for a while. But it’s a prime opportunity to bring them up, because it’s the unmitigated praise for Pierce, built up in early episodes like “Chief Surgeon Who?” that later allow the writers and Alan Alda to dig deeper into the Pierce’s contradictions. The episode is “about” how Hawkeye’s personality conflicts with Frank Burns. But the tendency in Hawkeye, outlined above is primary in Frank: he’s a hypocrite. Frank hides behind the Bible to sneer at Pierce and McIntyre’s vices, even though he’s cheating on his wife too. And he hides behind Army protocol as if it were more important than his mediocre medical skills. Neither of these nasty habits are truly about Frank’s religious conviction or patriotism. They’re about weakness and shame, as a little man tries to grasp at some power. Frank confuses the ability to boss underlings, and preach at degenerates – with empowerment. The joke is that he doesn’t know it. The difference between Burns and Pierce is that of course Pierce isn’t a hypocrite or phony, but they share a common moral certitude. So to inflict his morality on others, Hawkeye takes matters into his own hands, and pulls off a crazy scheme or tricks someone, while Frank tattles. Also Frank is an idiot.

“Chief Surgeon Who?” ends with a last act tag in which Frank humbly asks Hawkeye for help with a bowel resection. And Pierce reacts by not acting like a dickhead. It’s a nice moment of mutual respectful treatment but, er, yeah, right. The Frank/Hawk story is really about why they naturally butt heads.

The M*A*S*H Sketch Comedy Revue

The M*A*S*H writers sure love short comedy vignettes. They’ll use any excuse for a bunch of mini-sketches. When General Barker tours the camp, the point is to see what a madhouse the 4077 appears to be, before he witnesses Pierce’s surgery skills. So he stumbles, among other things, onto:
-Rader partaking of Col. Blake’s cigar and brandy supply, which is cute, though something later Radar would never do.
-Spearchucker and Ginger playing – and I shit thee not – “strip dominoes”. Hooray!
-Klinger on guard duty in a dress. With a gun. Now… it’s supposed to just be a gag about a man wearing a dress, but sometimes I forget that Klinger is allowed to carry around firearms. The punchline is later, when Klinger returns naked. With a gun.
-When Barker finally finds Henry, he interrupts the Colonel’s plans to go night-fishing with Leslie. This is also less “crazy” than adorable. Henry’s affair with Leslie is never a relationship that gets much screen time, but it’s funny that Leslie seems so indulgent of Henry’s ‘50s male pastimes, and even excited, because she gets to spend time with him.

That and who wouldn’t love the of pride on McLean Stevenson’s face when Henry enters his tent with a can of nightcrawlers to present to his mistress?

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.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Day 2: La Dolce 100-Year-Old-Desk

March 2,2007
01:10 hours.

“To Market To Market” - Air Date: September 24, 1972
PLOT: When the 4077’s supply of hydrocortisone is hijacked, Pierce and McIntyre embark into the black market underworld to secure a supply. Meanwhile, Col. Blake is excited about his antique oak desk.
-A black marketer thinks Frank is gay.
-Wacky slow jazz version of “Suicide is Painless” with ‘70s guitars when Henry discovers his office is trashed.
OVERSTATED PRAISE FOR PIERCE: “You guys got the best rep in the Southeast Asia Theater of Operations!”

The big comedy setpiece of “To Market To Market” is Hawkeye and Trapper stealing Henry’s desk to trade it to black marketeer Charlie Lee (Jack Soo). It takes up majority of the episode, and passes through a variety of diverse mini-sketches, which is an inventive story to spin out of a situation that basically involves moving furniture. The Desk provides a kind of primer on sketch comedy situations: a satiric Frank and Margaret character-comedy love scene in Henry’s office pins Pierce and McIntyre behind the desk. The problem of fitting the massive desk through the door is all physical comedy, with an improbable finish for the clandestine operation: they remove the entire back wall of the building. The funniest is an absurdist gag straight out of Bugs Bunny, where Hawkeye and Trapper pretend to be holding an “early Mass” on the tarp-covered desk in the middle of camp, to throw Frank off their scent.

Again, Hawk and Trap get off the hook because even though Henry knows immediately who is responsible for the Fellini parody image of his beloved desk flying over Korea, suspended from a helicopter, their motivations are noble and Henry’s a softie. One of the themes M*A*S*H explores again and again is when to sacrifice personal comfort for a greater good, and when indulgence and recreation are necessary to maintain your humanity. That sounds very specific, but the idea is linked to the even bigger notion that war, as an extreme circumstance, brings out the worst and the best in us, in ways that may not be readily apparent.

Henry needs to let the desk go. But the look of dumbstruck loss on McLean Stevenson’s face as he watches it fly away is the best sight gag of all. “I don’t know what it’s doin’ up there,” he moans. “It just keeps going up. Up. Up.”

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.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Day 1: M*A*S*H Notes

March 1, 2007

Ultra Fine Point Sharpie & notebook - check. Ratty green sweater - check. Ice cream sundae - check. Time to watch every episode of M*A*S*H in order.

This is going to be an informal journal of my marathon immersion in M*A*S*H. That’s all I have mapped out. One of the great blessings of DVD culture is the availability of season sets of TV shows. It sounds like a silly prospect, for most television is free in the first place, and disposable by design. But in practice, watching episodes in sequence is special thing, more interesting than I’d thought it would be, even for non-serial shows. Charting the path of actors and their characters, identifying the style of specific writers, watching a the creative personnel figure out how to generate stories, keep situations fresh, and deal with production realities, watching a show find its footing, then its voice, then shifting pitch over time… all of these fascinating things to watch for are more apparent and chartable when a series is available in full, at your fingertips, and viewable in big chunks. The bone structure that supports the animal’s natural lifespan over seasons and years – more than a decade, in this case – is stretched so thin through weekly installments as to be invisible. When compressed into season box-sets, forms becomes clear.

I’ve already seen every episode somewhere between three and thirty times; I grew up watching M*A*S*H, and I’ve never really stopped. But because of syndication package realities, which make some episodes rarer than others, and the enormous quantity of M*A*S*H, I’ve never watched it in sequence.

I’ll be using FOX TV’s M*A*S*H: Martinis & Medicine uber-box set of all 11 seasons, released last fall. The oversized box, upholstered in olive canvas and weighing roughly as much as a jeep, really is the boon M*A*S*H fans needed. Although just compiles the exact same discs from the previously available individual season sets (and throws in the Altman film and a bonus disc), it takes up less space, and is an immeasurably handsomer package. I stopped buying the individual seasons after the third set (I kinda figured on something like Martinis & Medicine), but they had some of the ugliest box art in the world. The big

Enough preamble. I may find something useful to say about situation comedies. It may just be me slumped on a couch watching TV. Mostly I just want to see what happens to someone who watches every episode of M*A*S*H in a row.