Tuesday, March 22, 2005

More M*A*S*H-Bashing

Not a lot of posting time today, so I'll do what I did last time I didn't have anything to post about and bash M*A*S*H and Larry Gelbart. One of the things I was thinking of when I talked about Gelbart's "one-note characterization" was the way Frank Burns actually regressed as a character. In the first season of M*A*S*H*, we were occasionally given a hint that Burns might develop into an interesting character, a three-dimensional antagonist. Nothing major (no pun intended), but an occasional glimmer of complexity. In an early episode, "Henry, Please Come Home," Colonel Blake mentions that Burns is hard to get along with "but he's a good surgeon and we need him." In another first-season episode, "Sticky Wicket," Hawkeye is tormented by his inability to diagnose what's wrong with a patient -- and Frank, pleased that Hawkeye is the loser for once, taunts him for it. But at the end of the episode, when Hawkeye finally figures out what's wrong, Frank has a moment of unexpected graciousness, saying: "Anyone could have missed that," to which Hawkeye replies, "Thanks, Frank."

That's the kind of moment that helps humanize the antagonist, remind you that not even a creep is a creep 100% of the time, just as the hero isn't always heroic. But as the series went on, Burns became less and less human and more and more of a cartoon antagonist, even more of a one-dimensional cartoon character than in the movie (which is saying something). He became such an incompetent surgeon that you wondered how he ever could have practiced back home without being thrown out of the profession; he was never allowed to be right or to be unambiguously friendly or nice. But think of what another showrunner than Gelbart could have done with a character like this; he's a hypocrite, sure, but there's also some potential sympathy for someone wants to think of himself as a conventionally good person but winds up giving in to his "sinful" desires. Just because a character is a jerk doesn't mean there can't be some sympathy for him; think of the great humanized jerks of sitcom history, like Ted Baxter, Herb Tarlek, Alan Brady, Louie DePalma, and of course, Archie Bunker. Characters who are basically horrible but very human and real. Gelbart didn't do this with Frank Burns; he made him not a person, but a function -- the designated Always Wrong guy. There were other examples of bad characterization in the Gelbart years of M*A*S*H, like the generally poor writing for Trapper John (could anyone blame Wayne Rogers for not knowing what his function on the show was supposed to be?), but that was the worst.

The question that now arises is, do I prefer the later, post-Gelbart seasons of M*A*S*H? I definitely think that some of the writing on the later M*A*S*H episodes, with the addition of writers like Ken Levine and David Isaacs and further contributions from Gelbart-era writers like Laurence Marks and Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell, was better overall than in most of Gelbart's scripts (Gelbart's writing has always struck me as a bunch of platitudes overlaid with soulless Bob Hope-style one-liners). And Major Winchester, as an antagonist, was everything Burns wasn't: a humanized, interesting, but flawed character. But those seasons had their own problems, notably the legendary insufferability of Alan Alda and the descent into unfunniness of almost every character and performer. On the whole, I just feel like I've watched more episodes of M*A*S*H than I probably should have, and I'll stick to my "Hogan's Heroes was better" mantra.

1 comment:

TashTish said...

Just discovered this blog -- great stuff!

One thing about Frank Burns: Yes, there was terrible underutilization of the character, unlike the later evolution of Margaret Houlihan, and as you mention the characterization of Charles Emerson Winchester. But there were glimmers of humanity: Aside from your early example, there was the episode where Hawkeye and B.J. side with Frank when Margaret flaunts her engagement. Not only do we find out his father was emotionally abusive, but we see Burns zinging Houlihan, unanticipatingly impressing Pierce and Honeycutt, perhaps for the first time in the series.

I do agree with your assessment of how overrated M*A*S*H tends to be, and this is from an avowed fan when I was younger. But I think it's mainly based on the series' body of work as a whole, and diminishes the isolated moments of sheer brilliance that occurred quite more often than the average show, from the stark sobriety when Henry Blake consoles Hawkeye over the death of his buddy, to Blake's sudden death, to the first black-and-white mockumentary in the series, the one where Fr. Mulcahy describes a surgeon warming his freezing hands over a warm, open body. There were also bouts of really surprising humor when Winchester first joined the outfit, but I concur with the fast slide downhill thereafter. I think a definitive example is the SECOND mockumentary -- same cast, some of the same writers -- but repetitive, more staged, less cinema-verite, and at an hour long, bloated and overdone.

Oh well. We should at least be thankful for the brilliance, and there was brilliance at times.