Wednesday, 18 February 2009

M*A*S*H - Blood and Guts

Every morning from 7am 'til 8am, I look after my daughter - during which time I'm able to watch about twenty minutes of television. So this morning, I watched an episode of M*A*S*H - from the 10th series. It was called "Blood and Guts" - which sitcom geeks tell me was originally aired in Jan 1982. In this episode, Hawkeye is outraged when a sensationalistic war correspondent, Clayton Kibbee, reports irresponsible G.I. stunts as tales of military valor. What can we learn from it?

M*A*S*H works best when the characters are all getting on each other's nerves. It occurred to me that Hut 33's Archie vs Charles antagonism is akin to Hawkeye vs Winchester. But let's be honest, when you're on your 200th episode of a sitcom, you can be forgiven from bringing in outside characters and seeing how the characters react. The outside character in question is a famous fictional war correspondent - and everyone likes him. He's brought out some pints of blood with him from the readers of his newspaper, and is writing a story about how each pint is used. Unfortunately, the first two pints are used on dumb GIs injured via self-inflicted accidents, not combat. But Kibbee writes up a tail of derring-do anyway. Hawkeye is appalled and tries to get others to see that Kibbee is a phoney.

Kibbee's motives are unclear in this episode - is he twisting the facts to publish a good story for the paper? Is he trying to help the war effort by creating heroes for the readers at home? Clearly he'd be doing the 4077 no favours if he said they had to treat stupid GIs who were foolishly injured. But since Kibbee is not a central character, his motives are less interesting to us than Hawkeye's. And it's very easy to forget that when creating character that only last one episode. The audience like the regular cast - and tend to have their favourites within that. And they rarely, if ever, derive much pleasure from outside characters.

But here's the exception. Seinfeld made a virtue of creating funny one-off characters. Like the Soup Nazi. Or Elaine's Dad. Or the Bubble Boy. It can be done. But very little pressure is placed on these characters. It's all about how the regulars react - and then act, and move the story on. One should avoid outside characters being the central plot engine of the story.

For Hut 33 Series 3

One of the reasons for examining other sitcoms is to learn - and make improvements to my own writing so that Series 3 of Hut 33 is better than the last two. In Series 2, there were probably too many outside characters coming in: The Duke of Kent, the German Spy, The American. I was perfectly happy with the episodes, but the focus of the show must always be the main characters. To that end, for series 3, I have outlines for four scripts which contain no outside characters at all. Two more episodes are still to be storylined. But those episodes will be numbers 17 & 18 in the overall canon of Hut 33, so there's no excuse. I'm still some way short of an episode 200.

One other point about M*A*S*H, which is a military show, as is Hut 33. Military shows are useful from a sitcom point of view because comedy require simplicity, and comprehensibility. And in the army, everyone has clear ranks, roles and duties. There is a hierarchy that must be observed. Wars that need to be won. Anything that subverts that order is, or can be, funny. Moreover, the beauty of M*A*S*H, from a writing point of view, is that the job of the main characters is clear - cure patients, save lives and generally help out.

The role of Hut 33 is altogether harder to convey. Code-breaking is incredibly hard to do, and even harder to explain. It helps that we have a thickie character in Josh, to whom things have to be explained very simply (and to the audience), but it doesn't always work. Again, I'll be trying to tackle that head-on in this series, but add to that fact that its radio (so everything has to be said, not seen), and it's all rather demanding. So I'd better get on with writing a script now...