Let’s talk about verisimilitude, or how believable your story is. In general, a story has more verisimilitude the more it resembles real life and the more verisimilitude a story has the better and more timeless it becomes. As you might have guessed by the title of this post, we’re going to look at a particular aspect of verisimilitude, in particular the sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism.
Let’s just get this out of the way now: I hate this scale.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk before about how such and such a book/TV show/movie is so dark and how they love it and isn’t it great that we get all this dark stuff these days. I generally pick something epically ridiculous (current favorite: I, Frankenstein) and agree, since that was such a dark piece of work it’s truly noteworthy.
I get into a lot of arguments this way.
Now don’t misunderstand. The sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism exists for a reason. In the eighties and nineties it was pretty much against the rules to produce anything that left a bad taste in the mouth at any point in the story. It’s not clear if this was some kind of backlash against ubercynical works like Apocalypse Now or if there was just some kind of natural cycle at work in the entertainment industry, but the result was a selection of very, very idealized entertainment.
This doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. Shows like Family Matters or GI Joe live on in our hearts because they were very entertaining and well done. But they lacked something very important, something very vital to human nature. They lacked the kinds of persistent, sometimes very draining and always challenging difficulties that everyone faces in life. (No, Cobra Commander does not count.)
No one was addicted to anything unhealthy, even vices as harmless as overeating tended to be dealt with in the course of a single episode. Family problems were solved equally quickly and issues like not having a family were either ignored or glossed over with a bucket of industrial varnish and a heavy handed brush. It was an era of sitcoms, easy fixes and loads and loads of camp.
And because entertainment of that age lacked the serious challenges of life, it lacked verisimilitude.
It’s hard to pin down an exact turning point but you’ll find that by the early 2000s entertainment was dealing with these things in depth much more frequently. TV series like 24 were beginning to look at large, persistent problems that were not going to simply go away in an episode or even a season. Lost became a phenomenon in spite of presenting more questions than answers. Themes were getting, as many would put it, darker and grittier. There was a cultural trend, they would say, to putting more darkness into stories and thus making them better.
Which is total garbage, of course, and I’m getting to the why next week, but right now we’re looking at the sliding scale so let’s stick to that. Here’s the thing about the sliding scale – it makes you think that you can’t have both idealism and cynicism in one story. This is untrue and I will prove it using one of the most beloved TV series of all time.
I’m talking, of course, about MASH. If you’re not familiar with this series and its characters, a summary is far outside the scope of this post. But the odds are good you at least know that MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, that the TV show is set during the Korean War and that it was, on its surface, a sitcom. So shouldn’t this be a case of a campy, idealistic show?
Yes, it kind of should. Should being the key word.
You see, as you watch MASH you’ll probably pick up all kinds of witty things to say, comebacks to use yourself and hilarious sight gags that will make you chuckle for days. But you’ll also remember the haunted looks of doctors who lost another patient, thousand yard stares of soldiers who’ve been to the front and the seemingly endless parade of wounded who you really never know anything about.
MASH is embodied by Hawkeye Pierce, the brilliant surgeon with the incredible regard for human life and unshaken hatred for the war who, at the same time, is an alcoholic, shallow, borderline misogynistic womanizer – most of the time. We see him at his best and his worst and the show never stints on either one. Interestingly enough, MASH was a sitcom but it grew to be as popular as it did because the comedy of every day life was contrasted with the extraordinary tragedy of war.
While it might be an exaggeration to call many of the difficulties most people face “tragedy” at least when compared to the shock and harm of life during and after war, what draws people to the story and characters of MASH is the honesty in presenting the characters. By the middle of the show’s run all one note characters are gone from the cast and in the next five seasons show them at their best and worst. It’s not idealized – but it’s certainly not cynical, either.
Perhaps it’s best described as honest.
So what can a storyteller learn from MASH and its honesty? Well, that’s something for next week, I think.