Sliding Scales: Hollowness vs Honesty

This is a two part piece. Part one can be found here.

Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we? The quintessential part of MASH, the thing that sets it apart from all the other sitcoms that came before and after, was how blatantly honest it was about its characters flaws and struggles. Hawkeye believes in nothing but being a doctor, Margaret is too scared of her situation to let go of the rules once in a while, Colonel Potter’s temper is just never quite under control. Do these people sound like cliches? Yes, of course they do.

And why do cliches exist? For the most part, because of how similar they are to real life people or events. This is what creates them and why they endure so long. It’s really only the execution of these cliches that makes the difference between good characters and bad characters, or good plots and bad plots.

This brings us back to my problem with the sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism. You see, the overly cynical “dark” plot is itself a cliché, dating all the way back to about Oedipus Rex. Possibly earlier. The problem with it is that, just like the overly idealistic stories typical of eighties and nineties TV or any other overly idealized work you want to point to, these overly cynical stories don’t ring true. A story so determinedly stripped of joy, fellowship and contentment is just as hollow as a story without suffering, struggle or failure.

To put it in the simplest terms possible: Any story where only good things happen lacks verisimilitude. Any story where only bad things happen lacks verisimilitude.

This is why I say people who rave about how dark a story is irritate me. Let’s take the movie Man of Steel, for example. Ignoring how overcrowded and frantic the pace is, how pretentious the characters sound sometimes and how holey the plot can be the film still has the problem of being overly dark. Superman looses so much of his family in the course of the story, lives so separate from the rest of humanity, and at the end of it he even fails to live up to the ideals that cost him all that.

And do we get the feeling that he’s glad of his choices?

Does he strike you as happy in spite of his suffering?

Maybe he’s dealing with a new kind of disillusionment? A change from struggling with others accepting himself to struggling with accepting what he’s done?

In fact, can you track any kind of character arc in the character of Superman at all?

The whole film is so dark, so without humor, so without peace or joy of any kind of lasting meaning, that it makes the whole film feel flat! There may be subtle shades of variation in Superman’s attitudes and expression but with no contrasting attitudes other than grim resolve (at least I think that’s what it’s supposed to be) it’s hard to get a read on who Superman is. Yes I know we’re told the whole film who he’s supposed to be – but that doesn’t always equal what he is! His whole character just rings hollow.

Contrast that to MASH. Sure, it’s a sitcom but it’s got one of the most significant, difficult to solve problems in human existence at its heart – war, its necessity (or lack thereof) and its effect on the human condition. In their joint review of Man of Steel the Nostalgia Critic and Angry Joe point out that seeing Superman face his most intense test yet can make viewers feel that he’s that much stronger – a hero is only as powerful as the villains he defeats, after all. But the problem is Superman just seems to reflect the struggles he’s enmeshed in. He never rises above them. MASH is entirely about rising above war – the doctors fight it every day in surgery. They also fight it when they laugh and play pranks, when they encourage one another and even when they pick up the pieces after the departure of Henry Blake and try to find peace again. The characters of MASH feel honest where the Man of Steel clangs hollow.

Keep your idealism and your cynicism. Forget dark and edgy. Give me honest any day of the week.

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