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.

Sliding Scales: Idealism and Cynacism

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.