On an unrelated thread, Philip Portelli wrote:


"To the Commander: I would be very interested to hear your views on M*A*S*H, McHale's Navy, and particularly Hogan's Heroes, given your service. I know that they were comedies but I would like to hear your views, if or when you want. Heck comment on CPO Sharkey for that matter!"


I'll try.


First, let me state that, with regard to military series, both dramatic and comedic, television imposes certain necessary restraints to accuracy.  I understand this.  J.A.G. demonstrated a few of these necessary bars to accuracy.  For ten years, the two stars served in the same billets at J.A.G. headquarters (except for occasional story arcs which temporarily shifted them around).  Normal tours in the military are eighteen months to three years, at the most, and usually are two years.  So, no way that would have happened in real life.  But I understand that a popular show just can't go retooling itself with new formats and new cast members every couple of years.  So I can accept that as a necessary fictional device.


Also, the two stars would not have reported to the Judge Advocate General of the Navy directly, as they did in the show.  There would be a Chief of Staff and other ACOS's in the hierarchy.  But then you're talking about the expense of additional cast members, so I can accept that as a necessary fictional device, as well.


Those kinds of things I grudgingly give a pass to.  Other things I do not.  Things which do not affect the budget, such as improper military protocol or errors in the uniform.  These things don't cost a cent to fix, and J.A.G. had the least excuse of all shows for such mistakes creeping in.  J.A.G. had a retired rear admiral on the payroll as an advisor.  He must have been asleep through many of the episodes, though, for all the uniform mistakes---and obvious ones to anybody in the Navy---to have gotten by.


And, sure, many military-related series, especially sitcoms, didn’t hire a military expert as an advisor.  But you can sure bet the shows received mail from vets who watched the show and called them on errors.  So when I see mistakes of this sort appear, my estimation of the show immediately drops.


Now, to military sitcoms.


I understand, in order to evoke humour, certain aspects of military life have to exaggerated or lampooned.  But the key here---from my standpoint as a military man---is to not go beyond my willing suspension of disbelief.  Granted, the bar is higher for me than it is for someone who has never served.  And there are lots more of career civilian television watchers than there are career military television watchers.  So, if a producer wants to play the numbers game, he can go as extreme as he wants.


On the other hand, television history has had several military-oriented sitcoms that were successful and never strayed across my line of believability.


Let’s start with the two military sitcoms that are remarkable in the fact that neither one of them ever---ever---committed an error in protocol, uniform wear, or general military practice.


The first was Hennesey (CBS, 1959-62), starring Jackie Cooper.  This show was so remarkable that it is tied, with Father Knows Best, as my favourite sitcom ever.  It tells of a newly minted Navy physician, Lieutenant Charles “Chick” Hennesey, stationed at the Naval Dispensary in San Diego.


It’s a show that takes it’s humour from the characters’ reactions to simple, yet logical twists and developments in Navy life.  While Hennesey and his nurse, Martha Hale, pretty much play it straight (though they are not beyond a witty line or two), there are some characters who are “characters”---Hennesey’s commanding officer, Captain (later, Rear Admiral) Shafer, and Chief Corpsman Bronsky.  Yet, they never get so broad as to be unbelievable and underlie their minor eccentricities with remarkable humanity.  It’s a show loaded with sentimental moments, but never saccharine ones, mostly because Hennesey is just a decent, likeable man, usually right but not always.


As I said, Hennesey never committed a single error in military protocol, not even a situation that bordered on being impossible to really happen.  I credit this to the fact that Jackie Cooper, who also produced the show, hired a great number of military veterans as staff and he himself was a Navy veteran.  The show was also distinctive in utilising techniques infrequently seen on television then, especially in sitcoms.  It relied strongly on overlapping dialogue.  And for most episodes, it eschewed an opening credit sequence.  The show would begin with a cold open and a minute or so into it, the dialogue track go silent and the theme would play, while the credits got “painted” over the scene, which would still be going on.  Even without the benefit of dialogue, the viewer could still follow the gist of the scene. 


Many episodes were done without a laugh track.  Particularly one tour-de-force episode which has only two cast members---Cooper, as Hennesey, and guest star Don Rickles as a chief petty officer.  The TV Guide entry for this episode probably read:  “Hennesey gives a C.P.O. a reënlistment physical.”  Because that’s all it was.  But the dialogue keeps you so riveted that you don’t realise that nothing else takes place.


As in many other Hennesey episodes, something pointed out early on comes back as the clincher in the end.  And for this episode, throw away any previous conceptions of Don Rickles.  He performs with nuance and subtlety.  And in the last shot, which shows him walking toward the camera, away from the examining room, he looks and moves like every thirty-year C.P.O. I ever met.


Personal Sidebar:  I was a tadpole when Hennesey aired and it was the first exposure to the Navy that I ever had, and from it, I got the idea that maybe the Navy wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend my life.


Fast-forward to 1999.  It was Christmas Eve, and I was in my stateroom, lying on my rack, on board the flagship Blue Ridge, in Yokosuka, Japan.  I had just been assigned to the staff of Commander, SEVENTH Fleet, and the Good Mrs. Benson, having a good job that neither of us wanted her to sacrifice, was back home in the States.  The ship was quiet, practically deserted, except for duty personnel, everybody else home with his wife and family.  And I started thinking about all the events that led me to that particular point, at that particular time.


I followed that thread all the way back to Hennesey, which I hadn’t thought about in years.   It was about mid-night, Christmas now, when I got an idea.  I was going to write Jackie Cooper a letter, telling him how his show had been my first inspiration to join the Navy and how much satisfaction my Naval career had brought me.


Right then, I went down to my office and wrote.  Getting his mailing address wasn’t difficult---Cooper was still famous enough and, hey, I worked for an admiral.  And I mailed it.


About three weeks later, there was something on my desk from mail call.  It was a letter from Jackie Cooper, written in his own hand.  He said that my letter was one of the nicest Christmas presents he had ever received.  He was glad that Hennesey had been such an inspiration to me.  And, to me, the most important thing he wrote was that “of all the things I’ve done as a producer, director, or actor, Hennesey is the thing of which I am proudest.”


(The same night I also wrote and sent a letter to his Hennesey co-star, Abby Dalton, that produced some interesting results.  But that’s another story, for another post.)




The other error-free military sitcom came much later in television’s history, but has many of the same qualities as Hennesey.  That was Major Dad (also CBS, 1989-93).  As Hennesey was for Jackie Cooper, Major Dad was obviously a labour of love for Gerald McRaney.  While the central premise was different---die-hard Marine Corps officer meets and marries a liberal-minded lady journalist with three daughters---it shared Hennesey’s impeccability in showing both the light side and the serious side of military life, including the grimness of combat, without diluting either.  Like Hennesey, some of the regular characters were slightly eccentric but never beyond feasibility and were always underlaid with professionalism and competence. 


Major Dad wasn’t a “quiet” sitcom, like Hennesey.  It played comedy a bit more broadly and cranked in the generational humour with the three daughters.  And it vested Major MacGillis with a Marine Warrior image that the plots both validated and poked fun at.  It also plumbed the sentimentality well a bit more deeply, along with adding the cuteness factor of pint-sized youngest daughter, Casey.


It’s telling that the then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray, appeared in a guest spot on the show.  The Marine Corps usually doesn’t go in for that kind of thing, unless they respect a show.


Since I’ve rambled on here, Philip, let’s make this “part one”, and I’ll get to some of the military sitcoms you specifically mentioned on the next go ‘round.

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...All descriptions/listings of the series that I remember reading spelled out the " last-in-his-class " description without qualification , that is what I drew my facts from .

) Again , I have never seen the series . I am youngr than you , and I tend to imagine that it may have been seen on television in my area very little even if at all even by 1966 , the time , more or less , that I remember any television programming that I gandered . )

  Now , the story you describe could've been written to set up the , generally seen as audience-pleasing , concept that " diplomas aren't - indeed , are far from - everything..." .

I Dream of Jeannie: another sit-com now ruined for me by Commander Benson.


Seriously, my experience, memories and thoughts concerning this show are almost identical to The Baron's, posted above.

Emerkeith Davyjack said:

...All descriptions/listings of the series that I remember reading spelled out the " last-in-his-class " description without qualification , that is what I drew my facts from .

I'm surprised you found that much about Hennesey anywhere.  It's one of the truly forgotten situation comedies and on-line info on it is scarce.  I should think that I've found pretty much all that there is and I've never come across any reference solidly stating that Hennesey graduated last in his class, at Annapolis or anywhere else.  Or even a mention to his class placing.


That doesn't rule out, of course, some commentary somewhere stating that.  My instinct, however, would be that it is something stated as truth but is actually a factoid, taken from some other equally-erroneous source, or from someone's misremembering of that first episode.  In the same way many write-ups of the show Maverick refer to Bret Maverick as a con man in the old West.  Maverick wasn't a con man; he was a gambler.  That's how he made his living.  Certainly, episodes would have him pulling a con on somebody, but that's because he was forced into doing so and not because he did it by choice.


My information comes precisely from the first episode.  There's a little wiggle room to go ahead and believe that Hennesey did, indeed, graduate last in his class.  And if someone wants to believe it, hey, go right on ahead.  It doesn't really matter, anyway.

...I recall pre-1980 ( generally , anyway ) pop culture reference/history books that I no longer have .

  Again , I recall no qualification ever , and the " last..." might've been the first ( or only ) setting description given beyond the mere fact that it concerned a Navy doctor and who the star was , or possibly the co-star .

...And , if spelling it out as a parenthesis earlier wasn't clear enough , I do not recall ever having seen Hennessy at all . Ever . Not once . Only descriptions/listings in said tomes .
Jeff of Earth-J said:

I Dream of Jeannie: another sit-com now ruined for me by Commander Benson.


Seriously, my experience, memories and thoughts concerning this show are almost identical to The Baron's, posted above.

Well, I Dream of Jeannie isn't ruined for me, but then, I never would dare to move it out of the "turn your brain off and watch" category. If I allowed even one brain cell to activate while it was on, then I'd probably put my foot through the TV screen. Fortunately, the sight of a hot blonde in a harem outfit always prevented that from happening ...

However, thanks to the Commander for clearing up something I never understood: As I watched I Dream of Jeannie in the primordial days before color TV came to my household, I could never figure why Major Nelson and Major Healy wore different uniforms. The answer is so simple: They're in different services! 


And yeah, if you think about it -- which I tried never to do regarding I Dream of Jeannie -- then it is unfair to leave Doctor Bellows hanging like that. It'd be a different thing if he was a creep like Frank Burns, but he wasn't. 

The Baron said:

Interesting stuff, Commander - I watched the show alot when I was a kid, and never really put alot of thought into the situation in the comedy, mostly at an age where I knew that Barbara Eden in a harem girl outfit wasreal interesting to me for some reason, though I hadn't quite figured out why. (I figured it out eventually.)  I haven't seen it in more than 30 years - I dimly remember a "reunion" movie  with Wayne Rogers taking Larry Hagman's place. It's actually kind of funny - there were many of those old shows where I just blithely accepted the premise without thinking it through.


Actually, there were two reunion movies. The first, as you recall, featured Wayne Rogers instead of Larry Hagman, most likely because, after his Dallas fame, there was no getting him to take that step backward. They didn't even bother with him in the second film; the plot, such as it was, was that Major Nelson was on a space mission and Jeannie's evil sister invoked some rule claiming that Jeannie was now without a master, in a bid to grab Tony for herself once he landed. So Jeannie has to search for a new master and, as they say, hilarity ensues. (Why Major Healy couldn't fit the bill, I don't recall.)
ClarkKent_DC said:

However, thanks to the Commander for clearing up something I never understood: As I watched I Dream of Jeannie in the primordial days before color TV came to my household, I could never figure why Major Nelson and Major Healy wore different uniforms. The answer is so simple: They're in different services! 

For decades, the fact that Healey was Army, while Nelson and Bellows and whatever general was in charge that season were Air Force used to pester the obsessive-detail part of my personality.


The show never, ever, made even the smallest issue out of Nelson and Healey being in different services.  There was never a plotline in which the service difference was a point.  There was never even a line of dialogue something to the effect of "Gee, Tony, the Army doesn't do it that way."  Or even a "How do you do.  This is Major Healey of the Army."  In other words, except for the uniforms---and there, as I said, the show was meticulous---there was no distinction in the services in which Nelson and Healey served.


So why did they put the characters in different branches?  It added to the wardrobe expense.  And some detail man, probably the script girl, had to make sure that the uniforms were depicted accurately, and that would have been easier if Nelson and Healey had both been Air Force.


It was a question that bugged the hell out of me.  It was one of the reasons why I bought Steve Cox's book.  I was hoping he would address it.  But nope, he never did, except to note the fact that Healey was Army.


I still haven't received an answer from a definitive source, i.e., someone connected with the show.  But I had a discussion about it with some of the folks on the IDoJ thread at Sitcoms Online and I believe that we nailed the answer.  So that was one I was finally able to cross off my bucket list.

Commander, you can't leave us hanging! Please share!
Philip Portelli said:
Commander, you can't leave us hanging! Please share!

Oh, geez, must I do everything?


Chuckle!  O.K., here's the only thing that makes sense.


When I Dream of Jeannie debuted on 18 September 1965, with the episode "Lady in a Bottle", Captain Anthony Nelson was shown to have been one member of a three-member astronaut team---which was actually in accordance with the protocols for N.A.S.A.'s Gemini project.  The other two members were Bill Daily (who was not listed as a regular cast member in that first episode) as Captain Roger Healey, U.S. Army; and Don Dubbins as Lieutenant Pete Conway, U.S. Navy.  The use of three services was to reflect the fact that, for astronaut-rated aviators, N.A.S.A. is a joint assignment.  (In other words, not a specifically Army or Navy or Air Force job; a qualified military officer from any service may fill the billet.)


The inclusion of Captain Healey, an Army officer, was despite the fact that there had not been an Army aviator in the space programme at that time (and if I recall correctly, never has been, either).


Also in this first episode, Doctor Bellows was a minor character and not yet figured in as the one from whom Jeannie's magical shenanigans must be hidden.  That rôle was intended to be filled by Nelson's teammates, Healey and Conway.  (Hence, the reason that Healey acts much more seriously and maturely in the first dozen episodes or so.)


Very quickly, it dawned on producer Sidney Sheldon that the show didn't need two astronauts that Captain Nelson kept having to hide Jeannie from.  That two astronauts could be constantly hoodwinked just wouldn't pass believability.  And one fooled astronaut could get the point as effectively as two.  There was also a financial benefit, as eliminating one of the three-astronaut team would save the show's budget the cost of paying an actor for a recurring rôle.


So, poor Don Drubbins got the axe, and LT Conway was never seen, again.  Bill Daily was moved up to regular-cast status, and since it had already been established that Captain Healey was an Army man, the show just left it that way.





Clearly, the concept of characters filling specific rôles and eliminating any superfluous parts was a strong element in Sidney Sheldon's production style.  As the part of Doctor Bellows grew and he became the one from whom Nelson had to conceal Jeannie's antics, Captain Healey was no longer needed to fill that part.  But instead of sending Healey to Mandyville, Sheldon changed the show's dynamic.  First, he turned Healey into a "whacky character", making him more appropriate as Nelson's sidekick.  Then he let Healey in on the existence of Jeannie.


This redrew the relationships.  Instead of being Nelson's friend, yet mystified at his strange actions, Healey was now part of the secret, intensifying their "buddy" status.  It also left Dr. Bellows as the odd man out, aware that something strange was going on with Captain Nelson.  But with Healey in on Jeannie's secret now and actively protecting it, Bellows no longer had anyone to share his puzzlement with.  In terms of the inter-relationships of the characters, this made Bellows the perfect foil.


Sheldon may also have realized that having Daily in a "straight" role was a waste of a wonderful comic. I enjoy watching him both as Major Healey and as Howard Borden (The Bob Newhart Show).

I'm afraid I can't review NCIS or NCIS Los Angeles.  I've never watched either show.

You should give NCIS a try; USA runs all-day marathons of the show several times a week, so it's easy to get a big dose pretty quickly. That's how I got hooked on it, and I'm curious how accurate any of it is, given the TV needs of instant forensics and virtual teleportation to get everywhere within minutes (especially apparent as time is ticking down on a deadline).

The early episodes I think are best, in that they actually introduced red herrings and made the murder more of a mystery and didn't try to give each agent an angsty personal backstory. The amount of Navy/Marine protocol varies widely between episodes, but some of them are fairly immersed in it--especially the ones on battleships and carriers, which I would think would be of special interest to you.

-- MSA

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