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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There is a scene from the movie between Hawkeye and Hot Lips which the camp priest, Dago Red, overhears. He refers to her as a “regular army clown” and his rant included some sexual innuendo as well. After he leaves, in order to cover up their mutual embarrassment, Hot lips and Dago Red exchange the following words.

HOT LIPS: I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the army medical corps?

DAGO RED: He was drafted.

I saw M*A*S*H for the second time when I was in high school and it was shown on a local college campus, and that line was met with howls of laughter.

Regarding the fluid timeline of the television show, I’m convinced that the episodes didn’t occur in strictly chronological order. They couldn’t have. Many of the episodes are vignettes, where one episode set in the dead of winter might be followed by one set at the height of summer. Some of them were fixed at a particular point in time, and certain developments had to occur in a certain order, but the time line of M*A*S*H was always only vaguely chronological. It’s the only explanation that works.

As far back as the original novel, there were surgeons with families in M*A*S*H. Hawkeye and Duke, the two main characters of the novel, were married with children (so was Spearchucker). Trapper, in fact, wasn't married. His former comrades set him up in the sequel, M*A*S*H Goes to Maine, and he marries Hawkeye's secretary, Lucinda. I don't remember if Captain Burns and his wife had any children. Colonel Blake, if I remember correctly, was an Army man and not a draftee.

 

Why the switch in the TV series? Seems to me they didn't mind Hawkeye being a womanizer but they couldn't stomach him being an adulterer, too. That didn't stop them from having Trapper, LCOL Blake, and Frank Burns from being adulterers, though.

Jeff of Earth-J said:
Regarding the fluid timeline of the television show, I’m convinced that the episodes didn’t occur in strictly chronological order. They couldn’t have. Many of the episodes are vignettes, where one episode set in the dead of winter might be followed by one set at the height of summer. Some of them were fixed at a particular point in time, and certain developments had to occur in a certain order, but the time line of M*A*S*H was always only vaguely chronological. It’s the only explanation that works.

 

Yes, that explanation works, and by and large, it's the one I subscribe to.  However, it goes only so far.

 

The spanner wrench in the reduction gear comes from the show's infrequent but maddening practise of specifying a precise date or time without regard for developments that had to happen in a certain order.

 

For example, the characters of Potter and Hunnicutt have to come along after Blake and Trapper John leave.  And Winchester has to come after Burns.  No matter what date a particular episode could be presumed to take place, there could never be, say, an episode featuring Henry Blake that could be said to take place after Colonel Potter took over command.  Nor could you set a Trapper John episode at any time when B. J. Hunnicutt was a member of the 4077.

 

And this is where the trouble sets in.  As I mentioned, the episodes "Welcome to Korea" (Hunnicutt's arrival) and "Change of Command" (Potter's arrival) were set, by information presented in those selfsame episodes, in September, 1952.  By dint of the time-line then, we know that Trapper John left (around the first few minutes of "Welcome to Korea") in September of '52, and Blake was killed an unspecified time, but fairly recently, earlier in or before September, '52.

 

Yet, several seasons later, the show had an episode that, from information presented in the episode, took place during the holiday season December, 1950-January, 1951.  And it had Potter in command of the 4077, and Hunnicutt was present, as well.  Since Potter and Hunnicutt couldn't be present at the same time as Blake and Trapper John, the problem lies in that this date contradicts the one established when Potter and Hunnicutt arrived at the 4077---September, 1952.

 

That's the most specific case I can remember well enough to cite.  But such things occurred not often, but enough to throw the whole time-line out of whack.  Something in a Blake episode would give the year as 1953, or something in a Winchester episode would insist it was 1951.

 

And frankly, that was just plain sloppy on the part of the producers.  How difficult could it have been to go by the simple guideline that everything after Potter and Hunnicutt arrived was late '52 or later?  We're only talking about three years here.


I remember noticing that even when I was a kid, and I wasn't the most observant kid in the world, so it must've been pretty blatant.

 

One particular inconsistency I remember was that Henry Blake's wife was initially called "Mildred" and was described as being fairly unappealing - later, she was called "Lorraine", and the actress that portrayed her - in a home movie, as I recall - was fairly attractive.  I always assumed that their answer to the show lasting many times the length of the actual war was to just give up on strict continuity at some point.

Jeff of Earth-J said:
Regarding the fluid timeline of the television show, I’m convinced that the episodes didn’t occur in strictly chronological order. They couldn’t have. Many of the episodes are vignettes, where one episode set in the dead of winter might be followed by one set at the height of summer. Some of them were fixed at a particular point in time, and certain developments had to occur in a certain order, but the time line of M*A*S*H was always only vaguely chronological. It’s the only explanation that works.


I've never heard of that or thought of that, but it makes eminent sense. M*A*S*H is not the show to watch if you're a continuity freak. Not only was it on the air from 1972 to 1983, nearly four times as long as the Korean War (1950-1953), several things contradict each other. For example, one episode was about Maj. Houlihan trying to please her stern, demanding father, a colonel -- despite an episode a year or two prior in which we are told her father is dead.


Figserello said:

We watched Trapper John MD for a while.  I had no clue that he was a former MASH character. Given that it was a contemporary show and MASH was set in the Korean War, was it the same actor playing the character both times?

No; that was Wayne Rogers in M*A*S*H, and Pernell Roberts in Trapper John, M.D.


Figserello said:
I remember Trapper John lived in a mobile home in the carpark of the hospital.  Between him and Petrochelli, it must have been something of a lifestyle choice back then.

It wasn't Trapper John himself, but his protegé, Gonzo Gates. It was an easy way of showing that he was A Rebel Who Doesn't Follow the Rules. I'm surprised they didn't have him ride a motorcycle through the hospital hallways.

Figserello said:
It never occurred to me for years that MASH was set anywhere other than in Vietnam in the 70's.  I was surprised to learn after the fact that it was supposed to be Korea.

That was just what they wanted you to think!

However, it goes only so far.

What you say is true. It pays not to think about it too hard. ;)

Oddly, the thing that I’ve found grating recently are frequent references to Godzilla movies (such as “Godzilla and the Bobby-Sockser”) when the first Godzilla movie wasn’t released until well after the end of the Korean War.
Why the switch in the TV series? Seems to me they didn't mind Hawkeye being a womanizer but they couldn't stomach him being an adulterer, too. That didn't stop them from having Trapper, LCOL Blake, and Frank Burns from being adulterers, though.

Good question. I do see some attempt to reconcile the hypocrisy of the show. Henry had an ongoing implied sexual relationship with Leslie, but in season three the tables were turned when his wife Lorraine had a casual sexual liaison stateside. Similarly, Trapper indiscriminately cheated on his wife throughout the first three seasons, yet a fifth season episode deals with BJ’s guilt when he “falls off the fidelity wagon.”

Off topic but harkening back to the canonization of Hawkeye, he and Trapper removed a healthy appendix to keep an officer (and the troops under his command) off the front lines on more than one occasion. In a later episode which I haven’t got to yet, he suggests the same tactic to BJ, who refuses because it’s medically unethical. Hawkeye does it anyway but becomes a better person as a result, which is a good example of the kind of stories the Commander was talking about a few days ago.
Jeff of Earth-J said:
Why the switch in the TV series? Seems to me they didn't mind Hawkeye being a womanizer but they couldn't stomach him being an adulterer, too. That didn't stop them from having Trapper, LCOL Blake, and Frank Burns from being adulterers, though.

Good question. I do see some attempt to reconcile the hypocrisy of the show. Henry had an ongoing implied sexual relationship with Leslie, but in season three the tables were turned when his wife Lorraine had a casual sexual liaison stateside. Similarly, Trapper indiscriminately cheated on his wife throughout the first three seasons, yet a fifth season episode deals with BJ’s guilt when he “falls off the fidelity wagon.”

Off topic but harkening back to the canonization of Hawkeye, he and Trapper removed a healthy appendix to keep an officer (and the troops under his command) off the front lines on more than one occasion. In a later episode which I haven’t got to yet, he suggests the same tactic to BJ, who refuses because it’s medically unethical. Hawkeye does it anyway but becomes a better person as a result, which is a good example of the kind of stories the Commander was talking about a few days ago.

I remember that one. I also remember that the early episodes showed Hawkeye and Trapper John freely fooling around with the nurses -- oddly, several of them were named "Nurse Able" or "Nurse Baker" -- so much so that I didn't realize Trapper John was married. But in an episode from the later years, Hawkeye gets called out on it by Nurse Kellye, a rather heavy-set Hawaiian woman, who complains that he never tried to hit on her because she wasn't conventionally beautiful. Not that she wanted him to hit on her, per se, but that she didn't want to be dismissed out of hand as unworthy. So, Hawkeye -- say it with me -- becomes a better person as a result.
I also remember an episode where Radar was seen to have an issue of Avengers.  Obviously, they were living in an alternate universe where the Korean War went on for decades.

As for BJ being married with a child yet still being conscripted, So was Trapper, who had a wife and two children (and a divorce in the near-future, if he continued acting the same way!) and Blake and Burns were married, as well.

I recall one episodes where Hawkeye learns that the number of "points" you needed to be sent home was raised so he was trapped in Korea until the end. But it gave him more opportunities to preach and commiserate about his plight and the human condition in a wartime enviroment! Hope he went on a lecture tour throughtout Crab Apple Cove!

Regarding BJ and infidelity, it happened twice. The first time he was adamant not to go through with it. The second time, he was really tempted but finally resisted!

I remember Trapper John lived in a mobile home in the carpark of the hospital.  Between him and Petrochelli, it must have been something of a lifestyle choice back then.

It wasn't Trapper John himself, but his protegé, Gonzo Gates. It was an easy way of showing that he was A Rebel Who Doesn't Follow the Rules. I'm surprised they didn't have him ride a motorcycle through the hospital hallways.

 

If House hasn't done that yet, I'm sure he will eventually.

I'm fairly sure he has ridden a pedal bike through the halls in the early episodes of season 3

Doctor Hmmm? said:
I remember Trapper John lived in a mobile home in the carpark of the hospital.  Between him and Petrochelli, it must have been something of a lifestyle choice back then.

It wasn't Trapper John himself, but his protegé, Gonzo Gates. It was an easy way of showing that he was A Rebel Who Doesn't Follow the Rules. I'm surprised they didn't have him ride a motorcycle through the hospital hallways.

 

If House hasn't done that yet, I'm sure he will eventually.

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