In order to fully appreciate this week's post, you need to watch this. I urge you to buy this in order to do so because I object to copyright infringement, but if not, you might have to satisfy yourself with my description. This ends the special announcements for this week's post.
I showed this episode of the TV series M*A*S*H to some of my screenwriting students last week, and realized in doing so that it illustrates exactly how to create interesting, three-dimensional characters in a very short time.
The episode, 22nd in the fourth season of M*A*S*H, was entitled "The More I See You," and it takes its name from the song playing on the radio in The Swamp at the beginning of the show. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and his relatively new friend B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell) are discussing how bored they are while there's no medical work to be done.
But they're not bored for long: Up pulls a jeep and out of it step two nurses. And at the sight of one of them, Hawkeye goes positively pale. He says, mostly to himself, "Don't tell me. Don't even think it." Turns out the new nurse at the 4077th is Carley Walton (Blythe Danner), formerly Carley Breslin, and as it transpires, The Woman who got away from Hawkeye when he was in his surgical residency years before.
Pardon me. Hawkeye initially says he was in his "resical surgidency." A character who is never lost for a comeback now can't control the words coming out of his mouth. This pain goes deep.
There are four key scenes in the episode, and while I'd love to, there isn't space here to discuss all of them. Consider the first, in which Hawkeye and B.J. introduce themselves to Carley and her new tentmate, Becky Anderson. At the sound of his voice, Carley, facing away, looks just as panicked as Hawkeye did when he spotted her in the opening. But she turns to face him, pretending they haven't met before.
At one point, while Hawkeye and B.J. are being their charming selves, they hand Carley a cigar for no reason other than when Hawkeye begins to make his next joke, Carley can wiggle the cigar while saying the punchline at the same time he does. She's heard that one before. Later, when he babbles a bit, she says, "You're trying too hard. Are you uncomfortable?"
When things get more serious between them, Hawkeye and Carley talk (and television is more about talk than movies, because conversation is faster and cheaper to photograph) like two veterans of another kind of war, a painful one in which no one came out undamaged. "I hated you for a long time," Hawkeye tells her at one point. "Hate. The real thing. If I'd met you during my celebrated Blue Period, I don't know what I would have done."
They find themselves falling into old behavior patterns, and before long, they are lovers again. Problem: Carley is married, to a naval officer who has "probably got the glass on us right now," Hawkeye says. When B.J. takes note of that, Hawkeye asks if he disapproves. "You want disapproval, you disapprove," his friend tells him. "I'm not the Acme Judgment Company."
But things are not to end well. This is, after all, episodic television, and Carley is not going to become a regular cast member. Besides, a happy Hawkeye Pierce with a wife in the camp would have ended the show right there, seven years before its celebrated finale. Carley asks for a transfer, and when Hawkeye asks why, he provides the answer to his own question by asking her to marry him while walking himself into a corner.
"If you had gone into medicine with the same lack of conviction that you seem to have for marriage," Carley tells him, "you would have been a mortician's delight." She is not interested in being an accessory to a great surgeon; she wants to be a person. These two people, desperately in love with each other, can't stay together because of who they are.
Larry Gelbart, who developed M*A*S*H for television and co-wrote "The More I See You," once told me that the episode came from the song itself and the feelings it evoked in him. It is a bittersweet story that illuminates a series character we've known for years and presents a fully fleshed guest star who is every bit his equal. From now on, when Hawkeye hits on a nurse for a quick one-night stand, we'll remember his words to Carley: "There's been no one since you. Faint copies at best."
And when she drives away in her jeep, he is left with the realization that "she never altogether leaves."
I showed that episode, one of 256 in the series, to a group of college students, some of whom might not have ever seen the show before. When the lights came up afterward, one was close to tears. "That is so sad," she said. "You care so much about them." You don't get that much in a sitcom.
It's because of the characters, and the characters came from the writing.
Now, consider this: Saturday night my wife and I saw ALL IS LOST, the current film in which Robert Redford (looking far better than any 76-year-old has a right to look) plays a man on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean whose boat suffers great damage and who becomes more desperate as the situation continues to worsen for 100 minutes. It's a lovely performance, with almost no dialogue at all, and a bold piece of filmmaking. Redford is the only actor on the screen for the whole film.
But it's not as involving as one might hope. Why? We know nothing about the character. We know he is resourceful and determined, and that's about it. We never even learn his name. You can come up with the juiciest, highest concept, the most intriguing premise in film history, but without characters who register as people, like Hawkeye and Carley, what we have is an arms-length exercise, not a human story. One man's opinion.