Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Trading Places

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

Edmund Gwenn

Most TV series don't last for a decade, and the few that do usually start to run out of gas long before their 10th seasons.

M*A*S*H was always the exception to the rule.

In its 1981–82 season, the series' 10th, it did have its share of weak episodes, but it also enjoyed some high moments. M*A*S*H probably didn't air any episodes that season that are remembered as being among the series' Top 10, but that would have been hard to do. More than 200 episodes had already been aired — including many that are regarded as classics today.

Nevertheless, M*A*S*H reached its usual level of impeccable quality on this night 30 years ago, and it did so in what may be the most challenging of circumstances for a TV series — a holiday season episode.

The inspiration for the episode came from the traditional practice, in most European countries, of observing Boxing Day on the day after Christmas.

Boxing Day is sort of a second Christmas holiday. There is no consensus on the origin of the name — except that everyone agrees it has nothing to do with the sport of boxing. Based on my understanding of it, Boxing Day was intended to be a legal holiday for workers and to encourage charitable activity.

In the M*A*S*H story, it was explained that the tradition on Boxing Day is for the employer to trade places with the employee for a day — kind of an intriguing twist to ponder in an age rife with allegations of class warfare — and it was decided that medical unit would have its own Boxing Day.

The officers would trade places with the enlisted men — which made for some interesting role reversals:
  • Klinger traded places with his boss, Col. Potter. For one day, Klinger — who earned his reputation in the series for constantly trying to get out of the Army — was one of the brass.

  • As one of his first executive decisions, Klinger decided that allowing Hawkeye and B.J. to be together was just begging for trouble so he decided to split them up.

    Hawkeye was assigned to be an orderly with Father Mulcahy. B.J. was put to work on KP duty with Hot Lips — who protested that she "didn't go into a kitchen when I was married!"

  • The actual cooking would be done by the aristocratic Charles, who opposed the Boxing Day idea from the start. Nevertheless, Charles welcomed the opportunity to cook for Sgt. Pernelli (Val Bisoglio) "if only to teach you that soup is not a solid object."
Well, the underlings were enjoying their 24–hour promotions, getting lots of chuckles at the expense of the temporarily deposed officers, when things turned serious.

A patient had to be evacuated, but a blizzard was interfering with everything, including a shipment of much–needed fuel. A temporary reversal of the role reversal was necessary.

The episode wrapped up nicely — with everyone, the enlisted as well as the officers, coming away with a new appreciation for what their colleagues did every day to keep the unit functioning.

Not a bad Christmas lesson.