Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Lineage of Influence, From Catch 22 to Scrubs

I'm currently on a bit of a classics kick lately in my reading, having read The Man in the High Tower, then All Quiet On the Western Front and now Catch-22. I've enjoyed all three quite a bit so far even though I am only about a third of the way through Catch. One of the things that struck me about it how similar it is to the TV version of M.A.S.H.

MASH itself has a bit of a confusing legacy. It's best know as the TV show that ran from 1972 to 1983 about surgeons serving in the Korean War, a TV show that was an adaptation of a largely forgotten movie that was itself and adaptation of an even more forgotten book, overshadowed by the TV show that bares their name. And for good reason, MASH is unquestionably one of the greatest TV shows of all time, a personal favorite and one I re-watched in its entirety early this year. So what does all this have to do with a novel written in 1960 that no one really remember outside the phrase that it gave its name to?

Turns out quite a lot. You see, Catch 22 is about a pilot in World War Two who's only goal in life is not to die. Drafted and thrown into a war zone he spends as much of time trying to get out of fighting as he does getting thrown in to it. Surrounding him are a group of wacky, crazy characters who get into their own antics and adventures. The whole book is basically one long, incredibly manic episode of MASH, even though it came out over a decade before MASH the TV show and a whole seven years before the book that inspired the movie that inspired the show. Confused yet?

Don't be, cause they're all rather similar from a bird's eye view. You see MASH the TV show is about a surgeon drafted into the Korean War who's only goal in life is not to die. He spends a great deal of time roaming the camp and getting into trouble with his hair brained, psychotic cast of background characters until the shells start flying and the casualties start coming in. Then he's up to his elbows in blood and guts trying to save the lives of kids who should be making out at drive in theaters instead of dying in a war zone.

Both of these stories are about people trying to stay sane in living hells, in the worst places on earth and craziest of all, both stories are meant to be funny. They are comedies through and through. They exists to make you laugh. Cause what's funnier than war?

I cannot say for certain what inspired the collective writers of MASH over the years because I have never met them, but I think the influence of the novel on the show is fairly clear to anyone who has witnessed both works. And there's nothing wrong with that, taking influences from what came before is how we grow as writers, it's how we push the medium forward.

I think too, that a novel like Catch 22, itself coming out to mix reception at release and then going on to becoming one of the classics of American literature helped pave the way for shows like MASH, itself a risky and boundary pushing show of the time. MASH, the show, had an enormous challenge ahead of it. This was a show about Korea, the last great American War coming out in a time of America's current greatest war, Vietnam. The show was meant to serve not just as comedy, but as a political statement. That was hard enough to do at the time, hell it's hard enough to do now. But to go the extra step and say we want this to be a comedy, to go even further and say we want this to be a comedy with a message, with dramatic intent, with a political will, well that's damn near impossible. Even if you can pull it off on paper, even if you get a studio to green light it, getting an audience to ride the emotional waves as you crest and crash from comedy to casualties, from laughter to tragedy is a challenge for any writer in any medium.

But they pull it off. Both Catch 22 and MASH are able to pull off this effortless drift along the spectrum in a way that somehow feels natural, maybe because that's how real wars are, laughing one minute and running for your life the next. Catch 22 tends to be more blunt, punctuating sentence after sentence of jokes with an off hand, casual mention of a characters death. MASH tends to play its focus tighter, sometimes pushing its downer moments to the climax of an episode or separating the antics in the Swamp from those in Surgery.  In the end they manage to strike a balance that allows the reader and viewer to experience the whole range of emotions intended, to be pulled to and fro without ever getting ripped from the story completely.

Which brings me to Scrubs.

Scrubs is also, in my opinion, one of the greatest half hour sitcoms to ever grace a television set. "My Screw Up" and "My Lunch" are two of the greatest episodes of television period and ones I think back to often. The show as a whole, while largely a goofy comedy was able to, seemingly effortlessly, slide into more dramatic and sometimes tragic moments. It walked a path laid down before it by shows like MASH, by books like Catch 22.

There were many, many medical shows before Scrubs and even medical comedies. MASH even had its own ill fated spin off set in a normal  hospital back in the states, so it was by no means the first. But the works that came before helped inspire it, they helped lay the ground work for future shows to follow in their footsteps, for future creators to point back and show a precedent for when it was successful.

Through works as these we can see the lineages of our own works, of those that came before. I think we often spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about our direct influences, on our creative idols and the altars upon which we worship them. Perhaps we should take more time to consider those who paved the roads we now use, rather than those who walked them.