The other day, I saw a picture of Uzo Aduba in the newspaper and immediately thought Crazy Eyes, the name of the character she plays on Orange is the New Black. In my pre-coffee haze, I tried to recall Crazy Eyes’ full name on the show (it’s Suzanne Warren), but couldn’t think of it for a few minutes, and then, for some reason, the name Hot Lips Houlihan popped into my head.
Now if you’re not at least forty, then Hot Lips (Margaret) Houlihan probably won’t mean much to you. But if you do remember Hot Lips, then you know she was a character on the TV show M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972-1983.
And as the coffee brewed, it began to occur to me that M*A*S*H and OITNB have more than a little in common. Not only do they both feature compelling characters with nicknames referencing facial characteristics (Crazy Eyes and Hot Lips) and low-budget costumes (how much can those prison jumpsuits and military fatigues cost?) but both are also about large groups of people stuck in places they don’t want to be.
More importantly, though, both programs expose social injustices, dark truths, and misconceptions about elements of society that many of us haven’t experienced personally. With M*A*S*H, the setting was the Korean War (or Conflict, if you want to be technical), but when the show first came on the air, America’s involvement Korea had ended, and we were dealing with the ugliness, tragedy, and confusion that was Vietnam. Therefore, most viewers saw M*A*S*H as making a statement–an effective statement–against all war, particularly wars in which the reasons for America’s involvement is somewhat unclear.
With OITNB, the setting is a woman’s federal prison called Litchfield Penitentiary. And although I don’t think any of the women in that particular prison are there unjustly (as in I’m not aware of any being falsely convicted) the frequent flashbacks into their pre-jail lives expose the sad, dysfunctional, often dangerous conditions and situations that prompted them to do illegal things. Watching that show, I feel almost the same way I do about the characters on M*A*S*H: they’re trapped and don’t deserve to be.
And yet, both shows embrace the lighter sides of bad situations. M*A*S*H started out as a dark comedy—with an annoying laugh track to boot—but over the course of its eleven seasons, became increasingly dramatic. Meanwhile, despite the fact that OITNB feels more dramatic most of the time, there are plenty of humorous moments as well. In my opinion, the biggest factor in viewers’ perception of the two shows’ genres is the way the pilot episodes roll out. With M*A*S*H, we’re introduced to Hawkeye and Trapper John, a couple of fun-loving doctors who just happen to be working in one of the worst places possible. Whereas OITNB begins with happy, “normal,” somewhat materialistic New Yorker Piper Kerman learning that she’s about to be incarcerated for a crime she committed nearly ten years earlier. And when Piper enters the prison, there are no sincere laughs—only jeers from the other inmates, all of whom put their worst faces forward. So what’s a viewer to do? We prepare for a journey into hell.
It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to find—in subsequent episodes—that most of the inmates are considerably kinder than they initially appear. Much of the tension, in fact, ultimately comes from the administration: the very people who are supposed to be taking care of the prisoners. Not all of it, of course, as there’s plenty of tension among the inmates as well, but at the occasional party and in true crisis situations, we realize that most of them share a common bond, while the majority of the people running the prison have very deep-seated problems. Sometimes, while watching the show, I’m reminded of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Of course, in any comparison of the two programs, gender must be discussed. On M*A*S*H, all the soldiers are male, while women portray nurses, girlfriends, wives, and mothers. Such a thing would never be tolerated today, but during the Korean War, that’s the way it was in the military. Not to mention that the show was produced in the seventies. Still, I believe that the character of Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan—the head nurse—is well-developed, and I love how the show’s producers allow her to grow from an object of ridicule in the first few seasons into a more sympathetic—if flawed—human being, who does her best to deal with her demons and shortcomings (she has a drinking problem and can be short-tempered and nasty to her staff). As the series progresses, we see Margaret becoming a kinder person, and she is eventually strong enough to divorce her husband when she catches him cheating on her. Professionally, she’s also top-notch, and although the doctors like Hawkeye often make sexist comments about her and treat her in demeaning ways (again, it was the seventies), Margaret is always respected in the operating room, and makes it clear that she wouldn’t tolerate anything less. I can’t imagine anyone other than the brilliant Loretta Swit playing Margaret, and, as a teenager who watched the show on a regular basis, she became a feminist role model for me.
As I imagine many of the women on OITNB are role models for the teenagers who watch that program. Feminism really has come a long way since the seventies, and I’m so glad our kids can turn on the TV and see smart, funny, likeable characters, who just happen to be lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or questioning their sexuality. Apparently, M*A*S*H tried to address homosexuality with Jamie Farr’s Corporal Klinger character—according to Wikipedia, when the show began, Klinger was supposed to be a gay man—but then he morphed into a guy who cross-dressed because he wanted a Section 8 discharge, and eventually married a woman. Oh well. For the third time, it was the seventies. The show’s creators were trying to open up about sexuality, but the general public wasn’t necessarily able to accept gays on TV, and I’ll bet some advertisers weren’t thrilled with the idea either.
There are plenty of other similarities between the programs. Both have killed off major characters—and it should be noted that M*A*S*H was one of the first TV shows to do that, with the shocking death of Lt. Colonel Henry Blake—and both have allowed minor and recurring characters to grow into main cast members.
In the end, though, I believe the reason both shows are so beloved is because the quality of the writing is so high. Yes, both are set in hostile environments, but once we get past the bars of Litchfield Prison and the horrors of the Korean war, we find regular human beings doing their best to get through each day with dignity, love, friendship, and perhaps a laugh or two. Dramatic, violent things happen on almost every episode of each show, but despite the fact that there’s plenty of drama and violence on TV, most other programs never come close to the ratings achieved by M*A*S*H and OITNB. Why? Because that’s not what viewers tune in for. Viewers love M*A*S*H and OITNB because of the connections the characters make with each other, and therefore with their audience: the friendships, the jokes, the love affairs that we all instinctively know can’t last very long because of the circumstances under which they begin.
Then there’s the fact that the creators and writers of these programs have given us characters so real—and such great dialogue—that for many of us (or me anyway) it’s sometimes hard to believe we’re watching actors playing roles. The shows suck us into their worlds so well that when I saw Taylor Schilling in another movie, I found it quite jarring. For the briefest second, I was unable to accept her as anything other than a prisoner.
Even stranger was learning that Loretta Swit wanted to get out of her M*A*S*H contract several years before the show ended, but the producers wouldn’t release her. What? Hot Lips couldn’t leave the 4077th! She was the head nurse; she was necessary! And did you know that Gary Burghoff—who played Radar on M*A*S*H left the show at the beginning of its eighth season so he could spend more time with his family? Yes, Radar was a dad. Even now, I find that somewhat shocking, but again, that’s because the writing on the show is so good.
So what do you think? Do you agree that M*A*S*H and OITNB are cut from similar cloth, or do I have it all wrong? I’d also be interested in hearing what TV shows you feel are particularly well written. Thanks for reading!