73. "Tuttle," M*A*S*H (1973)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
When I compiled this Top 100 list, one of the toughest decisions was just what to do with the 11-season Korean War comedy M*A*S*H. It's pretty much universally regarded as one of TV's "top" sitcoms. (It was No. 4 in the critics' poll that determined which shows would be covered in Vince Waldron's indispensible Classic Sitcoms book, behind Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, and I Love Lucy.) But as the years go on, it's increasingly a show that's admired, even loved, but not really liked.
The only people who have told me it belongs on this list are old enough to have watched it in prime time during the 1970s. In contrast to the three other classics mentioned above, I've never met anyone under 30 who has discovered it and wanted to see more. It doesn't help that M*A*S*H has almost zero presence online; you pretty much have to buy it on DVD or catch reruns on TV Land or the Hallmark Channel. It's fast becoming a nostalgia touchstone akin to The Lawrence Welk Show.
For the most part, I'm afraid, this fate is deserved. It hasn't aged as well as the better multi-camera sitcoms from the 1970s, which retain a sense of electricity; the single-camera M*A*S*H just looks flat and slowly paced compared with something like 30 Rock. But the bigger problem is that the characters may be the dullest ever assembled on a hit sitcom. They're one-dimensional (Frank Burns, who, because he supports the war, has to be portrayed as evil and incompetent), ridiculously anachronistic (in later seasons, Hawkeye and Hot Lips seem to be time travelers from the 1970s), competently portrayed but boring (Harry Morgan as Col. Potter), or simply not characters at all (Mike Farrell and Jamie Farr are never more than actors one would avoid at a Hollywood pool party). The only cast member that I still enjoy 40 years later is McLean Stevenson as reluctant camp commander Henry Blake, but he left the show after the third season to tarnish his reputation with sitcoms no one liked then or now.
Having said that, there are some episodes from the first couple of seasons that are worth watching. "Tuttle," the 15th episode of the series, is a wry tale in which Hawkeye and Trapper John create a fictitious Army officer as part of a scheme to funnel medical supplies to an orphanage. (The very beginning of the episode tries to tease us with the possibility that Hawkeye is selling the stuff on the black market, but his nobility has already been so well established that this fake-out comes off as smug.) Currently, there's a a clip of Hawkeye and Trapper fabricating Tuttle's service records here.
Trapper: How did you come up with a name like Tuttle anyway?
Hawkeye: He was my imaginary childhood friend.
Trapper: You had an imaginary childhood friend?
Hawkeye: Yeah, if anybody said, who knocked over the garbage? I'd say Tuttle. Who broke the window? Tuttle. Who wet the bed?
Hawkeye: He had no control.
Trapper: So when you got drafted...
Hawkeye: Tuttle got drafted.
Trapper: In case you wet your cot.
Naturally, Hawkeye and Trapper have to concoct ever-more-elaborate lies to maintain Tuttle's existence, to the point where several other characters convince themselves that they've met the guy. (Frank insists that he's a good friend of his.) And when Tuttle's fame gets out of control, Hawkeye decides that he has to go...
I like this episode as a stand-alone comic short story, and I wish the series had continued in this direction, as a kind of anthology series about real or imagined wartime exploits — kind of like the westerns Death Valley Days and Gunsmoke, the latter of which was increasingly about guest stars more than Marshal Dillon and Kitty. Instead, M*A*S*H followed the '70s sitcom path of trying to flesh out its regular characters, which was fine with Archie Bunker and Mary Richards but more and more tedious here. As for satire and black comedy, M*A*S*H would eventually be eclipsed by the more irreverent Blackadder on the folly of war and by Scrubs on the capriousness of Death. "Tuttle" was the show's zenith, only a few months after it premiered.
As I mentioned above, M*A*S*H is almost completely absent from YouTube, so here are two clips about other nonexistent people.