Shows You Should Be Watching and Why
This ensemble show aired from ‘72 to ‘83, and I grew up with it. It follows the day-to-day life of the staff of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean War, 1950-53. It’s currently on Netfilx, and I highly recommend it for the following reasons:
1. Women with agency. The first faces you see are those of nurses in uniform, running flat out towards a chopper of wounded soldiers. These women are amazing. They are not the POV characters, but they are everywhere in the show, and every time a nurse has lines, she has agency. They are strong, capable women with agendas and appetites of their own. Hawkeye is the POV character and an acknowledged womanizer, but any woman he directs his charming smile toward is fully in charge of how she wants the exchange to go. The only lead woman, Maj. Margaret Houlihan, is a force to be reckoned with, very much in charge of her department and her choices, even though she is not always a sympathetic character. I’m not looking to sugarcoat the sexism of the 1950s, when the series is set, or of the 1970s-80s, when it was filmed and aired, but watching this now, in the 20teens, it’s pretty cool to see women and men joking around and flirting and working together so smoothly. There’s mutual respect as well as mutual desire.
2. Humor in dark places. Good grief, they are in a war! Half of them are draftees who don’t even want to be in the Army, they are constantly under serious high stress, and at any moment there might be more wounded. In order to stay remotely sane, they drink, they play all kinds of jokes on each other, and they find what fun they can. There are whole episodes about who has the last laugh. A single episode can contain scenes of great levity and tremendous gravity, and it’s all part of the simple work of getting through the day. It seems there is a trend in gaming and in television towards focusing on the grim gritty dark “reality” of a storyline without remembering that how people get through tough jobs and tough times is with humor and jokes and making light of the very things they are enduring.
3 They have each other’s back. When the chips are down, they stick by each other, even when it is not to their own professed best interest. Hawkeye and Frank Burns are opposites in so many ways, yet when it’s actually important, they help each other, back each other up, and go to great lengths to stay in each other’s lives. This goes for the whole unit. The PvP is all on the surface, and any outside attack is met with a speedy closing of ranks. This is another excellent model for games, especially Apocalypse World, where you have many characters with different agendas and drives, but they can pull together when it matters.
4 Gender non-conformity and brain difference. Corporal Klinger is cross-dressing to try to get out of the Army on a Section 8, but nobody actually cares what he wears. There are a certain amount of homophobic jokes, but way less than I would have expected for the era (1950s and 1970s), and they are overwhelmingly not directed at Klinger, who is accepted just as he is and valued for what he brings to the unit. Corporal O'Reilly has all kinds of strange mental perception issues and in later seasons a great deal of innocence. His brain works differently than anyone else on the show, and although it occasionally exasperates Henry Blake, it is never used to separate him from anyone. These two things were astonishing in the 1970s. Seeing a man in a dress as a regular thing that could happen, seeing someone with very unusual brain function being included in everything as a matter of course - these were big. They each make me think about how we might portray gender fluidity and cognitive diversity better in our games and visual media now.
Call the Midwife
This is a currently airing BBC period piece set in the same time as MASH, only in the very poor East End of London surrounded by the ever-present reminders of two world wars. It’s based on the memoirs of a nurse midwife, and has been quite thoroughly researched to confirm and verify her facts about life in the 1950s East End. The 4th season just started, and you can start at the beginning (which I very much recommend) by buying the seasons through Amazon. This is a great show for the following reasons:
1 The treatment of pregnancy and birth is, simply put, the very best I have ever seen in film. I have had three kids, I have attended other women’s births, I’ve studied midwifery briefly, and this show is FANTASTIC on pregnancy, delivery, and birth. If you are looking for a resource on how to handle these topics in your low-tech role-playing game or writing. watch the first two seasons and go with that. This is pregnancy before the pill and birth before routine chemical intervention. The techniques are ancient, the treatment of midwives and mothers is great, and the explanation of what’s happening medically is both factual and unobtrusive. It is SUCH a relief to see women encouraged and supported in laboring in a huge variety of positions, and even as newer technology enters in at the end of the second season, it’s worth everything to see how strong a woman giving birth can be when properly supported.
2 Holy crap these women! If MASH is the story of men doing unusually hard things under unusually difficult circumstances, CTM is the story of women doing routine, every day hard things under routine, every day difficult circumstances. In the main cast of 15, three are men, and women are the main focus of the rest of the show. And they are not one-dimensional characters either, with one being one emotion and another being another - they are actual real characters based on actual real women. Its a delight to watch such a rare show that focuses so squarely on women’s lives.
3 Treatment of the elderly. One of the nuns is dealing with the beginnings of age-related difficulty with her memory, and she is treated with the upmost love and care. Also, the elderly patients in the nurse’s care are real full people with real full lives. We don’t often see the very old as such interesting characters so worth learning more about.
4 Hard moral choices. Over and over and over, the midwives and nuns confront situations that test their concepts of what is right and what is ethical. They do not shy away from really tricky questions, and all of them are met face on in a calm and open way. When there is outrage, it is warranted, and when it is not warranted, it is turned aside with understanding and compassion. If there ever was a show to ask “Do you provide care for a person who has lived like this? Do you recognize their humanity and respect their dignity? How about now? Even now? And what do you think of yourself?” this is that show.
Bonus - Vanessa Redgrave’s voiceover for the intro and ending. What a great voice.