Thursday, January 03, 2008

Structure, The Office, and M*A*S*H

I finally started watching The Office (Americanized), which is conveniently also available in high quality streamed video at the NetFlix website.

After watching several episodes I noticed it's structural similarity to M*A*S*H, and I'm not the first. Matthew Gilbert at said the following:

I'm working on this theory that "The Office" is "M*A*S*H" all over again. Kinda, sorta, maybe.

First of all, Dwight and Angela are updates of Frank Burns and Hot Lips. They are the goody-goody couple who have a not-so-secret but oh-so-freaky passionate life (oh, they'll get back together, just you wait). In that other theory I've been working on -- that "The Office" is a metaphor for American politics -- Dwight and Angela fill the hypocritical conservative category that Frank and Hot Lips practically invented on series TV.

Jim is Hawkeye Pierce, of course, but for a less Groucho-oriented generation. Jim's asides are generally non-verbal, but that slight rising of the eyebrows evokes Marx's cigar and the full-on eyebrows as much as Alan Alda did. Jim's partner in crime is Pam, which makes her his Trapper John McIntyre or his B.J. Hunnicut, and, well, I'm going to go for Trapper John. Jim and Pam's pranks on Dwight are genius.

And then there is Michael Scott, who is unique. Still, he has some of the farcical leadership qualities of Henry Blake, as well as the same need to be friendly with his charges. Michael is easily manipulated by Jim and Pam, just as Henry was totally played by Hawkeye and Trapper. And now that Michael is bucking Ryan, he recalls Henry's resistance to military protocol.

I'm not convinced that the similarity goes much beyond the character roles (and then mainly early M*A*S*H), but I do think that similarity is definitely there. In fact, I think the mix works even better in The Office. Having Pam/Jim as love interests gives the writers more to work with than having them merely as tent-mates and creates less of a situation where the Trapper John role is just a sidekick.

I think it also illustrates how useful it is for a writer to identify and recognize narrative structures that work well. In this case the structure is almost entirely the characters and their relations, but it's clearly a structure that provides fertile ground for comedy. I'm not sure The Office's writers even thought about M*A*S*H when they were doing their thing, which makes the structural similarity even more striking. Convergent evolution only occurs when you have something incredibly useful, like the eye in both octopuses and mammals.

Other structures must work well too, and it makes me think that if I were to try to brew up a comedy TV series I'd look at older programs, maybe the Bob Newhart shows or even back further to Mary Tyler Moore or the Dick Van Dyke show, and see if there's a structure in them that can be given a modern interpretation.

I think this is one of the reasons all those screenwriting books and seminars, all with their own favorite "this will get you sold" formula are so successful. They are selling a strong structure -- one that's been proven in multiple films or stories. However, there are a bunch of structures that work well for different kinds of stories, so each author or speaker can push their own personal one and make a tidy living off it.

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