Friday, August 26, 2011

M*A*S*H Issues - Klinger

The character of Corporal (later Sergeant) Maxwell Q. Klinger (played brilliantly by Jamie Farr) is one of the biggest paradoxes in the entire M*A*S*H universe.  He was a bit character that became a main one; we know more about his background, but little about who and what he is; and of course the writers ultimately played on this paradox by having the character stay in Korea with his new Korean wife once the war ended.  

Klinger showed up for the first time in the first season episode "Chief Surgeon Who?", an episode that made my top ten favorites. Within that show, Klinger played a sentry man who wore a WAC uniform in order to get out of the army 'on a psycho', which was known as 'Section Eight'.  It was supposed to be a one-shot deal for Farr, but it parlayed into a full-time gig as the writers explored how many different ways they could show Klinger to be, as Sidney Freedman said, the 'most sane man in the outfit', despite his sometimes extremely wacky attempts to get his Section Eight discharge.  

As the series moved through the years, the discharge attempts became more elaborate, but then again, the character was also further explored.  We learned that he was from Toledo, Ohio (as is Jamie Farr), was of a Lebanese background, had experience a relative rough childhood, and his high school sweetheart was Laverne Esposito (whom he would marry via shortwave in the third season episode "Springtime").  Despite learning a lot of this personal information, we as the audience never quite get the full psychological profile of Klinger that we get of most of the other characters.  I would say that the only character we get less of is Margaret Houlihan, but she had her own 'evolution', so to speak.  Now, this isn't to say that we don't get a deeper look at Klinger; we certainly do in episodes such as "Mail Call Three" (Season Six), "Period of Adjustment (Season Eight), and "Dear Uncle Abdul" (also Season Eight).  The paradox is that we never quite get enough of a deep look, even as we seem to know more about his life, past, and heritage than we do about any other character in the series.

At the start of the eighth season, radical changes took place.  With Radar (Gary Burghoff) leaving the 4077th, Klinger was tapped into becoming the company clerk, a job that took a while in which he needed to settle.  The true change came with Klinger playing it straight - dressed in fatigues and being semi-competent, although in fairness, he was pretty decent at his job as a corpsman while wearing dresses.  The evolution of Klinger from wannabe-loon to an indispensable grade-A scrounge is intriguing, but suffers from a bit of retconning, in the sense that his scrounging abilities were sort of brought up to the front after the fact rather than being established from the get-go.  

The ending, which had Klinger staying in Korea with his new wife Soon-Lee was an interesting twist.  The writers managed to pull it off without making it seem completely unrealistic or out of character for him.  There would have only been two scenarios in my mind that would have gotten Klinger to stay - 1) Get rich-quick scheme or 2) A woman.  I guess if silly little me could figure it out, then it was probably easy for the writers to get it done.

The fundamental weakness of the Klinger character was shown mostly in the later seasons when they revolved episode plots around him (or any 'lesser' character at large).  He was much stronger as a supporting character, but with 251 episodes, the series would have had a lot less quality writing had they begun to just constantly recycle their material.  So it's a small tradeoff, but one that kept things original during the run of M*A*S*H.  The same weakness, though, also plagued AfterMash; the attempt to transform secondary characters into primary ones is a general failing of most spinoffs, and AfterMash was no exception.  

However used, Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger still goes down as one of the most colorful and amusing characters, not just in M*A*S*H, but in the history of television.  A two-scene deal became eleven years of wacky schemes and hijinks, the likes of which we will probably not see again - I don't think the current writers of many series are capable of creating characters like that anymore.  No matter what, Klinger now belongs to the ages.

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