The bullying of Frank Burns in M*A*S*H

I seem to recall (without specific details) that a number of episodes almost let Frank Burns have a redeeming moment and then he self-sabotages at the very end. At times it very much seems like the writers are the cruelest ones of all.

I think it worked okay. They gave her a lot of opportunity for character growth and showed reasons for her flaws.

Major Winchester ended up being one of my favorite characters because of his redemptive arc. Not because HE is redeemed, but because the audience’s opinion of him is. All of his good qualities were there the whole time - they were just revealed very slowly. He was never a villain at all. Just a decent man thrust into a horrible situation.

Much as Maj. Houlihan’s redemption might seem unbelievable, they were able to do it because she had never been as completely horrible as Frank was. Frank was a martinet, a coward, a bigot, and a pretty incompetent surgeon.

Margaret was never that bad. She may have shared Frank’s dislike of Hawkeye and Trapper’s hijinks, but unlike him, she wasn’t bad at her job. On the contrary, it was always clear that she was an excellent nurse, and there were the occasional hints that she had an undercurrent of compassion. She spoke some Korean, indicating that she had taken some interest in the local people. When Hawkeye had a patient who wasn’t doing well, and they couldn’t figure out why, she came to him to try to help work out what had gone wrong. Even in those early seasons, there were hints that Margaret wasn’t all bad. Frank never got any such treatment, which is ultimately why Larry Linville decided to leave.

After enjoying the show in reruns, I read several of the books many years ago. They are considerably more rollicking and one suspects more sexist than the later TV show.

In the book, IIRC, Hawkeye, still from rural Maine (“finest kind”), was very relieved when he met his colleagues and none of them considered themselves to be a preternaturally exceptional surgeon. Burns was from a very snobbish and pecunious background and very much looked down on the other surgeons and even the military in general.

I always felt sorry for Linville having to play such a one-dimensional character. I’ve read that he eventually stopped showing up for table reads because he was basically playing a cheap foil rather than an actual character.

I once heard (maybe in another thread here) that Linville was one of the best-liked actors on the crew, and the guy who played Radar was really difficult.

Frank had a couple of moments of humanity that might have been built on to make the character last longer. He acknowledged that “Anyone could have missed that” in the first season episode when Hawkeye’s patient was mysteriously not recovering. He got a plausible zinger at Margaret when she got engaged (he suggested that he could date one of the younger nurses because “I don’t know…I thought a little youth might be nice for a change.” - an insult, but a less ridiculously inept one than Frank is usually capable of). If the producers had chosen too, we might have seen Frank grow up after Margaret was no longer available to him, and start to see Hawkeye’s skills as something to emulate, rather than as things to alternately deny or be jealous of. A tricky growth, but possible (see Wesley Wyndam-Price’s arc in Buffy/Angel).

Exactly. I only ever saw the movie once, so I may be misremembering, but I think that Houlihan a good nurse who was a very by-the-book military professional; her disdain for Pierce and MacIntyre arose from their irreverence and what she saw as their indiscipline.

I think you’re right that her medical competence is why she was was capable of maturing into a sympathetic character. Burns never could. Poor Larry Linville.

I think the OP has a point, but the same point could be made with about 75% of comedies made in the 1980s and 90s. If you have a lovable rogue as your main protagonist you need to have a straight laced, stuck up, pointdexter to be the butt of his practical jokes to show how hilariously rogue-ish and anti-establishment they are. That typically involves plenty of what would be called nowadays verbal harassment and bullying (and sometimes actual physical assault, hilarious slapstick physical assault but physical assault nonetheless)

Off the top of my head Police Academy, Fresh Prince, both have stuff like this and I’m sure there are more examples.

I think you guys missed the point about Dr. Sidney Freedman’s diagnosis of Klinger as a transvestite and homosexual. Freedman didn’t think Klinger was actually a homosexual or a transvestite. And, no, dressing up in women’s clothing to get a Section 8 doesn’t make one a transvestite. He offered Klinger his chance to get out of the military but he’d have to sign a document stating he was a homosexual and transvestite. Both of them knew that wasn’t the case and Klinger didn’t want that on his record so he refused and from that point on stopped wearing women’s clothing.

I haven’t watched the show in ages, but IIRC she was always portrayed as more all-around intelligent than Frank, even in the early seasons. Her superiority over Frank perversely added to the misogyny of early years of the show, because the viewer was left to wonder, “why is a woman who is clearly so much smarter than Frank having a relationship with him?” The only possible answer was some kind of negative reflection on her - so desperate for a man she’d put up with his flaws, I guess.

She’s a major - who else can she date without lowering herself by a relationship with a much lower ranked person? There’s Blake who is a colonel, a few captains who don’t like her, and Frank.

Good point - I have no insight into the military so that would not have occurred to me. Still, wouldn’t that simply suggest that if she had any standards she should have stayed celibate? After all, she wasn’t deterred by the fact that Frank was married, so why should she have been deterred by the prospect of dating a lower-ranked person? (Maybe that would have been considered worse, I wouldn’t know.)

Hot Lips and Frank shared a weird military fetish that made them sexually attractive to each other.

She did say “I could never marry someone who didn’t outrank me”

Officers and enlisted don’t “fraternize”. It’s a court martial offense, and the major is too regular Army for that. And there were only 5 officers in the entire camp. :slight_smile:

Seriously. I know shows have to limit their casts, and speaking roles are expensive, but they completely ignored anyone who would work there outside of the regulars. They forgot they need anesthetists, for one, after Ugly John vaporized somewhere in the first season. On a real base, even a forward base, there would be lots of officers outside of Margaret’s chain of command she could fraternize with. Supply, motor pool, admin…

In the movie, Margaret was fraternizing with Duke Forrest (a captain) after Burns went to the funny farm.

B.J. at one point said (about Frank and Margaret) something like, “They’re both a long way from home.” Sometimes that’s all it takes to get together with someone that you might not consider otherwise.

I think that realizing this was part of Margaret’s ongoing storyline. She eventually figured out that Frank was never going to leave his wife for her, and that she was wasting her time with him. Her next choice, Donald Penobscott, was no prize either, but moving her away from Frank was necessary for her to grow as a character.

The really misogynistic thing about Margaret’s early characterization was the implication that she had slept her way into her position. Multiple generals implied that they had been intimate with her. That’s another aspect of her character that was dropped in later years, and it was always at odds with her portrayal as a crackerjack nurse who knew her business and got where she was through skill, not sex.

I wonder how much of that change was motivated by Loretta Swit herself speaking up about Margaret being treated with more respect.

Not to mention the other shift of surgeons, which stopped getting mentioned around Season 2. Forget the fact that a real MASH would have 300 beds, not the 12-odd we see on the show.

I consider Dwight Shrute from “The Office” to have been a Frank Burns type character and that was in the 2000s. Although Dwight did get some development towards the end of the series.

Though you were never meant to identify with Michael Scott as a protagonist the same way you are with Hawkeye, Will Smith, Mahoney in those 1980s show. His bullying moments are played for laughs but the comedy is in how inappropriate they are (also I’m more familiar with the UK version FWIW)

Another obvious one that just occurred to me is Venkemann in Ghostbusters, running a rigged electric shock experiment to shock one nerdy male volunteer so he can chat up the pretty female volunteer.