Ho ho howdy folkses! Welcome to Day Three of our Twelve Days of Shitmas celebration for 2023. Our previous special was all about Christmas capitalism and the transformative power of childhood dreams, and if it didn't quite live up to the promise of its own high-minded notions, it at least provided a solid half-hour of holiday diversion. Today's special emerges from a nearly-forgotten, short-lived American sitcom notable only for how surprisingly uninspired it was considering the unassailable pedigree of the team who created it. Still, if there's one thing Shitmas has taught us over the years it's that even the most successful, talented and creative minds might occasionally drop a deuce in the cranberry sauce around Christmas...and let's face it, cranberry sauce can be pretty polarizing even when there isn't a turd floating around in it. Kaopectate, anyone?

A plump pustule of Yuletide adventure.

We're posting a brand-new review of a Christmas special every other day beginning December 3rd, and culminating in what we consider the worst of the bunch on Christmas morning. Many years ago, long before The Twelve Days of Shitmas was so much as a nascent glint in my rheumy, borderline-alcoholic eyes, I awoke one Christmas morning in pretty rough shape, completely alone and with no plans whatsoever for the holiday. I had no friends, no close family, no job, no hope for improvement and nothing in my cold, empty pockets but balled-up lint and broken dreams. I was down and out, broke and busted, and the dragons' breath and thunderous headache of a regretful morning-after were my only Yuletide companions. I could recall nothing of the previous evening, neither where I had been, who I had met nor what I had done. I clearly needed some fresh, bracing air to clear my bleary eyes and perhaps shock my foggy brain into some semblance of memory, so I pulled on what was left of my years-old, tattered work-coat and stepped outside into the blinding ice and snow.

Almost instantly, I was attacked by a gang of vicious street mimes who had been lying in wait for me outside the clapboard shack in which I'd been squatting for the past few nights. They fell upon me with their white-gloved hands bent into claws like silent birds of prey, and their black lips and mocking greasepaint teardrops twisted in rage. They did...unspeakable things to me, relentlessly abusing my person for what seemed an eternity, until finally I raised my hands in supplication, begging them to spare my life.

Serendipitously, they mistook this desperate gesture for my having erected an invisible box around my person. They tested its limits, felt carefully over its phantom surface, but could find no point of ingress. The unalterable physics of pantomime forbade them from reaching me, and eventually they gave up and dispersed.

I was never able to recall what I had done to evoke such quiet but intense rancor, but ever since that day I've never again attempted to walk against the wind.

Y'all have seen M*A*S*H (1972-83), right? Please tell me you've seen M*A*S*H. It's only one of the most beloved, enduring and celebrated sitcoms in TV history, right? Based on the 1970 film by Robert Altman and the book by Richard Hooker, it followed, over the course of 256 episodes and multiple cast changes, the exploits of U.S. Army doctors and support personnel at the 4077th mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean Conflict (1950-53). It's two-hour finale, Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (February 28th, 1983) and was the single most watched television event in U.S. history from its initial air date until Superbowl XLIV in 2010. It was nominated for more than a hundred Emmys, winning fourteen, and nominated for 28 Writers Guild of America awards, winning seven. It also won four Directors' guild awards, four Humanitas Prizes and a Peabody Award "for the depths of its humor and manner in which comedy is offer a profound statement on the nature of war." So,'s pretty much universally considered to be pretty darn great, and for once I agree with the consensus opinion. M*A*S*H was one of my favorite shows when I was growing up and even today it retains its timeless humor and profound sense of humanity.

The "spam lamb" episode gets me every time.

Now, let's turn our minds back to 1973, when the second season of M*A*S*H was taking off like a rocket and series producers Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds' stars were rising in Hollywood on a similarly meteoric path. Twentieth Century Fox TV executives, ever-ready to exploit success, approached the pair looking to commission from them another war-based sitcom featuring their signature blend of cultural commentary and incisive humor. Gelbart and Reynolds chose for their subject the real-life exploits of "The Red Ball Express," a 1944 WWII supply convoy mission activated in the wake of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. A 1952 film depiction of the convoy and its struggles suffered creatively from a pressure campaign by the Department of Defense, who insisted the director tone down the ugly reality that the Army had purposely chosen black soldiers to participate in the alarmingly perilous, nigh-suicidal supply missions because they were considered more disposable than white combat soldiers. Gelbart and Reynolds sought to feature such racial hypocrisy front and center, and to use the program to comment serio-comically on the social challenges faced by African Americans in the 1970's, just as they'd used the 1950's Korean Conflict setting of M*A*S*H to explore the divisiveness and futility of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War.

Sadly, the team's attempt to capture TV lightning in a bottle a second time just-barely nabbed a feeble puff of dung-scented wind. Roll Out tries its best to look and sound like M*A*S*H, using the same film stock, vehicles, costumes, scenic design and closing titles font, but it captures none of the essential frisson, depth of characterization and flashing bayonet wit of its justly esteemed predecessor. Whether through studio intervention or a misguided lack of understanding of the African American experience by its white, middle-class Jewish creators, its central message is muddled at best, and at worst, condescending, with paltry anemic attempts at humor barely seeping through its drab stories, forgettable characters and ham-handed attempts at social satire.

Roll Out was not well-received during its twelve-episode run (1973-74) and upon its inevitable cancellation it was almost immediately forgotten. Come to think of it, this Shitmas article is probably the most critical attention the entire series has gotten since its inevitable cancellation. Suck on that, Twentieth Century Fox Television executives!

The episode begins with two of the soldiers from the convoy trimming a Christmas tree inside what appears to be an abandoned building they've commandeered as part of their operation. There's a disused fireplace with an empty, broken frame from an absent painting on the wall above it, some haphazardly placed pictures, an old radio, half-broken furniture and other scattered indications that the family who lived there had to leave in a hurry when the war came to their doorstep. The American soldiers have set some calendars and pinups here and there and brought in some trunks and other items to make it feel homey, but the stark reminders of the time, place and situation they're in are ever-present and glaring out from every nook, cranny and corner. I can't help thinking that the unspoken story of this broken house and the people who once lived in it would have made a far more interesting program than what I'm struggling to sit through now.

Soldier number one, Jed Brooks, is a naive kid with an idealistic attitude and cheerful disposition. As he strings up popcorn to use as garland on the tree, he waxes nostalgic about the "Christmas feeling" in the air, even here in a desolate ruin in Rural France in the midst of the most brutal and expansive conflict the world has ever known. His pal Sweet Williams is a lot older a lot more cynical, and actively pushes back against his pal's unwelcome jollity with a story about getting mugged by Santa when he used to drive a cab in New York.

Jed, the optimist with a heart of gold.

Sweet, the pessimist with a heart of gold.

Next we catch up with our local company commander, Capt. Rocco Cavelli, a gruff Italian American with a fondness for cigars and ostentatious gesticulation, played by Val Bisoglio, a stalwart performer with dozens of gruff Italian Americans with a fondness for cigars and ostentatious gesticulation on his resume. He's dressed up in his overcoat posing for a photo he intends to send back to the States to his family. Taking the photo is his assistant, Lt. Chapman, played by Ed Begley, best known today as a cheerfully obnoxious advocate for environmentalism and sustainable living. He's part aw-shucks farm boy and part crusty old cynic, with as dismissive an attitude about Christmas as Sweet, but a quiet, boyish way of speaking that's clearly meant to draw comparisons with Gary Burghoff's Walter "Radar" O'Reilly from M*A*S*H, with the primary difference between them being that Radar was both likeable and relatable in an authentic way whereas Chapman feels wooden and soulless.

Cavelli, the gruff commander with a heart of gold.

Chapman, the other pessimist with a heart of gold.

One of the things I'm noticing that really surprises me is how clunky the expository dialog is. Everything feels forced and calculated, carefully divided into methodical steps to feed us the information we need to get from point A to Point B. It's almost shocking how bad it is, considering how sharp and witty the dialog always was in M*A*S*H. The jokes too are almost exclusively misfires, and the unjustified laugh track only serves to highlight how painfully unfunny they are.

We explicitly learn in this scene that Cavelli talks the way he talks and looks the way he looks because he's Italian, and naturally so because that's just the way Italians talk and look. We also learn that Chapman is a product of "a broken home." Cavelli throws out this exact phrase so there's no misunderstanding that we're referring to divorce before Chapman himself laments about how he always seemed to spend Christmas alone on trains, heading to and from the military academy where he went to school and one or the other of his parents' homes. Cavelli feels for the kid, so he decides to cheer him up by announcing a depot-wide Christmas party, the "blowout of the year" as he calls it, where no-one gets to leave until they've had some U.S. Army-enforced holiday fun.

Out in the yard Jed and Sweet are doing some maintenance on one of the supply trucks and talking about a downed Messerschmitt they came across a few months earlier [probably a Bf-109, right Nate?]. Jed saved some of the fuselage and has been bending and tinkering it into various trinkets which he intends to give as Christmas gifts to his family and friends. Their pit boss Sgt. Bryant appears and starts hard-assing at them to get back to work, barking that they don't get paid to smile and joke around. Shockingly, he's not a big fan of Christmas either, especially this year when he knows they've got December 25th supply runs to make.

Bryant, the gruff Seargent with a heart of gold.

Bryant gives them more work to do and walks off past another of the supply trucks, where two pairs of feet are sticking out on rolling creepers from underneath the chassis. Bryant pulls them out to find they're just pants and shoes, and shouts for the two mechanics to get down from on top of the canvas roof where they're sunning themselves. These are High-Strung and Wheels, the company slackers, just layin' about and lazy-bonesin' like they do. Wheels, by the way, is played by Garrett Morris, for whom the show's cancellation proved a blessing in disguise, as it freed him up to join the inaugural cast of Saturday Night Live (1975-present) the following year.

High-Strung & Wheels, the slackers with hearts of gold.

I'm sure you're seeing a pattern emerge here, in that there are a lot of characters but not much variety to them. It's like they had an ensemble cast checklist, but it only had three or four options listed, so they had to double, triple and quadruple up to fill out the cast. One of the reasons M*A*S*H worked so beautifully was the diverse backgrounds of the characters, with erudite and educated doctors, career military professionals, nurse volunteers and working-class just plain folks all operating in a closed community towards the common goals of saving soldiers' lives and making it home in one piece themselves. Here, they didn't have that kind of palette available, as the historical Red Ball Express was made up almost exclusively of working-class and underprivileged minorities. The writers and producers also clearly had little experience or understanding of the worldviews of those minorities, so they leaned instead on stock stereotypes, a tone-deaf hypocrisy of their own that fatally undermined their attempts at meaningful social commentary.

So, Sgt. Bryant calls down the Slackers and calls over all the rest of the grunts so he can announce Capt. Cavelli's Christmas Eve Spectacular, which he informs them they are all officially ordered to attend. They're none-too-excited about it, viewing it as just one more reminder of how far away they are from their homes and families, but they resign themselves to having to show up and pretend to be enjoying themselves. The Seargent also orders them not to get him any Christmas gifts, lest he assign them all to trimming the latrine on Christmas Eve instead.

"Unless it's a box of croissants. I love those flaky bastards."

Later, Ned and Sweet are back in the abandoned house, chilling by the tree, when they hear the sound of children singing. They run outside to find a tall Friar and a bunch of Orphans huddled together, holding wreaths and doing a French rendition of "Oh, Christmas Tree," which is a bit ironic as both Christmas trees and this particular song about Christmas trees came from the very Germans who'd been slaughtering their families and occupying their country on and off for the past 150 years.

I guess they didn't know "Frosty the Snowman."

When the children complete their song there's an awkward silence as the soldiers internally reflect on this brief window of normalcy and humanity. Eventually the Friar explains that the kids are singing as a sort of advertisement to help sell their wreaths, the money from which will go to help fund their orphanage. As the men all pony up their hard-earned cash, Sgt. Bryant steps out of the mess hall, his hands firmly grasping the collars of two of the boys, who had snuck in looking to purloin a little bit of grub. The Friar apologizes and offers to give back all the men's money, but Cavelli insists he keep it, and furthermore he orders Bryant to take the whole lot of them to the mess hall and make sure they all get as much as they can eat. Bryant's sternness softens and he marches them in for their meal.

Back in the command center Cavelli is deciding where to hang his newly purchased wreath. Bryant and Ned come in, and Ned tells the Captain that instead of having just a Christmas party for the men, maybe the men should throw a Christmas party for the orphans. The Captain strolls around with his hand on his chin and announces he's just come up with a fantastic idea...and regurgitates Ned's notion as if he just came up with it himself.

Sitcom trope #126: The "Glad I Thought of It."

The gang all get together to plot and plan their big soiree, with Ned and Sweet taking charge and the others taking on food, entertainment and other responsibilities as assigned. Finally, they get to the subject of gifts, with several of them donating items they've picked up here and there throughout their deployment to give to the children. One guy throws in a little music box he picked up in Paris, another donates a Tom Mix toy revolver he's been carrying around Europe for some undisclosed reason, and finally Ned produces a little silver model of one of the supply trucks he's fashioned from the remainder of his Messerschmitt fuselage sheet metal. Just at that moment Bryant comes storming in saying the little orphaned angels won't be needing a model when they've got the real thing. It seems two of them just snuck into camp and stole truck number six. As we fade to a merciful ad break, the whole grew hop up in a panic and pile outside.

Needless to say, Captain Cavelli is displeased, so he orders all personnel to fall in and listen to him rant about the theft. He produces a copy of a particular Army regulation stating that a company commander is financially responsible for any lost or stolen equipment.

Maybe the truck is wedged inside his cleft chin.

It seemed odd to me that there should be such a regulation, and I assumed it was creative license on the part of the writers, but it's not actually too far off from the truth. If an item is lost or stolen during the course of a campaign or training mission whoever was responsible for its care may, indeed be held liable for its monetary value pending an investigation to determine whether negligence played a part in its having gone missing. In most instances the items would be written off as "field losses" without any further sanctions, but with something as valuable as a supply truck it's hard to say how Army brass might handle it. It's not outside the realm of possibility Cavelli might be looking at a garnishment of his wages or other punishments for the loss.

Regardless, the good captain assures them all that if his wages get garnished, their wages are going to get garnished, too, to the tune of three thousand dollars...unless, of course they can find the truck and arrange its safe return.

Now there's a brief interlude with the gang going about their maintenance duties on the remaining vehicles while High Strung and Wheels improvise a little musical number called "Christmas Blues," with the former providing vocal bass notes and the latter singing lead, and I have to say, Garrett Morris has a pretty good voice. It's a short but sweet little number, and it perks up the proceedings considerably before immediately dropping us back into the narrative-by-numbers drudgery of the rest of the episode.

"This time next year I'll be on SNL and you'll be unemployed...Merry Christmas!"

The gang all tease Ned for his naivete regarding the little frog-eating scamps, but he still insists that Children are essentially good and whatever happens is God's will. Sweet quips that may be so, but God had better leave them the three thousand dollars in that will. Ned figures the Lord helps those that help themselves, so he grabs Sweet and they go shlepping off to the orphanage to have a talk with the Friar...who I find mighty distracting because of his honkin' big schnoz.

Maybe the truck is parked up there.

The Friar says he's questioned every single child again and again, but they all claim ignorance as to where the two diminutive thieves have taken the truck. Sweet has been around a little, thouh. He was a larcenous little moppet once and knows how kids think. Naturally, no juvenile delinquent with any sense of decorum and pride in his work is going to fess up just because some over-trusting priest is asking him nicely. Sweet explains that there's only one sure-fire way to get the truth, and that's to call the police. No sooner has he mentioned the Po-Po than a couple of the kids who've been eves-dropping at the window tap on the glass and offer the knowledge that the truck hasn't actually been stolen...and they assure the soldiers it will be returned to them on Christmas Eve.

"Vee alzo haz zee bridge to sell you you say? Brook-leen?"

The Friar questions them in French and they swear they're telling the truth. Ned essentially says "Okie dokie then! If the kid says it'll be back Christmas Eve, then there's nothing more to be done about it, so let's get back to camp and spend a little time with our other French friend Monsieur latrine."

I say "Ned's a fucking rube."

Christmas Eve arrives and the whole camp turns out for the mandatory party, but poor Ned is having second thoughts regarding the veracity of the children's promise and his own credulity. He just can't bring himself to join in with the meager fun, but instead stands at the window waiting anxiously to find out if whether his own childlike faith in humanity is misplaced. Meanwhile, the others join Captain Cavelli in a mandatory sing-along to "Deck the Halls."

During this sequence the picture keeps cutting to a group shot of the various soldiers of the Red Ball Express seated in rows for the evenings' entertainment. The guy seated closest to the camera kept drawing my attention, not just because he was the only person in the room we hadn't previously seen, but because his features looked both out of place and somehow familiar. With a queasy feeling spreading throughout my cranky bowels, I suddenly realized who it was and what it meant: It was producer Larry Gelbart, the pasty white Jewish guy, in an uncredited cameo...wearing blackface, which should put to rest any ideas you might have that he could ever write for Black characters with anything but condescending mimicry.


Once we've been subjected to the worst cameo in TV history, we're further subjected to a few of the men showcasing their minstrel show talents and sharing their peurile party tricks. We begin with a guy named Jersey doing an impression of a football player filmed in slow motion, and I can't help but feel that the entire special has been creeping along at a similarly snail-like pace.

A visual representation of the moment I recognized Gelbart in blackface.

Next, Wheels gets up and sings again, with Jersey playing guitar and Sgt. Bryant playing a jaunty, swingin' flute. This time it's the old-timey standard "This LIttle Light O' Mine," and again, it's nice to have a short break from all the manufactured maudlin misery, even knowing it's still just shameless time-filler.

During the previous acts Sweet has been checking on his buddy Ned to see how he's holding up, and frankly the poor kid is losing more and more of his tenuous faith by the minute. Now it's time for Sweet himself to get up and do his thing, so he leaves his pal to his misery and inflicts a little misery on the audience, with a lame ventriloquist act featuring a talking glove he calls "Frankie Fist."

"Fist by name, fist by fetish."

Sweet and Frankie Fist trot out a couple of lame jokes, but before they can assault our senses any further Ned interrupts them excitedly to tell everyone that the children have, indeed returned with Supply Truck number six, just as they'd promised! The whole camp rushes out the door to greet them, and the big nose Friar explains that the whole incident was just a misunderstanding. The kids never intended to steal the truck, they were just borrowing it to bring the men a special Christmas gift to repay them for their kindness in buying all their wreathes and stuffing them with inedible much in the mess hall.

The "gift" turns out to be a large nativity display...

...with all the faces painted black.

Ned gives Sweet a gentle, unspoken "I told you so," and although Sweet says he still doesn't believe in Santa, he at least believes in children again.

So, there's no worries and no consequences for the kids, and all's well that ends well even if the only reasonable explanation for where they got the statues is that they stole them from a fucking church.

"Boys will be boys!"

Roll Out: Christmas of '44 seemed pretty awful the first time I watched it as part of my preliminary sorting process for potential Shitmas candidates, and if anything, I found it even less tolerable on a second viewing to actually write up this article. Even without the inevitable comparisons to the bona fide brilliance of M*A*S*H there's just so much about it that's lazy, misguided, clumsy, disingenuous and wrong. It's a toxic stew of bad writing, hackneyed tropes, bland stock characters and dubious moral messaging, and I find it hard to believe anyone involved truly believed in what they were making or honestly felt it was anything approaching heartwarming holiday fare. Lord knows I'm all for dark humor, but when you try to pass off a tin-eared, cynical turd like this as some kind of high-minded nugget of virtue and wisdom I've got to draw a clear line and walk right the fuck away from it.

Joyeux Noel my skinny white ass!

Merry Christmas, folkses.

Next Installment: December 9th!

As always, Cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in December, 2023.

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