[4 April 2010]
The second season of Rhoda picks up on the life of Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) after her move back to New York City, her marriage to Joe Gerard (David Groh), and the start of her own window dressing business. Married at the end of the first season, Rhoda is now more settled, yet there is still much material to be mined, particularly when it comes to dealing with her very close-knit and involved family.
The strength of a series like Rhoda lies in the almost effortless quality of the writing and acting. Harper plays Rhoda with such warmth that it’s no wonder the show was spun off from the popular Mary Tyler Moore Show. At the heart of Rhoda’s appeal is her self-deprecating and neurotic nature. Shifting the dynamic of the series from one focused on Rhoda’s dating life, filled with losers and mishaps galore, to one where she is newly married and more mature, clearly would affect the overall premise of the show, but the core of the character is still the same.
The main conflict for the season frequently comes from Joe’s frustration with the closeness of Rhoda’s family. Because younger sister Brenda (Julie Kavner) lives in the same building, she is constantly dropping by and seeking Rhoda’s advice at inopportune moments. Adding her mother’s frequent unannounced visits and unsolicited opinions on Rhoda’s marriage, they combine to often have Rhoda choosing between her husband and her family. While Joe is not unreasonable, it’s easy to side with Rhoda’s family as they are much more engaging and bring out more of Rhoda’s personality – a decided sticking point for the series going forward.
Again, as Rhoda is now married, much of the dating trouble has shifted over to Brenda, with Rhoda playing the role of wiser, older sister. In true Morgenstern fashion, Brenda is also insecure and quick to poke fun at herself. Kavner is given more of a spotlight in the second season, and she ably handles the move from supporting player to a more regular primary focus of episodes.
Brenda’s dating life focuses mainly on two suitors: Nick Lobo, an accordion playing loser who thinks of himself as a ladies man; and Lenny, a mild-mannered foot fetishist constantly proposing to Brenda. The over-the-top nature of these on-again, off-again boyfriends serves to further ground Brenda as the sane one, despite all her neuroses.
Moreover, Brenda’s interactions with Rhoda and her mother Ida (Nancy Walker) were the highlight of the first season, and they continue to be a wonderful source of classic family comedy. Harper, Kavner, and Walker all have an ease and natural chemistry that makes them very believable as a family. Their closeness on the series is usually played for laughs, yet the second season has them leaning on one another in more equal roles.
For example, in one episode Ida thinks that she may be on the verge of inadvertently starting an affair and she immediately goes to Rhoda for advice, an unthinkable act in the show’s first season. Another change from the first season comes with a more active role for Rhoda’s father, Martin (Harold Gould). While Ida is the overbearing, meddling mother, Martin is doting and supportive, and yet he always defers to his wife. His relationship with Rhoda and with Brenda offer a nice contrast to their relationship with their mother, but Martin also gets the opportunity to showcase some other characteristics. One of the episodes features one of Ida’s old boyfriends reconnecting with the Morgensterns and Gould plays Martin’s jealousy with just the right blend of disbelief and fear, making for some very funny moments.
Apart from such a strong regular cast, Rhoda’s second season includes some excellent guest stars. Standouts include Ruth Gordon as doorman, Carlton’s mother; Vivian Vance as a new tenant in Rhoda and Brenda’s building who befriends the girls much to Ida’s envy; and Tim Matheson as an FBI agent that falls for Brenda. Gordon is particularly funny in communicating the strangeness of Carlton’s mother in a way that corresponds well to what we know about the mysterious and never seen doorman.
While the traditional sitcom (complete with laugh track) may be a rare occurrence in today’s television landscape, Rhoda is one of those series that make it easy to understand the appeal of what many would consider a dying format. The show is quick-witted and charming with an enviable cast by any standards, holding up well 35 years later.
The second season does not include any special features, but the video and audio quality is much improved over the first season set.