[11 April 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It may seem hard to believe, but at one time, Mary Tyler Moore and her successful sitcom were on the cutting edge of social commentary. Not via the basic narrative the comedy employed; it was a standard, character-driven dynamic fostered along by personality and perfect performance. No, at a time when America was looking at the place gender had within the social stratagem (politically, professionally and personally) Mary stood out. She was the center of a show in which her cheery character was (a) not married, (b) not saddled with some manner of offspring and (c) able to hold down a career-oriented job at a local TV station. Within this mild mannered Miss who could turn the world on with her smile were the seeds of the ‘having-it-all’ post-modern superwoman that we see today.
Moore meant so much to so many ‘70s women because she proved an adage that the paternalistic part of society never wanted to acknowledge: females could find their own unique way around the perplexing infrastructure of the regressive rat race. And they didn’t need a man to guide them. She also proved that gals didn’t require boyfriends to validate their existence. While the series had intended to push the social envelope even further (creator James L. Brooks originally wanted his main character to be a gasp! divorcee), it settled for being a first foray into feminist independence. And it succeeded because the agenda was kept on the back burner, never completely thrust out and into the audience’s adoring faces.
By season three (now out on DVD, thanks to 20th Century Fox), the show had settled comfortably into its characters’ competing ideals. Big bear of a boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) was becoming less stern, and more sensitive while that tireless twit of an anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) was as clueless as ever. News writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) bore out some sadly hidden secrets while Mary’s neighbor Rhoda (Valerie Harper) continued to deal with family and self-esteem issues. Standing at the center was Mary herself, confidant and confessor; catalyst to a better understanding of life’s little foibles, as well as a stoic shoulder to cry on when the lemonade made from the bitter fruit of lesson’s learned was a tad too strong. Sure, she had her own issues to deal with, but mostly Mary was an emotional martyr to those around her. She would gladly give up her good time to better someone else’s.
Still, over the years, individuals have gotten the wrong impression about the series. Many see it as a precursor to Brooks big screen journalism jest Broadcast News, a sitcom where TV station WJM was as important as the interplay between the characters. If season three is any indication, these beliefs are completely wrong. Of the 24 episodes included as part of this DVD set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 10 deal specifically with Mary’s personal life and her trials and tribulations as a single working gal.
One of the best in this group, “Put on a Happy Face” has the usually perky and perfect Mary facing untold indignities as she prepares for her first local awards show. More of Mary’s irritable side arrives when best friend Rhoda borrows $1,200 to start her own business (“Mary Richards and the Incredible Plant Lady”). When payment is late, and Rhoda appears to be spending unwisely, Mary actually has something of a snit. Whether it’s dealing with former lovers (“Remembrance of Things Past”) or putting up with puppy love from an adolescent neighbor’s smitten boyfriend (“It Was Fascination, I Know”), our heroine tries to temper her responses with care and consideration. Sometimes, like with a “won’t take no for an answer” pest like Warren Sturges (“Romeo and Mary”), bluntness is her best, and most successful, tactic.
An additional 11 shows in this set focus on the by now familiar faces in the series, allowing the sitcom to broaden its approach by giving the ancillary cast of characters a real chance to shine. While Rhoda and boss Lou get the most storylines (four and three respectively) it is Murray who does the most soul searching. Toward the beginning of the season, we learn that the genial scribe is recovering from an out of control gambling problem (“It’s Whether You Win or Lose”). It’s so bad that he even looses money to the blank as a fart Ted Baxter. Murray also has a major male mid-life crisis when he learns that a classmate and fellow writer has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize (“Murray Faces Life”). Since he usually comes across as genial and gentle, it’s compelling to see actor Gavin MacLeod in full on freak-out mode.
This was also the season that Valerie Harper went through her famous physical transformation. All throughout the first two seasons of the series, Rhoda was viewed as the frumpy fat girl, the slightly stereotypical Jewish yenta constantly complaining about her ever present poundage. But when we finally see her post-weight loss in “Rhoda the Beautiful”, she’s stunning. (It’s interesting to note that when Rhoda got a spin-off series two years later, they had to hire Julie Kavner to play the dumpy, depressed character that Harper more or less invented). Anyone who worried that such a change would undermine the prickly personality that made Rhoda work as a character doesn’t understand Brooks and his sensational staff of writers. Glamorous instead of grumpy, Rhoda now had a new, more mentally strong arsenal of personal pride to transform into crackling comic bits.
It’s also important to stress the masterful work of Ted Knight. More or less given a one-note numbskull to work with (Ted Baxter is Bill O’Reilly without the bully pulpit) Knight acknowledges Baxter’s shortcomings while focusing on those that would make him appear the most foolish. When Ted becomes a spokesman for various local sponsors (“Farmer Ted and the News”) he doesn’t realize how shilling for pork sausage could possibly undermine his credibility. He is equally dense as to why his horrible treatment of new gal pal Georgette would make his friends so mad. In fact, one of the richest pleasures of this entire series is seeing how characters interact and grow. Georgette eventually comes out from her shell and gives Ted a piece of her mind, and it’s thrilling. Unlike other individuals introduced in this season Mary’s pathetic parents, to name two Georgette would go on to become a viable cog in The Mary Tyler Moore Show engine, someone the show could turn to again and again for inventive idiosyncrasy.
There are only three episodes that could be categorized as solely workplace oriented. Mary is given a mandate to perk up the programming (“The Happy Time News”) and, as usual, the results are disastrous. Similarly, a promotion for Lou (“Who’s in Charge Here?”) means trouble for his well-tuned team. The truth is, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was never a real “sitcom”. It never derived its humor out of oddball circumstances or I Love Lucy-like setups. Instead, this series represented the beginning of a trend in modern character based TV humor. Norman Lear would quickly follow suit with his controversial classic All in the Family, but it was The Mary Tyler Moore Show that laid the foundation. Season three shows this off magnificently.
And as odd as it seems, the series only got better from here. Betty White would join the cast as the sex starved matron Sue Anne Nivens, her affections instantly targeted toward Lou. We’d get more Rhoda and more of that hilariously erratic landlord/busybody Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman). In fact, the entire WJM newsroom was awash in challenges and change. All except for the leading lady at the center of all this madness. Mary Richards, as essayed by the incomparable Mary Tyler Moore, would evolve over the span of the series, but at her core, she was always the wise, wonderful gal pal, the sounding board off of which those around her bounced their good natured notions. That was the very essence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That is why it remains a timeless television show, even today.