[20 April 2009]
“My name is Rhoda Morgenstern. I was born in the Bronx, New York in December 1941. I’ve always felt responsible for World War II. The first thing that I remember liking that liked me back was food. I had a bad puberty, it lasted seventeen years. I’m a high school graduate. I went to art school – my entrance exam was on a book of matches. I decided to move out of the house when I was twenty-four. My mother still refers to this as the time I ran away from home. Eventually I ran to Minneapolis where it’s cold, and I figured I’d keep better. Now I’m back in Manhattan. New York, this is your last chance.”
Airing in the 1974-1975 television season, Rhoda was the first of three spin-offs (Phyllis and Lou Grant being the other two) from the hugely popular Mary Tyler Moore show. The series begins with Rhoda’s (Valerie Harper) visit home to New York City from Minneapolis. Originally intending to stay for only a few weeks, Rhoda’s trip is extended when she meets Joe Gerard (David Groh) and they begin dating. By the end of the first episode Rhoda has decided to move back to New York.
Initially, Rhoda lives with her younger sister Brenda (Julie Kavner) in a small studio apartment. Rhoda’s relationship with Brenda is very much framed in the older sister/younger sister dynamic. Brenda looks up to Rhoda and her independence – she is especially impressed when Rhoda boldly asks out Joe – and her new self confidence. In many ways Brenda plays the role in Rhoda’s life that Rhoda played in Mary’s life on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She’s insecure and self-deprecating while also supportive of Rhoda.
Kavner brings a great deal of charm to a character that could otherwise be an annoyance or grow quickly tiresome. Instead, her ability to poke fun at herself is at the heart of her appeal. Despite her perpetual dates with losers and her battles with dieting, Brenda never comes off like a depressive wet blanket. Creator James L. Brooks says that in casting Kavner the role was brought to life in a way that no other actor could have done.
Rhoda’s romance with Joe moves quickly and eight episodes into the season they’re married. “Rhoda’s Wedding” is the classic Rhoda episode complete with Rhoda having to take the subway to her wedding when Phyllis forgets to pick her up. The rest of the season focuses on Rhoda and Joe – a divorced father of a young son, Donny – adjusting to married life. Dealing with financial problems, gender roles of the time, and balancing work and family, the series retained Rhoda’s close relationship with Brenda by having her and Joe living in the same building, and having their mother, Ida (Nancy Walker), drop in regularly.
Walker plays Ida as the archetypal Jewish mother. Though less of a stereotype today, Ida is the long-suffering, meddling, and acerbic mother that is as recognizable as Walker herself (she of Bounty commercial’s quicker-picker-upper fame). Walker’s interactions with her daughters are always funny and give the viewer further insight into Rhoda and Brenda, particularly when exploring generational differences in gender roles. For instance, in one episode Ida is appalled that Rhoda is neglecting her wifely duties by working outside of the home and often having no time to cook or clean. Joe pitches in and shares in these responsibilities while Ida remains convinced that he is on the verge of divorcing Rhoda.
Part of what makes these stories work is Harper’s likeability. Brooks tells a story about Rhoda’s introduction in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the initial unfavorable audience reaction. She was perceived to be too caustic and brash and it was only when Phyllis’ daughter on the show said she liked Rhoda that her character clicked. Once the audience had permission to like Rhoda she became instantly popular and a spin-off seemed inevitable.
In many ways Rhoda’s relationship with Joe is almost beside the point. Her story works best when relating to her family and friends. While her marriage brings up important issues to deal with, especially since they are both a bit older, wiser, and set in their ways, the series is often most successful when Rhoda interacts with others. Writer Allan Burns says as much when he admits that Rhoda’s marriage happened too quickly and that she is often most interesting when unattached and more independent.
The DVD set contains only one extra, a featurette titled Remembering Rhoda. Though short in length and participants (only creator Brooks and writer Burns are interviewed), their candid stories on the direction of the series and the characters make for worthwhile viewing.
Rhoda’s first season was an instant success and this set makes it easy to see why. Harper, Kavner, and Walker shine in their roles and their easy rapport with one another gives the series a loose and unexpected humor that goes beyond punchlines. Rhoda strove to portray a modern woman of the time dealing with all the struggles in balancing personal and professional aspects of her life, all the while dealing with a close knit family with its own demands. No easy feat, Rhoda successfully straddled these lines and always with a great deal of humor and warmth.