More than anything else, this fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show spotlighted the sitcom’s stellar ensemble cast. When the program first began, Moore was the series’ primary focus. It made sense to put the spotlight solely on Moore, because there weren’t many other TV shows about single career women back in the ’70s. The first season chronicled Moore’s hard luck dating life, as her friends at the WJM TV newsroom and her neighbors Phyllis and Rhoda stood by to help her along. But excellent actors like Ed Asner and Ted Knight were too good to remain as side players; they deserved so much more screen time.
During season four, Moore was still single. Yet her gentlemen callers were rarely seen. Instead, the lives of her colorful friends were explored more deeply.
Ed Asner played Lou Grant, Moore’s grumpy boss at WJM, and this character’s personal life took a few turns for the worse during this eventful season. Most significantly, he separated from his wife, Edie. Grant, whom Moore reflexively calls Mr. Grant, was at his most vulnerable after being forced against his will to try and get along without his wife. One episode that centers around Grant, titled “Happy Birthday, Lou!” was so good I had to watch it twice.
It was Lou’s 48th birthday, and his first such celebration apart from his wife. Everybody at the newsroom was naturally concerned about Grant’s fragile emotional state. Nobody was more sympathetic then Mary, as she arranged a surprise party at her apartment. What she didn’t know, however, was that Grant hated surprises, and also hated parties. So a surprise party combined two of his worst pet peeves into one big bad idea. Mary ignored Grant’s complaints, hoping he’d eventually warm up to the idea. She persuaded him to come to her place on the pretense of an innocent birthday drink. But as soon as she attempts to let in the gathered guests at her door, Grant loudly orders her stop everyone from passing through.
This charade quickly begins to mirror the nutty atmosphere of a popular nightclub, where Mary is forced to become its bouncer and keep attendees from getting beyond the velvet rope. A few finally do find their way into Mary’s suddenly exclusive apartment, but only after she convinces Lou with words like, “Come on, Lou. You like Murray.” There’s one hilarious scene where a woman huddled outside Mary’s door confesses that she needs to use the bathroom. But she never gets in. Poor woman. Poor bladder.
Although there are a few episodes about dating, these ones rarely revolve around Mary’s nightlife. One concerns troubles between Ted Baxter and his soon-to-be-wife Georgette. Another one looks at Rhoda’s dream date with a rich executive at her workplace. Still another program finds Rhoda dating Mr. Grant.
Ted Baxter, the show’s blowhard news anchor, also shines in numerous places during this three-DVD set. There’s a show where he runs for city counsel, titled “We Want Baxter”, which finds Mary’s neighbor, Phyllis, acting as his campaign manager. In another typically embarrassing Baxter moment, he wins the local Minneapolis award for anchorman of the year, and later meets Walter Cronkite, who plays himself.
A few of these episodes put Mary into troubling situations. In “Best Of Enemies”, Mary’s friendship with her best friend Rhoda becomes strained when Rhoda blurts out in front of the whole newsroom that Mary lied about going to college on her resume. On “Better Late. . . That’s A Pun. . . Than Never”, Mary’s humorous obituary for Minneapolis’s oldest resident gets her suspended from her job after it is mistakenly read on air.
Such moments find the actress at the top of her game, because Moore is especially compelling whenever her character, which is normally the pinnacle of integrity, is surprisingly put into an unflattering light. These are the kinds of portrayals that make the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show come off as complex humans. The sitcom world has always tried to make every conceivable American workplace seem like a family. And in Moore’s case, you get the impression these characters truly care about each other. Season four is an excellent way to get to know Moore and her WJM family a whole lot better. Among these characters, love is (really) all around.