Summer Of Reruns: Oh, Mary!

Welcome to Summer Of Reruns. For the next few weeks in my column for l’étoile, I’m going to devote this column to looking at several shows and looking at why they’re important; not only in the history of the medium, but also why they’ve stuck around.

To start off this installment, let’s quote myself from last time:

In the 1970 – 1971 television season, CBS aired two very different comedies. One would focus on an anti-social bigot in Queens and the terror he would reign on his family and neighbors. The other would focus on a young woman terminating an engagement and running away to Minneapolis to start a new life. Both of these shows would receive their shares of controversy and criticism. Both would be embraced by audiences and critics and would win boatloads of Emmy awards. And both would change the face of television (and television comedy in particular) as we know it since both are considered among the greatest shows ever made in the history of the medium. To be blunt, every single sitcom on the air owes part of its DNA to one or both of these shows, and it would be the guide posts that you could divide all sitcoms by.

Archie versus Mary. Or, to be more blunt about it, producer Norman Lear versus MTM Enterprises.

When CBS aired All In The Family, it received its share of controversy, but the studio stood behind the show for many reasons. The biggest reason, however, happened to be the simplest; it also was airing, at the same time, the other critically acclaimed sitcom of the 1970-1971 season. For seven seasons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would serve as the quiet, distaff yang to All In The Family‘s yin and, in turn, would break new ground in character development, subject matter, and would be vitally important to the development of television for the next two decades and influencing shows further out into the present day.

Besides, as great as “Those Were The Days” is as a theme song, has it ever been covered by Hüsker Dü and Joan Jett And The Blackhearts?  I think not.

First, a little history. In 1969, Mary Tyler Moore was at a professional crossroads. Known for her work as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she was sad to see the show end (thanks to Van Dyke and show creator Carl Reiner pulling out). She tried other things (including starring in the aborted musical version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s on Broadway), but it would take a variety special on television to show the world (and Moore herself) where her strengths laid. So besotted was CBS that it immediately signed her and her husbnad/producer Grant Tinker to create a sitcom for her to star in and to go directly to series, no pilot necessary. They in turn hired James L. Brooks and Allan Burns (best known then for their groundbreaking dramedy Room 222) to help create it. And what they and their writers created was a simple premise: Mary Richards (Moore), a single woman who had just been dumped by her fiancé, moves to Minneapolis to start a new life for herself working at a television station while balancing that job with her new home life made of her friends and neighbors. While the concept of a single girl in the big city was nothing new, how they handled it was revolutionary and would change how sitcoms were made.

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Here are some of the reasons why The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MTM Enterprises (the company Moore and Tinkler created to produce it), and MTM’s other shows, were so important to television as a whole:

* “Love Is All Around” From the very first episode The Mary Tyler Moore Show knew what it wanted to say with its characters, and the premiere episode “Love Is All Around” is one of the most sure-footed debut episodes in the history of the medium. With a surprising amount of fleetness, it instantly establishes Mary as a character, her new job as an associate news producer at WJM Television, and her new home life, renting part of a house in the Kenwood section of Minneapolis. Very few television shows have ever had as successful of a debut in quickly establishing the world of the show so briskly. And it helped that it had one of the most iconic theme songs in all of television history to boot.

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* That Cast! The first episode also introduced all of the new people in Mary’s life; on the home front there was her landlady Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) and her neighbor and new best friend Rhoda (Valerie Harper), on the work front there was her senior news producer Lou (Ed Asner), news writer Murray (Gavin McLeod), and pompous news anchor Ted (Ted Baxter). Thus was born one of the the greatest casts in all of television history; a simpatico group that gelled together like a repertory company that eventually came to dominate all of the comedy acting Emmys during its run (with Moore, Asner, Harper, Leachman, and Baxter all winning at various times). It was so strong that it would eventually add Georgia Engel (as the sweetly clueless Georgette) and Betty White (as the man-hungry television hostess Sue Ann Nivens) to the cast and they quickly locked onto the vibe of the show (and White herself would eventually win an Emmy as well, while Engel would be nominated twice for her work). And it wasn’t just the cast. In addition to Brooks and Burns, the all-star writing team included Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels, David Lloyd, Bob Ellison and the great Treva Silverman; all of whom would win Emmys as well. In fact, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would eventually win 29 Emmy Awards over its seven seasons; a record that held until Fraiser passed it in 2002.

* Is this a comedy? While The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and the other comedies in the MTM stable and its decedents) dealt with a surprising amount of social issues (infidelity, divorce, body issues, homosexuality, substance abuse, infertility, and more), Moore never was as extreme about them as All In The Family and the Norman Lear shows were. Where Lear and his writers took social issues and blew them up for the sake of satire, Brooks and Burrs and their writing staff created humanistic one act plays about their characters and drew all the comedy (and pathos) originating from the characters first. This gentler tone (which veered between wistful and rueful) would prove to be the calling card for pretty much all of the MTM shows that followed in Moore‘s wake.

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* I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar (?) The Mary Tyler Moore Show has always had an uneasy relationship with feminism. On the one hand, Brooks and Burrs were revolutionary in their creation of Mary Richards for one simple fact; though she was a single woman living in the big city, her love life did not dominate all of her story lines as it had with so many other shows of that stripe. While Mary did date, she was never with anyone for very long, and (as the series progressed) her work life was just as important (if not more so than) her home life. However, Mary is never seen advancing in her career or any other sort of feminist ideals that were being touted at the time. This became a confounding point for feminists who wanted to embrace the character but were deeply conflicted by ambivalence. And again, Mary’s ambiguous relationship with feminism is of a piece with the take that the writers had with social issues; keeping them as background facts of life that only affect the characters when necessary.

* … and starring The City of Minneapolis! One of the great things about the MTM stable of shows is that, even though they are shot in studios in California (the majority of them at Studio City, which MTM had a partial controlling interest in), they all feel of a place for the city they’re supposedly set in. Be it Minneapolis, Chicago (The Bob Newhart Show), New York (Rhoda), San Francisco (Phyllis), Cincinnati (WKRP In Cincinnati) or elsewhere, the MTM shows all have a tangible feel to their settings and occasionally found inspiration for story lines in them (such as the famous episode of WKRP In Cincinnati that was inspired by the deaths during The Who’s concert in Cincinnati). In fact, the opening sequence of Moore is practically an ode to and advertisement of our fair city; an advertisement that has held up for over 40 years!

* Two Different Shows Long before Cheers (itself is a direct descendant of Moore) would be cleaved into two different shows (thanks to the departure of lead actress Shelly Long), Moore would slowly go through the same thing. Starting with the addition of Georgia Engel in Season 3 and Betty White in Season 4, and the eventual spin-offs for Rhoda and Phyllis (necessitating the leaving of Harper and Leachman), the show would eventually move away from Mary’s home life (which made sense as her best friends were leaving Minneapolis) to focus almost exclusively on her career at WJM. The best use of both versions of the Moore ensemble was in the Season 4 episode “The Lars Affair,” in which Phyllis discovers that her (never-seen on camera) husband Lars is having an affair with Sue Ann. The episode is a great showcase for the full ensemble and Leachman and White are at their finest sparring with each other.

“Chuckles Bites The Dust” The Mary Tyler Moore Show has its share of great episodes (the aforementioned “The Lars Affair,” “Rhoda The Beautiful” which is arguably Treva Silverman’s best script for the show and a dynamic showcase for Valerie Harper’s performance as Rhoda, “The Lou and Edie Story” which Lou Grant and his long-suffering wife split, and a whole lot more), but it also has what is universally considered to be the single best sitcom episode in television history. While I won’t spoil all the details (because you have to watch it cold to truly appreciate it), “Chuckles Bites The Dust” shows off everything that made Moore such amazing a show. With a slightly surreal script by David Lloyd, on point work from the entire cast, and arguably Mary Tyler Moore’s best acting in the show (her performance in the funeral scene alone is worth the price of admission), it’s an encapsulation of what made Moore such a vital show then and now.

Lou Grant When The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended in 1977 (more on that in a bit), the fantastic Ed Asner got a spin off as Mary’s former boss moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to serve as an editor for a newspaper (keeping with the established background that he got his start in print journalism). While this isn’t unusual that the character or the actor would get a spin-off, what was unusual was that rather than being a sitcom, it was a full on prime time drama dealing with the issues of the day in a more direct manner while still keeping the humanist spirit regarding its characters. Lou Grant  would go on to win critical acclaim and a host of Emmys, and more importantly serve as a necessary stepping stone as MTM moved away from sitcoms to producing dramas in the late 1970s and 1980 (as Grant Tinker left MTM to become president of NBC Television): an exalted list that also included The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere.

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* “The Last Show” (or “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”) I’ve talked about the importance of a good ending for a television show before, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show would show generations of writers and show runners how to end a show on a successful and graceful note. (In fact, Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman and 30 Rock creator/star Tina Fey – both shows heavily indebted to The Mary Tyler Moore Show – have publicly acknowledged that when they were writing their series’ finales, they were heavily inspired by this episode.) Equally heart-breaking, heart-warming, and hilarious (often within the span of seconds), it’s warm and emotional without being saccharine, and gives the characters and the show a hilarious and moving ending.

* Gaze Upon My Children While in the 1970s, MTM and Lear would dominate the television landscape, the kinds of stories that Moore would tell would eventually influence generations of television comedies. In addition to all of the other shows I’ve mentioned in this post, everything from Taxi (which was co-created by Brooks, Daniels, Weinberger, and The Bob Newhart Show co-creator David Davis), to Cheers (co-created by James Burrows, who was one of MTM and Moore‘s most influential directors), to Family Ties, to The Simpsons, to the American version of The Office (with its notion of the workplace as oddly functioning family), and many others, the television landscape as we know it owes a huge debt to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

* Must See TV Long before NBC created its “Must See TV” nights (a concept created by Tinker in conjunction with then-programming director Brandon Tartikoff), CBS had accidentally stumbled on the same notion two decades earlier. For one season (the 1973-74 season) and on one night (Saturday nights) CBS aired, in order, All In The Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show. It would prove to be one of the best lineups in television history until NBC’s Thursday night lineup nearly a decade later.

Next Time: It’s time to explore the concept of the show runner with two very different cop shows as we look at the iconic shows of Danny Arnold and Steven Bochco.

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Side Note: Recently, Shout! Factory released the entire run of The Bob Newhart Show onto DVD, and it’s an absolutely fantastic watching experience. Created by David Davis and Lorenzo Music, it is very different from The Mary Tyler Moore Show thanks to the talent involved, and the star for whom it was created. Set in Chicago, the great Bob Newhart stars as Dr. Robert Hartley, a beleaguered but optimistic psychologist who inevitably is the listening post for his collection of ever-wilder patients. Newhart has always been one the great straight men in the history of comedy, and his first television show celebrates that gift of his by letting him be the stoic center that his patients and cohorts gravitate around in daily life and in truly oddball individual and group therapy sessions. While still having that gentle, humanist stamp that was the signature of MTM shows at the time, Bob Newhart also had a sly streak of surrealism that made it more sophisticated than its sister program. Aided and abetted by a fantastic cast (including Marcia Wallace, Peter Bonerz, Jack Riley, Bill Daily, and the great Suzanne Pleshette as Bob’s lovingly caustic wife Emily) it’s a refreshing tonic to Moore’s genial sweetness. Highly Recommended!

Originally Published on 2 July 2014 as part of “The Idiot Box,” my television column for l’étoile.

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