A woman’s right to choose

Is there a more iconic image in TV credits?

Is there a more iconic image in TV credits?

And we’re off! Thanks for joining me for the first official Retrowatching discussion of a classic TV show. Mary Tyler Moore – season 1 disc 1. Here we go.

In introducing these shows, I’d first like to give a little bit of background on where I’m coming from into these shows. With that in mind:

Why this show?
Every show reviewed on this blog will have the same initial answer as to “why” – Because it’s a classic show I’ve never seen and always wanted to. For Mary Tyler Moore, I’ve known all my life that it’s a special show – one that has had a major influence on the television landscape, whether it be from the three (!) spin-off shows it produced* – Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant -or the fact that one of the most culturally influential shows of the last decade, 30 Rock, is pretty much an updated version of MTM.

*Am I missing any? And also, is this unprecedented? I can’t think of another show to produce even more than one spinoff.

Past memories and experiences?
I wasn’t born yet when the show had its initial run. When it came to Nick at Nite later on, I fastidiously ignored it . Not sure why – I was a loyal watcher of Nick at Nite – I Love Lucy, Mr. Ed, Dick Van Dyke, Taxi, Bewitched – these were all shows I watched after dinner with my family. Some more than others – I never did see the full run of Taxi or Dick Van Dyke. When it came time for Mary Tyler Moore, though, I was strongly opposed. I even remember getting up from the couch and leaving the room every time my parents flipped over to Nickelodeon to watch. Why – I have no idea. Maybe the clothes turned me off. Or maybe I saw an episode and didn’t find it funny. Who knows.
Other things I know:
-It’s how many people were introduced to Betty White and Cloris Leachman (who is a freaking babe here – I did NOT know that. You go Cloris Leachman!), two actresses I really only know as “those old ladies on TV some people think are funny.”
– Two famous TV episodes: the one where the clown dies and the series finale where they all huddle together and sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
– The theme song. And I gotta say, it’s still great. Lived up to all of my expectations, and totally holds up. Let’s just stop right here and take a listen to it, in all its glory.*

*(Okay, confession: In my search for this, I came across the opening for season two and on and…I’m not sure about that. The song is still great, but those images are just weird. Why is she picking out meat in the grocery store? And when is it ever warm enough in Minneapolis to wash your car outside? We’ll see, MTM opening. You are on notice.)

Background information:
Living as we do in the iPhone/laptop age, curiosity often gets the better of me when watching TV these days, and I will pause to look up actors or references. I did this a lot with the first disc of MTM. Here are some things I found out:
– Originally Mary Richards was supposed to be a divorcee, but the network put the breaks on it, because they didn’t want to world to think that Laurie Petrie had divorced Rob. Similarly, Moore wore a wig for the first few seasons to distance herself from her former role. (Ok, the Internet didn’t tell me those things – I learned them from America In Primetime and my mother, respectively. But the rest is from the web, I swear.)
– Moore was totally a TV empire all to herself, much like Lucille Ball with Desilu. MTM Enterprises was her production company, and produced such shows as Bob Newhart, Hill Street Blues, and WKRP in Cincinnati, among others. It also produced a handful of movies, including Clara’s Heart, which is notable to me as the debut film of another TV icon, Mr. Neil Patrick Harris. The company ran nearly 30 years, from 1969-1998. You go, girl!
– In addition to being everyone’s favorite TV crank, Edward Asner (Lou Grant) is kind of awesome. He is involved in a bunch of charities, including the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Rosenberg Fund for Children -two organizations I did not know existed, but seem pretty kick ass. He’s also an outspoken democrat and served two terms as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild.
-Ted Knight’s tombstone has the words “Bye, guys” carved on it – a reference to his MTM catchphrase, “Hi, guys.” I read that and got really sad, even though I’m only a few episodes into the show.
-Valerie Harper totally played Justin Theorux’s mom and Carrie Bradshaw’s confidant in the season two episode of Sex and the City, “Shortcomings.” From the first time I saw that episode, there was something comforting and familiar about her character, even though I wouldn’t have known Harper from MTM yet. When I was looking her up on IMDB, I saw her Sex and the City credit and something in my brain clicked – yes! Of COURSE that was Valerie Harper! (For those of you who don’t remember, Harper played the mother of Carrie’s boyfriend who has a problem, ermm..holding it in. Carrie meets and falls in love with his family – particularly his mother – and puts off breaking up with him.)

Okay, get to it already! What do you think?
Alright, alright. So, here’s the truth: I am not yet 100% on board with MTM. It does seem dated to me, and not just the show’s place and time, but the writing. Instead of multiple stories throughout, each episodes focuses on one story. There’s a snowstorm at the station the night of elections and they are forced to hold a newscast with no results. Rhoda’s mother comes to visit and Rhoda refuses to see her. Mary befriends an old football player trying to catch a break. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a template I’m trying to get used to, living in a TV age where every half hour show has at least three plot lines. In addition, some of the humor seems dated to me. I can’t point to one example in particular; it just seems like a generational thing. What was funny back in 1970 may not be funny in 2013. That’s just the way it is. Don’t worry though, I’m not giving up. I’ve been told by many people, including several my own age, that MTM is one of their all-time favorite shows. So I’m hoping that once the season progresses and the characters are fleshed out a little more, I’ll settle in. (That’s another thing – I have a good handle on Rhoda, Mary and Phyllis, but I’d like to see more of the newsroom. We got a good dose of Lou Grant in the pilot, but have seen little of Ted and Murray. And, I have to say, the one show so far featuring Ted, “The Snow Must Go On,” about the aforementioned snowstorm, fell really flat to me.)

There are aspects of it I like.

I love that Mary is single and on her own. For 30 Rocks‘ Liz Lemon, being single isn’t a big deal at all, but I appreciate how groundbreaking it was at the time to have a single 30-year-old woman be the main character on a TV show. I also appreciate that they address this up front – in the first eight episodes her single status is very prominent. In the pilot, she rejects her ex-boyfriend’s plea to get back together when she realizes she’s happier without him. In the second episode, “Today I am a Ma’am,” she and Rhoda invite two men over to Mary’s house for a dinner date. In episode three, “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now,” Mary realizes that she may actually want kids someday, and gets a taste of single parenthood when she takes care of Phyllis’s daughter for a few days. And finally, in “Divorce Isn’t Everything,” Mary and Rhoda pretend to be divorcees so they can join a singles club. I like that the show doesn’t shrink away from Mary’s marital status, but they also don’t treat it lightly and for laughs. Well, okay, it is treated for laughs, as the show is a comedy, but she isn’t shown as pathetic or less than worthy for being a single woman in her 30s.  Mary knows who she is and she’s good at what she does. Compare this with Phyllis, a woman who looks very put together and seems to have it all – a husband, a child, a nice home – but is in reality a mess. (More on this next time – it was touched on a bit in “Bess You Is My Daughter Now,” but comes into play more in a later episode, “Assistant Wanted, Female.”)

This sassy broad stole my heart from her very first appearance

This sassy broad stole my heart from her very first appearance

I also love Rhoda. The moment Mary opened her curtains and saw a woman cleaning the windows in the dead of winter, I fell in love with Rhoda Morgenstern. I love that she’s feisty and doesn’t let Mary off the hook for stealing the apartment. I love that she’s a single woman with insecurities, but isn’t going to settle. The episode where her mother comes to visit (“Support Your Local Mother”), broke my heart. I’m already dreading her departure in season 4.

More than that, I love Mary and Rhoda’s friendship. It’s real. I’m not a TV history expert, but in my estimation, it could be one of the first real portrayals of female friendship on television. We all love Lucy and Ethel, but theirs was more of a scheming partnership. Mary and Rhoda are there for each other. They can be puzzled by and feel sorry for a down-on-his-luck ex footballer Frank one week and the next week, Mary can confess her feelings of shallowness for not wanting to date a short man. When Rhoda’s mother comes to visit unexpectedly, Rhoda relies on Mary to host Mrs. Morgenstern, and while Mary doesn’t understand the relationship, Rhoda doesn’t have to explain it to her. That’s what best friends do. Perhaps even more impressive – they can be catty with each other, as woman friends often are. (Ladies, you know what I mean, and I say this as an empowered female who eschews most gender stereotypes, but…c’mon. YOU know.) Rhoda is jealous of Mary because she is thin and pretty and men like her. Mary loves Rhoda but maybe looks down on her a little for “only” working in a department store, and resents Rhoda for making more money. This will be explored more next week, when I discuss “Bob and Rhoda and Teddy and Mary,” but so far, I love what I see of this friendship. Mary and Rhoda paved the way for Rachel Green and Monica Gellar, Carrie Bradshaw and Miranda Hobbs, Anne Perkins and Leslie Knope, and so many other enduring female friendships on television. Ladies, I salute you!

Mary and Rhoda - the original gal pals.

Mary and Rhoda – the original gal pals.

That’s all for this week. Make sure to come back this time next week when I’ll dive into disc 2, including:
Bob & Rhoda & Teddy & Mary
Assistant Wanted: Female
1040 or Fight
Anchorman Overboard
He’s All Yours
Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid
Howard’s Girl
Party is Such Sweet Sorrow

Thanks for following along and stay tuned!

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One thought on “A woman’s right to choose

  1. Yay! I’ve never seen MTM, and honestly probably never will. That means YOU get to watch it for me! Congratulations.

    I checked Wikipedia, and there are a few shows with multiple spinoffs…but mostly not. (The list isn’t very well organized, and the definition of “spinoff” is pretty loose. But there are some that qualify, like All in the Family. Also 90210, if somehow Models Inc. was a spinoff?)

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