“She really picks up a party, doesn’t she?”

We've arrived at the heart of the show

Welcome to week two of retrowatching Mary Tyler Moore! This week: Season 1, Disc 2, which includes episodes 8-16.

And with that, a programming note: Going forward, I will only be reviewing four episodes at a time. This is still in the experimental stage and lesson learned: eight is too many!

Before I get started, some people of note that I forgot to mention in the last blog:
– The show was co-created by James L. Brooks. He’s had just a little bit of success in television, creating such shows as Taxi and the Simpsons, as well as the MTM spinoffs Rhoda and Lou Grant. He was also a producer on The Tracy Ullman Show, and wrote and directed one of my favorite movies of all time, As Good As It Gets. The list goes on – a producer on another of my favorites, Say Anything, director of Broadcast News... guy has just a smidgen of talent.
– Many of these first episodes were directed by Jay Sandrich. That named seemed really familiar – turns out he went on to direct 100 episodes of The Cosby Show –  including this one and this one. As I’ve seen every episode of The Cosby Show at least three times, it’s no wonder his name was so familiar.
– Another name that stuck out to me: Lorenzo Music as a credited writer for several of the early episodes. It mostly stuck out as a fantastic name, but turns out this guy was ubiquitous in show business. Not only was he the voice of Garfield, he also played Peter Venkman in The Real Ghost Busters, a Saturday morning cartoon I remember well. Music had a steady career in voice over acting, played Carl the Doorman in Rhoda, wrote for the Smothers Brothers and Bob Newhart, and even composed the theme song to the Bob Newhart Show. What an interesting and varied career.

And now, onto the show!

The biggest takeaway I got from these episodes was the show is finding its footing. We had spotlight episodes for Phyllis (“Assistant Wanted, Female”) and Ted (“Anchorman Overboard”), and one that put Mary and Rhoda’s friendship to the test (“Bob and Rhoda and Teddy and Mary”). Characters developed and relationships strengthened, and this culminated in an episode that cemented the show for me – “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II.” My one complaint about this set of episodes: We still don’t really know much about Murray. Who is Murray Slaughter? Gavin MacLeod needs his spotlight episode.

Let’s start with Mary and Rhoda’s friendship. In “Bob and Rhoda and Teddy and Mary,” Rhoda is excited to introduce Mary to her new boyfriend, Bob. Her excitement is curbed when Bob takes an instant liking to Mary. Being a good friend, Mary refuses Bob’s advances, but a part of her likes the fact that he is interested. This goes back to the competitive nature of female friendships I discussed last time. Rhoda is frustrated with Mary because every guy seems to fall for her. She is sick of being the sidekick friend. Meanwhile, Mary enjoys the attention from Bob, because she’s used to being the girl everyone likes. That’s just who she is. These feelings come to a head when Rhoda confronts Mary, and the two hash it out: Rhoda is mad about Bob. Mary resents that Rhoda makes more money than she does. Rhoda is sick of everything being handed to Mary on a silver platter, and hopes Mary doesn’t win the news award for which she’s nominated.

It’s my favorite Mary/Rhoda scene so far, because it tells the truth about female friendships: They can be competitive and sometimes downright catty, but at the end of the day, Mary and Rhoda are there for each other. Rhoda goes to the awards ceremony with Mary and roots for her to win. She’s proud to be Mary’s best friend, even though being so makes her permanent second fiddle. In return, Mary recognizes what a good friend she has in Rhoda.

Though Rhoda has her insecurities and jokes about her weight and single status, you get the impression that she’s actually very comfortable in her skin. Rhoda knows who she is and she likes that person. And then there is Phyllis Lindstrom.

MTM103Of all the MTM characters we’ve met so far, Phyllis is my least favorite. In a word, she’s annoying. That being said, I understand why she’s there. Phyllis is the opposite of Mary and Rhoda. They’re single independent women; she’s a mother and a wife. They have jobs; she has women’s clubs. In 1970, many women still stayed home, but more of them were opting to put off marriage and start careers, thanks to ladies like these two. “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now” gives us a glimpse of what life is like for Phyllis; “Assistant Wanted, Female,” offers a closer look.

Phyllis convinces Mary to hire her at the station after Mary lets it slip that she is looking for an assistant. Her first day on the job is a disaster; she insists that Mary refer to her as a “colleague” and spends all of her time with Ted.* Mary is still doing the job of two people, and refuses to fire Phyllis because, as she tells Lou, “Phyllis is really very insecure.”

*Of COURSE Ted and Phyllis get along.  I see this being a pretty good comic duo: Phyllis building up Ted’s confidence and Ted faltering. Filing this away as something to look for in future episodes.

Phyllis doesn’t last long as Mary’s “colleague”, but refuses to admit she was a lousy assistant. I understand that’s Phyllis’s nature, but it would have been nice to see her let her guard down a little bit. The audience knows that Phyllis is unsatisfied** in her life as a housewife; I just want to hear her admit it. Perhaps it will come.

**No I am not saying that being a housewife is an unsatisfying life – I’m saying it is for Phyllis. Despite her flaws, she is shown to have many interests outside the home, and with her daughter nearly a teenager and her husband constantly working, Phyllis is a lonely woman.

Our final character spotlight episode is “Anchorman Overboard” in which Ted loses his mojo after a disastrous presentation at Phyllis’s woman’s club

First of all, I can’t believe it took me twelve episodes to realize that Ted Baxter is totally the inspiration for Ron Burgandy. Guys, HIS DOG IS NAMED BAXTER. I am sorry, Internet. I’m not usually that slow. What can I say except…go fuck yourself, San Diego.

One will read anything you put in the teleprompter, the other can't properly pronounce most words. Both have egos the size of California.

One will read anything you put in the teleprompter, the other can’t properly pronounce most words. Both have egos the size of California.

While I came out of “Assistant Wanted, Female,” with a better understanding of Phyllis yet no sympathy, “Anchorman Overboard” succeeded in making me a fan of Ted. I 100% believe Ted Knight has everything to do with this, because on paper Ted Baxter is not a likable man. Knight’s performance in “Anchorman Overboard” convinced me that beneath all the bravado, Ted Baxter knows he’s not very good. He knows he’s not that smart and a frequent punching bag. Just like Phyllis he’s insecure; unlike Phyllis, he’s also very sweet.

This is also a good episode for Lou Grant. He takes Ted under his wing, telling Mary he would rather have a low-rated show with accurate news than have a high-rated show featuring Ted as a laughingstock. Lou Grant is a softie, y’all. He tries to hide it, but it’s seeping through more and more.

All of this character and relationship building culminates in “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II”, in which Mary learns she has to work on Christmas.

Disclaimer: I was destined to love this episode from the get go, simply because I know what it’s like to work a holiday. For a brief period of time, I worked at a newspaper and the first Thanksgiving spent in the newsroom was just awful. Unlike Mary, I wasn’t alone but the sad faux-Thanksgiving dinner with my coworkers was just depressing. Thanksgiving isn’t my favorite holiday, but it still sucked to be at work when the rest of the world was at home with their families. When Mary found out she had to work on Christmas, my heart went out to her. When she volunteered to cover for co-worker Fred and spend Christmas Eve in the newsroom alone, my heart just about broke.

But don’t despair, it’s not all sad. First of all, this episode has Lou Grant’s reacting to finding the world’s smallest Christmas tree on his desk:

christmas 1And second, the writers of MTM discovered the show’s core: Mary, Rhoda, Lou, Ted and Murray are a family. A simple concept, but until now, I felt like the writers were spinning their wheels, waiting for things to gel. They finally do here, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. Lou, Ted and Murray coming back to the newsroom to spend Christmas Eve with Mary is a moment fourteen episodes in the making.

If “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II” is where the gang at WJM starts to feel like family, “Party is Such Sweet Sorrow” cements it. The final episode on disc two has Mary nearly leaving her job at WJM to produce a new talk show for ladies, appropriately titled, “The Ladies Talk Show.” The job pays more, which Mary needs, but doesn’t come with Lou, Murray, and Ted, which Mary also needs. When Lou’s attempts to give Mary a raise fail,  he very sweetly he tells her, “You have to quit me.” The gang throws Mary the world’s most depressing going away party; Mary shows up six hours late and drunk as a skunk. She explains to Lou, “Everyone kept on buying me drinks, and I kept letting them because I didn’t want to come back here and say goodbye to all of you.” Lou saves the day in the end, threatening to quit himself if Mary isn’t given a raise. Of course I knew she wasn’t going to leave, but Lou’s gesture and the gang’s reaction to Mary staying is still emotionally satisfying.

Well played, MTM. You’ve won me over. Are you happy now?

This disc also has a few episodes revolving around Mary’s love life – “1040 or Fight”, in which Mary is audited and ends up dating her tax man; “He’s All Yours”, where Lou’s nephew starts working at the station and takes a liking to Mary; and “Howard’s Girl”, featuring Valerie Harper’s then real-life husband Richard Schaal as Mary’s new boyfriend. Of the three, the only one of note is “Howard’s Girl,” for the aforementioned Schaal. Here he plays Mary’s boyfriend, Paul. Previously he played Paul’s brother, Howard, in “Today I am a Ma’am,” and also plays the infamous Chuckles the Clown. Schaal is very charming and has a likable screen presence. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him as Paul.

However, the best episodes are the ones revolving around Mary’s new family – Rhoda and the gang at WJM.

Other thoughts:
– WJM sportscaster Gordy is my favorite side character so far. He’s only been in three episodes. In the first two, he just stood silently and looked annoyed. That would have been enough for me, but he finally gets some lines in “Party is Such Sweet Sorrow” and man can John Amos deliver a one-liner. His wry observations cracked me up, whether he was commenting on Mary showing up drunk: “It’s gonna be some party, baby!”, or his opinion of her bursting into tears: “She really picks up a party, doesn’t she?” More Gordy, please!
– Ted’s first dream was to be a male fashion model. I’d watch a show about that.
– Things sure have changed since 1970: In “1040 or Bust”, Rhoda makes a comment about the auditor making $20,000 a year. In “Howard’s Girl”, Lou Grant reveals Paul’s salary: $12,000. According to an online inflation calculator, this translates to $120,410 and $78,266, respectively.
– I want to be friends with Rhoda – she’s a great gift giver. Mary gets a rotisserie for Christmas! Sadly, I don’t think it will fit into her comically small kitchen.
-Most of these episodes feature a “step into my office” scene between Mary and Lou, which I understand becomes a show staple. I can see why – the two actors have great chemistry, and Edward Asner can do just about anything the writers throw him.

Murray Watch!
Here’s what we’ve learned about the mysterious Murray Slaughter thus far:
– His job is to write the news.
-He’s a good singer, as proven in “Christmas and the Heart-Break Kid II”, when they all sing Deck the Halls.
– He gives bad dating advice and can’t keep a secret.
– His wife’s name is Marie, and she’s the only woman he desires.

Life Lessons:
– You don’t laugh at a man when he’s wearing a tuxedo — Ted Baxter
– Delegating blame is the only way to avoid peptic ulcers — Lou Grant
– Hot milk tastes like hot milk. — Mary Richards
– Life is a long trail of leavings. — Phyllis Lindstrom
And finally:
-There’s no such thing as too many Christmas decorations for your desk. — Mary Richards

-There's no such thing as too many Christmas decorations at your desk. -- Mary Richards

That’s it for this week, folks!  Thanks for reading if you got this far. As I said in the beginning, the episode order is going to be cut from four to eight (the length of this post should be evidence enough of why), so next week we tackle the first half of season 1, Disc 3:
Just a Lunch
Second Story Story
We Closed in Minneapolis

Come back next Thursday. Until then, stay tuned!

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