Retrowatchers, we’ve arrived at season two of Mary Tyler Moore, and the moment of truth. Generally, the second season is when a show reveals its true colors: Was the first season a fluke? Do these characters have longevity? Will the audience remain invested? Will it be a sophomore slump or prove itself to be a success? Something tells me that MTM will hold up – after all it’s not like I’ve chosen historically BAD shows to watch. But you never know – let’s find out. This week, MTM season 2, episodes 1-4.
Before we begin, I have confess something: It took me 26 episodes to realize that the actor who plays Gordy, John Amos, also plays Admiral Fitzwallace on The West Wing. I KNOW! Total failure on my part. I kept on seeing his name in the credits and thinking it looked familiar. And he has a pretty distinctive voice. It wasn’t until I looked him up to see if he has more of a regular role in season two that I came across this bit of information. (Spoiler alert: He does not. We’ll just have to relish our sporadic Gordy appearances, readers.)
Not only was he everyone’s favorite presidential adviser on The West Wing, John Amos was in Roots* (playing the older version of Kunta Kinte) and was a regular on Good Times for a few seasons. This whole time I’ve been watching MTM thinking, man that guy is funny. I wonder what happened to him after this show. I had no idea he went on to star in the most famous miniseries of all time and several successful television shows. I would feel silly for not knowing, except that learning stuff like this is the reason why I started Retrowatching. So, mission accomplished.
Though I still wish Gordy had become a series regular. Dude is hilarious.
*In preparing to write this blog, I watched a few Roots trailers to see if there were any good John Amos scenes I could embed. There aren’t – Roots is a pretty tightly held commodity – but this trailer is both a good summation and a reminder that Edward Asner is also in the miniseries. Seriously, Ed Asner? What don’t you do?
Now that that’s out of the way: On with the show!
Season two comes back swinging with the premiere, “The Birds.. And.. Um… Bees.” I loved this episode. We begin with Rhoda and Phyllis congratulating Mary on her first news documentary, “What’s Your Sexual IQ?” The ladies have different reactions to the program – Phyllis insists it was very educational and her whole family enjoyed the program; Rhoda calls it boring: a non-controversial controversy show. Eventually, Phyllis asks Mary if she would have THE TALK with her daughter, Bess (remember Bess?). Poor Phyllis feels completely unequipped to have a facts of life talk with her daughter: “Handled incorrectly, it could affect my little Bess for the rest of her life!” No pressure, Mary.
For reasons unbeknownst to anyone, Mary agrees. The morning of THE TALK, Phyllis is mourning the loss of her daughter’s innocence. Credit where credit is due, Cloris Leachman kills it here. It’s too good not to share.
As it turns out, Phyllis has nothing to worry about – her Bess knows all about the birds and the bees. As she tells Mary, she learned from her friend: “At first I didn’t believe her, but Stephanie Weitzer backed her up. So we talked it over and took a vote on it and voted it was true.”
What Bess really wants to know about is love. She’s been going steady with a boy for quite some time now and little Howie says he loves Bess. Bess wants to love Howie back, but she’s worried that being in love equals having sex. Eighth-grader Bess isn’t ready for that. Mary reassures her that sex is NOT a requirement for being in love – they are two separate things and Bess can be in love with Howie without having sex with him. It’s a really sweet character note for Mary, and a pretty awesome moment for the show. As I’ve said before I am not by any means a TV expert, but MTM had to be one of the first shows to address the topic of teen sex, or sex at all in any serious context. They don’t really dance around it either – sure there are jokes and some euphemisms for the act, but the show also argues that being direct is the best way to handle the topic. Remember kids, this was 1971, the height of The Brady Bunch. All in the Family had only just started. So I assume this was relatively uncharted territory. Bravo, MTM! THAT is starting a season off strong.
Then there is episode two, “I am Curious Cooper.” Unfortunately, it dips a little bit in quality. (Then again, any episode following such a strong season opener would probably fall short.) “I Am Curious Cooper gives us a requisite “Mary dates someone” storyline, with a slight twist: The “someone” happens to be Lou’s best friend, Mike Cooper. Mary and Mike have developed a phone relationship over the year Mary’s worked for WJM-TV, and both are interested in a meeting. The problem is Lou – he doesn’t do set ups. In college he set up his best friend with a girl, they got married and had a horrible relationship. “I can’t run the risk of ruining Mike Cooper’s life by introducing him to you,” he tells Mary.
The plot goes where you would expect: Lou eventually agrees to an introduction because Mary and Mike “are two of [his] favorite people. It just feels right.” Of course he gets way too invested in their relationship, determined to see them walk down the aisle. For the sake of Lou, Mary and Mike try to make it work, but after several dates they finally admit to each other that neither finds the other person attractive. They break the news to Lou, who does not take it well.**
The one thing I can’t really get over here is the slight ick factor with Lou. He drops by Mary’s apartment to tell her that he will set her up with Mike, and then tells her how to dress to impress. Let’s all remember: this is Mary’s boss. I cannot imagine any boss I’ve ever had a.) setting me up with someone, b.) stopping by my apartment, or c.) telling me what clothes make me look sexy. I know it’s television and WJM has always been shown as more of a family than a work unit but still: Ew.
Not to mention that when Mike tells Mary she’s not his type, she was looking super cute:
**I am again reminded of an early episode of Friends, “The One with The Thumb,” where the gang is smitten with Monica’s boyfriend who she eventually finds completely unattractive. Hmm. I see a theme here – this is the second time in two weeks. I’ll have to watch for more similarities between Friends and MTM. I don’t doubt that one influenced the other.
The less said/thought about this the better. Let’s move on, shall we?
“He’s No Heavy, He’s My Brother,” the third episode of season two, is not particularly complex. Forced on vacation in the middle of winter, Rhoda and Mary decide on Mexico, but the resort they wanted is full. Gustavo, owner of the new Mexican restaurant in town, offers to make arrangements for the girls and in return asks them to deliver a package. Of course, Mary and Rhoda think the package contains drugs or a weapon of some sort, and their suspicions are not assuaged after hearing Gustavo’s message: “Gustavo says to think of him when you light what’s inside.”
Turns out it’s only a set of candles commemorating the Twin Cities – a piece of Gustavo’s new home for his fiance, Pilar. All is well that ends well. Gustavo comes by Mary’s apartment to tell her she doesn’t need to deliver the gift (Pilar has since married his brother, hence he episode’s title) and Mary admits their reluctance. He’s not offended, and the girls get to go on their Mexican vacation.
It is a typical sitcom farce story, and would be ordinary if the writing weren’t so darn funny. Rhoda and Gordy in particular on on their game, whether it’s Gordy’s reaction to a WJM employee’s tan from a recent vacation …
Murray: How would you like to have a tan like that?
Gordy: Big deal.
… Or Rhoda thinking the Aztec sun god on Mary’s brochure for Puerto Lorenzo, Mexico, is someone from her mother’s Floridian vacations:
Rhoda: I remember her. She’s the woman who played cards with my mother by the pool!
It seems an almost dumb observation to make – that in the hands of a lesser show these episodes would be ordinary – but isn’t the only thing differentiating stories from each other their quality? The basic plot of any story is one that’s already been told – its success is all in the execution.
On that note, I would submit that episode four, “Room 223,” is the most successful execution of the “Mary dates someone” storyline thus far in the series.
After being unable to successfully cover for Murray when he has to leave mid-broadcast, Mary decides to take action to become a better assistant producer. She feels she is making it on her personality and not her ability. (Rhoda: “That’s a problem I never had.”) Phyllis suggests she take a college course, and Mary and Rhoda enroll in a journalism class. (Rhoda’s reason: Mary is a golden person with a fairy godmother, and she intends to stick by Mary to reap some of the rewards.)
The first day of class, her teacher, Mr. Whitfield, is impressed that Mary has on the job experience and is looking to further her career. Mary takes this to mean she should interject her Real Life Experience into his lecture – it’s all very awkward and funny, vintage Mary Tyler Moore (the actress) comedy. Despite annoying the rest of the class, Mr. Whitfield – Dan – is charmed by Mary, and the two begin dating.
It’s another low-stakes episode: the biggest problem being Mary’s first paper only earns her a C+. Dan explains he is grading her on a different scale than the other students, as she is a professional: “A C is average, and that’s what you are right now – an average professional.”
The highlight of the episode, besides the chemistry between Mary and Dan (played by Michael Tolan – an actor whose name sounds really familiar and I’m not sure why) is Lou guest lecturing for the class. It goes exactly how one would expect: “Good news writing is getting the facts, getting them fast, and presenting them well.” End of lecture. How very Ron Swanson of him.
I appreciated this episode because it shows Mary as not a “golden person”, but as someone who struggles in her professional life and decides to better herself. I love that she cares so much. As far as romantic interests go, Dan is the most promising bachelor we’ve seen so far. I hope we see more of him in the future.
– “The Birds… And… Um.. Bees” was written by Treva Silverman, whose name stuck out to me as a female writer on a television show in 1971. She wrote 16 episodes total for MTM, including season one’s “Today I am a Ma’am”, “Assistant Wanted: Female”, “Divorce Isn’t Everything”, “Howard’s Girl”, and “Hi!” Silverman has experience writing for Phyllis, so it makes sense that this is the best Phyllis episode to date. She’s also listed on IMDB as the uncredited writer for Romancing the Stone. TV writer/blogger Ken Levine wrote a lovely tribute to Ms. Silverman here. Take a look – it’s a good read. I tip my hat to you, Ms. Silverman. Way to pave the way for future female writers.
-Mary can’t seem to get away from the aftermath of “What’s Your Sexual IQ.” The next day there’s a barrage of phone calls for her. The results: Nine calls in support of the show, 14 against, and 13 obscene.
-The gang’s results on the sexual IQ test: Rhoda – an embarrassing 47; Lou: 90; Mary: 88. Lou and Mary get docked points for wearing flannel pajamas to bed.
– Evidently Mary does Phyllis’ grocery shopping, as seen in the season premiere. What exactly does Phyllis do all day? It’s no wonder she has several college course catalogs at the ready in “Room 223.”
– A running joke in “I am Curious Cooper,” is Rhoda constantly calling Lou “Lou” vs. Mary’s “Mr. Grant.” Mary and Lou’s unnerved reaction to Rhoda’s casualness never gets old.
– I would totally go on vacation with Rhoda. Mary, I’m not so sure about, but I bet Rhoda would be a blast. We’d pretend to be different people, sneak into parties, and end up on a boat somewhere.
– Ted’s role seems to be reduced somewhat after getting a couple of spotlight episodes in season one. He’s the go-to joke guy, and bless Ted Knight, he nails it every time. My favorite in this batch of episodes is in “Room 223.” In a classic teleprompter blunder, Ted says, “I’ve just been handed a bulletin. You’ve have something on your front tooth.” Just thinking about it has me laughing again.
– The theme music has changed. It’s now a more flowery version of “Love is All Around.” It’s okay – I like that it includes the famous lyrics, “who can turn the world on with her smile,” but I miss the big band feel of season one.
– My only complaint about “The Birds… And.. Um… Bees?” Phyllis wears the most AWFUL dress I’ve seen on the show. Good lord woman. What were you thinking?
– He always keeps a dummy lunch bag at his desk in case Ted asks him to lunch. Poor Ted. #TeamTed
– His job during the newscast is to take anything over the wire, write it up and get it to Ted. It’s harder than it seems, as Mary learns in “Room 223.”
-He can’t be objective with Mary, as is demonstrated in “Room 223.” Everything she does is “terrific,” even her C+ paper. It would be annoying if it weren’t so cute. I like Murray and Mary.
-The way to find out whether or not the boss is in: When Murray’s feet are up on his desk, Lou’s out. When they’re not, Lou’s in.
– He tells Mary to prepare to be disappointed in Mike Cooper. Before coming to WJM-TV, he only knew Ted by his voice on the phone. #TeamTed
1970s vs Today:
– The entire episode of “The Birds… And… Um… Bees. See above.
– Mike Cooper’s $50,000 a year salary is very impressive. He’s a big shot lawyer. This translates to roughly $288,000 today. Well. I’d say impressive!
– Speaking of Mike, that he has a phone in his car is a big deal. Aww guys. Remember car phones?
– Lou wants a helicopter with a TV camera. It’s the newest technology and he’s angry that the board won’t allow him to have one.
– The resort Mary and Rhoda initially look into is $12/day. You read that correctly.
“I figured if I was frozen, I’d keep better.” – Rhoda’s logic in moving to Minneapolis.
– Obscene phone callers aren’t as patient as they used to be. – Gordy.
– Don’t teach your child the facts of life from a nature book. According to Rhoda, “It just confused me. I sort of ended up thinking I had to swim up the Columbia River.”
– Gordy’s take on teaching kids about sex: “If they haven’t shown it on Sesame Street, it may not be worth knowing.” Actually not a bad thought.
-Dating advice from Lou Grant: “Giving it a chance takes time, Mary. Mrs. Grant and I have been giving it a chance for 26 years. We know one of these days it’s going to work out.”
– Vacation tips from Gordy: St. Louis is much better in the winter than it is in the summer.
– Ted explains the scientific facts of tanning: Working in the dark room, one won’t get as faded as if you worked in the light all the time.
– “You don’t learn from books!” – Lou Grant, inspiring journalism students since 1971.
And that’s all for this week. This was a tough one – We’re reaching a point where the show has hit its stride, and it’s hard to say anything other than “it was really funny”, or make a list of all the jokes. I’ll keep plugging away though, and I hope you keep reading.
A Girls Best Mother is Not Her Friend
Didn’t You Used to Be … Wait… Don’t Tell Me
Thoroughly Unmilitant Mary