Mid-week greetings, Retrowatchers. I apologize for the delay. Believe it or not, once I finally got the correct disc from Netflix, it arrived cracked and wouldn’t play! Thank goodness for Hulu, otherwise I would be even more behind schedule than I am already. The replacement disc (containing the next batch of episodes) arrived today. It appears to be fine so hopefully that is the end of weird technical difficulties.
Another side note before we begin: If it isn’t already obvious, I’ve been tinkering with how exactly to write this blog. When I watch Mary Tyler Moore, I take copious notes in an attempt to not miss funny or profound dialogue, notable guest stars, or interesting tidbits. As a result, it sometimes feels like I am just regurgitating the show back to you instead of doing any actual analyzing/critiquing. I’m not 100% sure how to steer Retrowatching in the direction I had anticipated when starting this project, but I think I will assume from now on that people have seen the episodes, and try to do less recapping and more critiquing. Thanks for your patience while I experiment.
With that in mind, let’s get started, finally! MTM, season 2, episodes 9-12. This includes:
Episode 9: And Now, Sitting in For Ted Baxter
Episode 10: Don’t Break the Chain
Episode 11: The Six-and-a-Half Year Itch
Episode 12: Is a Friend in Need
The two standout episodes in this batch are episodes 9 and 11. They both add more pathos to characters the audience has already embraced – Ted and Lou. In “And Now, Sitting in For Ted Baxter,” we learn that Ted has never taken a vacation, because he is terrified of what might happen when he is temporarily replaced. “The Six-and-a-Half Year Itch” reveals Lou to be an even more stand-up guy than we thought, and also gives us Edward Asner’s best performance to date.* In a way, we see Ted and Lou at their most vulnerable in these episodes – Ted as a man who sees his career slipping away, and Lou as the unfortunate witness of his son-in-law’s infidelity.
*In 1972, Asner won his second consecutive Emmy Award for the role, as well as a Golden Globe. If the awards back then worked the same way they do know – actors submit one episode per season – I bet he submitted this episode.
Let’s start with Ted. I’ve said before that the reason we love Ted Baxter has everything to do with Ted Knight’s performance. This is absolutely still true, but the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the childlike way Ted Baxter is written. It is reminiscent of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper (or more accurately, Sheldon Cooper is reminiscent of Ted Baxter), and I wonder if there is a character archetype for this. It’s not so much a man child, ala Judd Apatow characters, but males who view the world through a childlike lens. Sheldon and Ted are both people who would drive you crazy if you knew them in real life, yet are written with such childlike wonder and innocence, you can’t help but love them. Sometimes they go too far (Ted being too cheap for his own good; Sheldon’s constant condescension) but most of the time you see their naivete and almost pity their innocence.
The audience has already embraced Ted at this point, and it is nice to see that WJM does, too. (With the exception of Lou, who is all set to hire Ted’s replacement permanently. This is actually understandable – as the boss, he has to do what is right for the station and the new guy brought WJM from last place to second place in two weeks.) Mary feels awful for insisting Ted take a vacation once she sees the writing on the wall, and even Murray feels bad: “Ted fractures my copy. He’s incredibly cheap. But you know what bugs me most about him? I like him.” Murray is #TeamTed, y’all! This made me so happy. Fortunately for everyone at WJM (again with the exception of Lou), Ted’s job is safe. His replacement is offered another job.
There is nothing childlike about Lou Grant. He’s as grown up, bitter, and jaded as they come. Or so he would have everyone assume. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: Every time I think I couldn’t love Lou more, I’m wrong – the writers add another facet to his personality that takes the character to another level. More than once, I’ve heard Lou Grant be called one of the greatest television characters of all time, and am beginning to see how he’s earned that accolade.
I will be honest, when I saw the episode description for “The Six-and-a-Half Year Itch,” I groaned. It seemed like such a TV trope: Person A discovers person B is being unfaithful to Person C, who has some type of close relationship with Person A. Person A doesn’t know what to do with this information. In this case: Lou Grant runs into his son-in-law, Bill, at the movies. Bill is with a woman who is very much NOT Lou’s daughter. I am very happy to say my misgivings were incorrect, and we now have another contender for my favorite episode of the season.
Everything about this episode is letter perfect: Everyone’s discomfort at the movies (except for Rhoda, who is at the concession stand when the cat is out of the bag, and Bill’s date, who remains blissfully unaware); Rhoda’s reaction when she finds out what’s going on; Lou’s attempt to talk to his wife without letting on that something wrong; Mary and Lou having a very pithy “heart to heart” the next day; and most of all, the conversation between Lou and Bill. I mentioned before that I take notes while watching the episodes so as to not miss anything – this episode is nearly transcribed in my notes it’s so good.
That “The Six-and-a-Half Year Itch” is written by Treva Silverman is and isn’t a surprise. Not surprising: She wrote such a well-crafted, thoughtful episode. (See: “The Birds… And… Um… Bees.”) Surprising: In the early 70s, a woman wrote such a well-crafted, thoughtful episode from the viewpoint of a man.
Bill’s revelation to Lou is astounding for 1971: He intended to have an affair with the woman he brought to the movies. He still loves his wife, but everyone is having affairs these days, and Bill wanted to see what he was missing. Fortunately, he doesn’t go through with it- taking Lou’s presence at the movies as a sign. When Bill expects Lou to understand his position – after all Lou “is a man of the world,” Lou shocks Bill and the audience* by admitting he has never strayed from Edie:
“I guess I love her. I guess I love her. I figure there are enough things in life where you cop out and compromise and make excuses. There’s got to be one thing where you say, ‘is this the way it should be, yes or no?’ And if it matters enough so that it’s yes, then that’s what you do. I love her. So that’s what I do.”
*I was not shocked, but I understand this is meant to be a surprising fact about Lou.
One more notable thing about this episode: a very young Lawrence Pressman plays Lou’s son-in-law, Bill. Being the devoted Neil Patrick Harris fan I am, I immediately recognized him as chief of medicine Dr. Canfield from Doogie Howser. (Yes that link will take you to the SNL Doogie Howser theme song spoof. Any excuse, guys. Any excuse.)
Episode 9, “Don’t Break the Chain” contains another notable guest star. Gino Conforti (the original Fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof; The Barber in Man of La Mancha) plays a door to door salesman who calls on Mary after she send him a chain letter. There’s not much to say about this episode – Lou gets caught up in a get-rich-quick chain letter scheme and sends one to everyone at WJM. When Mary tries to opt out of it, Lou demands she participate. As a straight comedic half hour, it’s perfectly fine, if not their best effort. It’s another “every man loves Mary!” plot, which as you know are not my favorite.
The best scene doesn’t come until the end, when Roy Martini (Conforti) shows up to sell Mary new cookware just as she is about to go on a date with another chain letter recipient, Armond Lynton. (You may recall him from MTM‘s second episode, “Today I am a Ma’am,” as the newlywed Rhoda invited over to Mary’s for a date. Armond is now single and thrilled to hear from Mary.) Like any good salesman, Roy badgers his way in and sets up a demonstration for Mary, Armond and Rhoda. His demonstration, and the interplay between Roy and Armond, is the highlight of what is otherwise a ho-hum episode. It was very obvious to me that Conforti came from the stage – his movements are so precise, it was almost like watching ballet.
The final episode in this batch, “Is a Friend In Need,” hit just a bit too close to home for me. This isn’t a personal blog, so I won’t dwell on this too much, but I will say the timing of me watching the episode – in which Rhoda gets fired and begins the painful process of looking for a job – felt uncanny. I’m a federal employee who has been on furlough since October 1st, and so many things about this episode resonated for me, particularly Rhoda’s confidence and zest to “get things done” when it first happens, to her spending her days on the couch watching Mary’s teeny-tiny tv a few days later. (I’ve made a valiant effort not to spend my days in front of the TV and have been decently successful. But it has been a struggle, let me tell you.)
At its surface though, this is another episode about Mary and Rhoda’s friendship. Theirs needs to be tested every once in awhile, and I always enjoy when it is. This time, it’s Mary who screws up: When Rhoda sees there is an opening at WJM for an art director, Mary tells her the position has already been filled. She feels terrible about it, and eventually confesses to Rhoda. While I agree that it was a cruddy thing to do, I actually totally get Mary’s reasoning: she thought she would have to be responsible for Rhoda if Rhoda got the job, and was worried what it might do to their friendship. That’s fair – it reminds me of friends I love to death but with whom I would never, ever want to live. Rhoda gets it too, but lets Mary make it up to her by buying her lunch.
This was a very good batch of episodes – particularly “And Now Sitting in for Ted Baxter” and “The Six-and-a-Half Year Itch.” (Really I cannot say enough good things about the latter.) If I have to be furloughed, there are certainly worse ways to spend my time.
– With the exception of “The Six-and-a-Half Year Itch,” I watched these episodes on Hulu. While I am glad it was available, it was very jarring to a.) have commercials and b.) see the show in 3:4 ratio and not widescreen. Rhoda and Murray look a lot thinner, and Mary – who is thin in 16:9 – is a stick
– The inside of Ted’s dressing room contains a framed article from The Hollywood Express with the headline “Ted Baxter Wins Three Emmys,” (fake) signed photographs from Walter Kronkite and Khrushchev, and video tapes of all of his broadcasts.
– Weird foreshadowing: Lou doesn’t know what to do with himself with Edie out of town and Murray makes a comment about “computer dating.” There’s…no way that was going on in 1971. That settles it: Treva Silverman is a genius.
– The woman who plays Bill’s date is Elizabeth Berger, whose last credit is a 1980 TV movie called The Boy Who Drank Too Much. Scott Baio plays the title character. You can see a scene here. (Thank you, Internet!)
– Rhoda’s philosophy on cheating: “The usual place for a couple like that to go is somewhere dark and cornerish, right? Then the guy thinks, wait a minute, if I take her some place open and above board, people will say ‘Look it’s open and above board.’ So Mary, any time you see a couple in a place that’s open and above board, you gotta be sure that it’s closed and below board.” Amazingly, she is right – Bill tells Lou he took his date to the movies because it was “some place open and above board.”
1970 vs. Today:
-Rhoda’s unemployment check is $57/week. I can say with authority that it now ranges from $400-$450/week, at least in my area.
– Mary and Rhoda were originally going to see the new Fellini film before Lou joins them. They end up going to the new John Wayne one.
– Ted also has a “video tape setup” in his dressing room. I assume this is a VCR.
– Ted reveals his true feelings when he thinks he’s getting fired: “This is the greatest place I ever worked. Lou here yelled at me a lot but that’s only because he cares. Murray, well he’s really a fine news writer. And Mary. Mary’s the best there is.”
– Rhoda still thinks Mary is a Golden Person: “Mary, you gotta be the only girl in the world who can send out a chain letter and win a man.”
-Rhoda’s thoughts on being rushed out of the movies: “I’ve been leaving little trails of popcorn all the way home from the movies. It’s like Hansel and Gretel told in butter form.”
-“You’ve just reaffirmed my faith in human nature. … It’s nice to know everyone’s rotten. Up until now I thought you were one of the few holdouts.” – Lou Grant
– When you want to get rid of somebody, you say, ‘please leave, go away, get out of here.’ – Lou Grant, charming people since 1970
– It was actually Shakespeare who said “You can never go home again,” not Thomas Wolfe. – Ted Baxter
That will do it for this week. Thanks for your patience with my technical issues. Look for the next entry sometime this weekend, where we will discuss:
The Square-Shaped Room
Ted Over Heels
The Five-Minute Dress
And in case you haven’t seen these episodes but are still following along, I leave you with the aforementioned Lou Grant scene. Seriously, Asner has never been better.