Happy almost Halloween, Retrowatchers! It is getting to be that time of year – the leaves are changing, the afternoon sun is beautifully blinding, and a chill is in the air. It must be fall. I’m not really a Halloween person, but if I were, I think I’d dress up as Rhoda Morgenstern. I used to wear a do-rag in college, so all I’d need is some horrible 70s clothing and a baggy sweater to hide my figure. Throw in a New York accent and go around calling people “kid” and I’d have a Rhoda costume.
Either that or I’d try to find a replica of Mary’s awful bridesmaid dress.
Incidentally, if anyone reading this actually has a Mary Tyler Moore-themed costume, please send me pictures.
This week, we delve into the middle of MTM, season 2 and discuss episodes 13-16:
Episode 13: The Square Shaped Room
Episode 14: Ted Over Heels
Episode 15: The Five-Minute Dress
Episode 16: Feeb
One of the things I’ve been paying close attention to for this project is the writers. Television writers get a lot of credit these days (as well they should!) but that wasn’t always the case. The Internet makes it very easy to look up a writers bio, and also very easy to differentiate writer’s voices. This is not something I do with every single show I watch, but when the material is good enough, I make an effort to get to know certain writers.
The first time I remember doing this is in college when I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That writing comes from such a specific place, and I started noticing that while the overarching story was uniform, individually the writers emphasized different things and characters. I would always laugh a lot at a Doug Petrie episode right before getting hit in the gut. No one did whimsy like Jane Espenson, and her evolution of the character Jonathan from background extra to super villain was masterful. And I don’t think I even need to mention Joss Whedon. The trend of picking out writer’s nuances continued with Gilmore Girls, another show that has a very specific vision within a very specific setting. For better or worse, no one writes like Amy Sherman Palladino. Quite frankly, I don’t think the world could handle it. And when people try (I’m looking at you, husband Daniel), the outcomes are not always successful.
Once I got into the habit, I couldn’t help but notice when re-watching favorite shows from my childhood. Frasier’s Joe Keenan tells a farce like nobody’s business. I always know I’m in for a treat when I see his name in the credits. Alexa Junge started out on Friends (and wrote their best-ever episode) and went onto write for many of my favorite TV shows, including Sex and the City and The West Wing. Seeing her name is a guarantee for hip, fresh writing from a strong female point of view.
All that to say: these four episodes show the high highs and low lows of writing for television. Interestingly, episodes involving “lows” were written by writing teams. I’m not sure if that means anything. Everyone is allowed some missteps; I just found it notable. Let’s start with the highs.
Episode 13, “The Square Shaped Room,” contains everything we need for comedy gold: Lou Grant and Rhoda Morgenstern interacting. This combo has been put together more this season (see: “The Six-and-a-Half-Year Itch,” “I am Curious Cooper”) and it works well. Watching this episode – in which Mary convinces Lou to hire Rhoda to redecorate his living room* – I realized why they are such a good combination: Lou and Rhoda are from two different worlds, and the only reason they interact is because of Mary. Seeing their world views collide – while always funny – is also always interesting. Lou and Rhoda will never see things eye to eye; he’s too old school and she’s too new age. Case and point: their equally horrified reactions to Lou’s living room – Rhoda’s before redecorating and Lou’s after.
* I am all for supporting Rhoda, but what was Mary thinking suggesting her for the job? We’ve all seen Rhoda’s apartment!
The other reason this episode works well is because the stakes are relatively high. We know Rhoda’s had a tough time of it lately and could use a break, and we also know how important this redecoration project is to Lou as a means to moving forward now that his daughters are all grown. Lou and Rhoda are the show’s two strongest characters; we want Rhoda to succeed for the both of them. But of course, she doesn’t, as we knew she wouldn’t. And while I wouldn’t trade Lou’s reaction to seeing his new blindingly white, overly modern living room for the first time, I do wish it hadn’t come at Rhoda’s expense. Girl needs a win.
This episode was written by Susan Silver, who wrote a for a handful of series in the ’70s and early ’80s before moving onto journalism and radio, according to her Huffington Post profile. Her IMDB page says she was born in 1952, which would have made her all of 19 when writing for MTM. That alone is impressive, and even more so that all of her episodes I’ve seen so far (“A Friend in Deed,” “Room 223”, and “Is a Friend in Need”) have been among my favorites.
David Davis and Lorenzo Music wrote “Ted Over Heels,” the other successful episode in this batch. That I loved this episode should come as a surprise to no one, as it features our beloved Ted Baxter allowing himself to be vulnerable.
In the last entry, I wrote about the boyish vulnerability/charm of Ted, and that quality continues this week. More than anything, I’m impressed by the variety of situations the writers have been able to find for Ted where his vulnerability shows. So far he has failed publicly and gotten the yips (“Anchorman Overboard”), exposed his sibling rivalry ( “Cover Boy”), and has seriously feared for his job (“And Now, Sitting in for Tex Baxter”). This week: Ted falls in love with Chuckles the Clown’s daughter, Betty. Even though it’s love at first sight for Ted, he’s reluctant to make the relationship public. Mary witnesses this first hand when she spies them on a date together and Ted acts as if he doesn’t know Betty. Mary (and the audience) thinks that Ted is embarrassed to be seen with Betty, but in fact it’s just the opposite: Ted doesn’t think he’s good enough for Betty, and he’s afraid of getting hurt. He’s never allowed himself to fall in love before: “You don’t love somebody, you don’t get rejected,” he tells Mary.
Mary convinces Ted to open his heart – in a scene that cements their relationship from coworkers to friends – and he declares his love for Betty in his sweet Ted-like way. Because this is a sitcom and the only ongoing romantic relationship take place mostly off screen (Lou and Edie; Murray and Marie), I don’t think we will be seeing Betty again. However, I have it on good authority Ted eventually finds lasting love, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.
Ted and Mary’s quiet kitchen scene is the highlight of the episode because we see Ted let his guard down. For a few brief moments, we see a real man searching for answers, and not someone using false modesty to create an air of bravado. It’s only for a second, but it’s wonderful. Bravo, Ted Knight.
Also of note in this episode: Betty is played by Arlene Golonka, who really bounced around from one TV guest spot to the next in the ’70s and ’80s. IMDB offered this bit of trivia in her bio:
Appeared on the 1965 comedy album “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish”, which became a hit. Was unavailable to record its follow-up, “When You’re In Love The Whole World Is Jewish”, but recommended her (non-Jewish) roommate – Valerie Harper, thus beginning Harper’s career of playing Jewish characters, most notably Rhoda Morgenstern of “Mary Tyler Moore” (1970) and “Rhoda” (1974).
I think we should all thank Arlene Goloka for giving the world Valerie Harper. Thank you, Ms. Golonka!
Episodes 15 and 16 are, unfortunately, not much to write home about. Episode 15, “The Five-Minute Dress” centers around Mary getting repeatedly stood up by a man she meets at a Women for Better Government meeting, who happens to be the governor’s assistant. They make plans to meet and he cancels. This happens three times, the last time taking place mid-date. That’s all. We never meet the mysterious assistant, and Mary finally grows some self respect at the end of the episode and decides he’s not worth the trouble. The best part of the episode is Phyllis’ reaction to Mary dating a bigwig, and her narration of Mary’s almost date, from the chauffeur getting out of the car to them rounding the corner. I also liked seeing Rhoda and Phyllis interact without jumping down each others throats. Lately it seems they have made peace with one another – like Lou, Rhoda and Phyllis will never see eye to eye, but they have Mary in common, and do seem to care about each other in their own way.
The most disappointing thing about “The Five-Minute Dress” is it started out so promising with Mary realizing that she would like to be more involved with civic engagement. Lou, Murray, Ted, and Phyllis all do their part and she decides to take action. That’s a good story – a lot can be mined from that. Unfortunately, writers Pat Nardo and Gloria Banter take the easy way out and make it another one of Mary’s relationship stories.**
**One of the problems with a Mary relationship story is that we know it will never go anywhere. I’m not knocking that – I LIKE that Mary is an independent woman in her 30s, and there is a reason this show and this character are television classics. However, if you are going to establish that the focus of your main character won’t be her romantic life, then don’t bring in one romantic interest after another that won’t go anywhere. It just seems like a waste of story. Am I allowed to say I would like to see a little mini-relationship arc for Mary? I think I would. (Just as long as it’s not Howard Arnell.) Either that or stop with these episodic relationships already!
Episode 16, “Feeb” is another clunker that starts off promising: The gang takes Ted out for his birthday and have the worst service known to man. Mary’s complaint gets the waitress fired, and Mary feels so guilty about it, she hires the girl (Randy) as Lou’s assistant.
I had a lot of problems with this episode, the foremost being: Lou comes off as a sexist, misogynistic asshole. Yes, Lou is old fashioned, but as demonstrated in his relationship with Mary AND as his established role as a father of three girls, he’s not sexist. Yet in this episode, he may as well be Roger Sterling. His only requirement for an assistant is that she look good walking out of a room, and when Mary confesses that she’s been covering for Randy, he accuses Mary of being jealous. Who are you and what have you done with Lou Grant?
I also had a problem with the character of Randy. Tina Fey said it best in the 30 Rock episode “TGS Hates Women”, but I hate the stereotype of a women using her status as a ditz (either real or fabricated) to succeed. In the case of Randy, she relies on her looks to get by (which is fine), but also has no interest in bettering herself. She was a lousy waitress and is a lousy receptionist, and when Mary offers to teach her, she declines. What’s more, she kind of turns into a bitch when Mary no longer covers for her, accusing Mary of being jealous. (I think we can all agree: Mary shouldn’t be and isn’t jealous of anyone.) What started as a funny running gag – the ditzy waitress – turned into an unpleasant story in which no one came out looking good. Lou and Randy both showed their ugly sides, and Mary went from being an endearing softie to a complete pushover with no self respect.
“Feeb” was written by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, who went on to be a very successful husband and wife writing team. Together, they created Mama’s Family and The Facts of Life (which admittedly, are not to my comedy tastes), and also wrote for The Carol Burnett Show and Soap. Obviously they got the hang of comedy writing; this was their first MTM – lets assume they learned a few things before branching out. I’ll keep track of their episodes.
– James L Brooks named his Taxi characters Elaine Nardo and Tony Banta after Patricia Nardo and Gloria Banter, writers of “The Five-Minute Dress.” If they’re good enough for James L. Brooks, they’re good enough for me – I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for this misstep.
– Ted grows a mustache in “Ted Over Heels” in an attempt to look more sophisticated. No one at the station seems to like it (and neither does the 10% of the Minneapolis population who watch WJM News), but I kinda dug it. It made him look like Walt Disney.
– Mary and Rhoda are not impressed by Lou’s living room, but I think it looked okay. Am pretty sure I spotted a chicken lamp.
– Lou’s only requirement for the room is that he wants to keep his leather recliner. He used to sit in it waiting for his daughters to come home from dates, and there are fingernail gouges on the chair from when the girls stayed out after midnight. Is this where the Frasier writers got their idea for Martin’s chair?
– The WJM gang’s charitable actions: Lou belongs to the Mayor’s Commission on Crime and Violence, the Big Brothers of America and his homeowner’s association. Ted entertains troops with his ventriloquism act. Murray is on the health and welfare committee of his union.
1970s vs. Today:
– Lou mentions a food truck in “The Square Shaped Room.” Unless he means an ice cream truck or a delivery truck, I am stumped. Aren’t food trucks a new concept?
– Before deciding on Rhoda, Mary looks through a phone book to find a decorator for Lou. Remember phone books? (Kids, ask your parents.)
-Rhoda sells all of Lou’s furniture to a secondhand store for $175, and was charged $100 to take it away. Rhoda, I’d like to introduce you to a thing called Craig’s List.
-“I would never order a hamburger patty and cottage cheese. I hate cottage cheese. I don’t even like to get this close to cottage cheese. I don’t even like to say cottage cheese.” – Don’t give Lou cottage cheese, guys. You won’t like him when he gets cottage cheese.
– “Oh I didn’t know we had a club. Wait until my little brother hears about this.” – Ted Baxter discovers Big Brothers of America.
– “Mary you may not have noticed, but I don’t live in a window.” – Lou’s first reaction hiring Rhoda. Man’s got a point.
– “I’m not smiling, I’m squinting. All this white stuff is blinding.” – Lou’s second reaction to hiring Rhoda.
-“I’ll say it’s clean. I feel like I have to scrub up just to sit on this couch. This is supposed to be a living room. A living room. I’m walking around the rugs!” – Lou’s third reaction to hiring Rhoda.
– “Any day that starts with a leftover TV dinner for breakfast isn’t a good morning.” True dat, Lou. True dat.
– “If I bomb out, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I bombed out on my own.” – Rhoda Morgenstern
-“When a guy starts acting weird, tries to act sexy and borrows a rose, he’s either in love or trying to stay out of the army.” – Rhoda knows men, y’all.
And that’s it for this week. Sorry this week’s got a little cranky. Hopefully next week’s will be more high highs and less low lows. Up next:
The Slaughter Affair
More Than Neighbors
The Care and Feeding of Parents