Hello Retrowatchers! I hope some of you are still with me. I won’t bore you with the details for my absence, because that’s a pet peeve of mine on blogs, but let’s just say real life got in the way of my evening TV-studying time. Despite the lapse, I remain committed to this project.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive back into MTM season 2, shall we? This week, we discuss episodes 17-20, including:
Episode 17: The Slaughter Affair
Episode 18: Baby Sit-Com
Episode 19: More Than Neighbors
Episode 20: The Care and Feeding of Parents
Retrowatchers, I have to come clean. I’ve tried ignoring it. I’ve tried getting over it. But the truth must come out: I have a Murray problem. Or rather, the show does. The problem: Well, I don’t really like him. Wait. That may be too harsh. I don’t really ANYTHING him. He’s very bland. I’ve mentioned this before when discussing season one’s “The Boss Isn’t Coming to Dinner.” There are two main issues as far as I can see:
1.) Murray Slaughter is the nice guy who sits next to Mary in the newsroom. That’s it. He’s not the star of the show. He’s not the boss. He’s not the vain newscaster, or witty weatherman.* He’s not Mary’s best friend or annoying-yet-well-intentioned upstairs neighbor. He’s a nice guy who writes the news, and has a stable life with a nice wife and a couple of kids. If TV characters were real, we’d all want to be Murray Slaughter. Unfortunately, nice, normal guys in supporting roles do not usually make for interesting characters.
2.) Please don’t throw garbage at me, but: Gavin MacLoed is…well…he could be better. There, I said it! MacLoed seems to have trouble delivering his lines convincingly. At least to my ear. It could just be the way he talks, but he SEEMS to EMPHASIZE every WORD or AT LEAST every OTHER word. I used to think it was curious that we haven’t had many Murray-centric episodes. We’ve probably had more storylines about Phyllis, and she is technically a “special guest” and appears in maybe 2/3 of the episodes. But now I’m thinking the writers recognized their weak link. It’s surprising, because this is one of the best ensemble casts in TV history. But I suppose for every Niles Crane, Sheldon Cooper, and Schmidt, you must have a Roz Doyle, Raj Koothrappali, and Cece Parekh.**
* Gordy! I miss that man. I know his time is limited, but please bring Gordy back soon, writers!
** He still has the most ridiculous plot lines, but now that Raj has the ability to speak to women, my issues with his character have decreased vastly. And for the record, that is not a slight to the actor – I think Kunal Naayar does a great job with what he’s given – it’s just not always the best material.
Take “The Slaughter Affair.” We have a good set up: Murray takes a second job as a cab driver to save enough money to buy Marie a new car for their 10th wedding anniversary. This affects his work and home life, as he’s too tired during the day to write the news, and his late nights make Marie suspect he’s having an affair. That’s a good story. It’s been done before, of course, but the writing is solid. But the most interesting thing about this Murray-centric episode is the impact his situation has on everyone else: Mary and Ted cover for him – Mary by checking his copy before it goes to the news desk, and Ted for catching the typos that Mary missed. (“I usually try to catch your typos but once in awhile one slips by me. I’m not perfect you know.“ #TeamTed!) Rhoda discovers his secret life as a cab driver when he picks her up for a fare. (It’s awkward.) Once Lou finds out, he has to be the bad guy and tell Murray to quit his night job or be fired from his day job. And poor Marie thinks Murray’s affair is with Mary.
To make matters worse, we learn that Murray maybe isn’t the happily married man he claims to be. The way Murray tells it, his romantic gesture is really just to get Marie off his back. Adding insult to injury, he is appalled when Marie thinks he is having an affair with Mary – not for his sake, but for Mary’s: “How could she think that YOU would do a thing like that?” he asks her. I had long suspected that Murray had a crush on Mary, but it didn’t feel satisfying to have my suspicions confirmed. In fact, it felt kind of gross. As for Murray’s denial:
Mary: Why does she think it’s me?
Murray: I don’t know, who else is there? Besides she said I talk about you all the time. You know it must be hard for a wife to understand that her husband and a single woman can be just friends.
As a single woman who has always had a lot of male friends that are either married or in relationships, I can safely assert that while this IS possible, it is also a VERY a delicate balance. There are things you don’t do, and things you make sure the man doesn’t do (because let’s be honest: men are often oblivious). One thing the man doesn’t do: Constantly talk to his wife about his terrific single female friend. For shame, Murray!
Let’s move on shall we?
Last entry I talked about the importance of writers, and getting to know certain voices over the course of a series. I knew I was in for a treat with “Baby Sit-Com”, because it was written by my favorite MTM scribe, Treva Silverman. Conversely, I wasn’t sure what to expect with “The Care and Feeding of Parents”, because it was written by Jenna McMahon and and Dick Clair, who brought us “Feeb.” You may recall I was not a fan. The results? About what I expected.
Silverman’s “Baby Sit-Com” gives us a combination I never thought I’d see, and now would like more of: Lou Grant and Bess Lindstrom. Bess is a bit of a problematic character on the show. Not Murray-level problematic, but what you would expect from a teenage character: The actress is still learning her craft and is a bit stiff. Fortunately, MTM writers mostly know how to use Lisa Gerritsen.* She does well with Moore – ironically, her relationship with Mary is more believable than her relationship with Phyllis – and Ed Asner has a knack for bringing out the best in his scene partners.
*Here’s a bit of a mind-blower: According to her Wikipedia page, Gerritsen is now 55. Seeing her permanently captured on film as a 12-year-old girl, this is very hard to imagine.
This is another good sitcom set up (if there is one thing I can say about this batch of episodes, it is that they all have strong base story lines) – Phyllis asks Mary to watch Bess for the weekend so she and Lars can attend a “group marathon”. (AKA, a couples retreat, which seems like code for couples counseling. Sometimes I wonder what exactly goes on in the Lindstrom household.) After an old boyfriend comes into town for one night only, Mary finds herself desperate for a babysitter. Enter Lou Grant, who is desperate for a working television on which to watch his highly anticipated boxing match.
While I did wonder why Bess needs a babysitter (she’s 12, presumably old enough to stay by herself for a few hours), and why the man who raised three daughters has so much trouble communicating with a preteen girl, their evening together is a hoot. They watch a two-second boxing match, bake cookies, play cards, and fall asleep on the couch. Add in a precocious 11-year-old girl sent from the babysitting service Mary initially calls, and you’ve got yourself another winner. We’re not talking “The Birds..and…umm…Bees” or “The Six-and-a-Half Year Itch”, but a solid outing from Silverman.
“The Care and Feeding of Parents” was for the most part, a pleasant surprise, despite my previous misgivings with MacMahon and Clair. They haven’t won me over yet – there were still some issues- but overall, this was vast improvement over “Feeb.”
Here’s what I have noticed about MacMahon and Clair from their two episodes: They are very skilled at writing jokes. Their set ups and deliveries are masterful (take a look at the video below to see an example) and they have – for lack of a better term – comedy writing balls.
The problem MacMahon and Clair have at this stage is that they don’t know how to bring out the best in characters. In this episode, Bess writes a satirical essay for school about “the care and feeding of parents,” and Phyllis asks Mary to use her “connections” (the building Mary works in is owned by a publishing company) to get the essay published in a teen publication. While this episode has plenty of zingers, it also highlights the more annoying characteristics of Mary and Phyllis. Mary is at ultimate pushover levels, and Phyllis is as overbearing as she’s ever been – not only to Mary, but to Bess!* When Lou tells Mary the two paragraph essay is too short for any publication, Phyllis decides to turn it into a book. She won’t stop pestering Mary, and makes Bess work on the book 24/7. (And let’s be honest – Phyllis probably doesn’t want Mary’s opinion on a piece of writing, considering Mary’s writing skills are pretty terrible.)
*While watching this episode, I thought about all the therapy Bess Lindstrom is going to need as an adult. The only person I can think of with worse TV parents is Sally Draper. Well, and Namond from The Wire, but he at least gets out. (Shoutout to Bunny Colvin!)
That said, the writers do manage to do right by the Bess, Mary and Phyllis in the end. While going to Mary for advice on how to handle Phyllis’s latest obsession, Bess shows great insight into her mother. Despite Phyllis’ overbearing nature, Bess loves her mother, and would do anything for her: “For a person with Phyllis’s intelligence and creativity, being just a housewife can get pretty humdrum,” Bess explains. (Not going to lie, I found that to be an extremely satisfying revelation, as I’ve thought this about Phyllis since the pilot.) Phyllis, for her part, relents immediately once she is told that Bess isn’t interested in continuing the project. And Mary gains some insight into parental enthusiasm after she sees one of Bess’ paintings and tells Bess she could go pro.
Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that my favorite episode from this bunch is the Ted-centric “More Than Neighbors”, in which Ted learns of a vacancy in Mary’s building and decides to move in. This was written by Steve Pritzker, who also wrote the charming “Second Story Story” and Ted-centric “And Now, Sitting in for Ted Baxter,” among others. I was not surprised to enjoy this episode as much as I did after seeing his past credits. This is an episode that gets name checked on various TV blogs, and while I don’t know that it is an instant classic, it IS pretty darn good.
Despite Lou’s best efforts to warn Mary that Ted is house hunting, Ted learns of the vacancy. Despite Rhoda’s best efforts to dissuade him, Ted decides to move in, and property manager Phyllis* is only too happy to take him as the newest tenant.
*I KNEW IT! Second Phyllis suspicion confirmed in as many episodes!
Mary is beside herself. Ted convening a meeting in Lou’s office with Phyllis and his lawyer (a sophomore law school student, of course) to sign the lease is the least of her problems:
Mary: Do you know that he asked me if I use all of my morning newspaper?
Lou: I wonder what for? He doesn’t read.
Mary: It’s for his dog. Then he asked me for my phone number so he can give it out to his friends for when he’s not home. And he would like me to answer, “Mr. Baxter’s residence” using an English accent.
Mary is so distraught that Lou takes pity on her and talks Ted out of moving by using Ted’s greatest weakness against him: his frugality. All hail Lou Grant! As much fun as it might be to see Ted, Mary, and Rhoda gabbing about their love lives over cremes de menthe (creme de menthes?), it’s better for Mary’s sanity that she and Ted remain simply coworkers and friends.
-Marie tells Mary that while Mary may think of her as a naive housewife, she knows what goes on in newsrooms. As someone who worked in a newsroom for a little over a year, I say…no comment.
– Mary knows how to treat a 12-year old. Their agenda for the weekend: Go to the carwash, go horseback riding, go the park to identify flora and fauna for Bess’s science report, go to store for cookie supplies, and bake said cookies. How exciting! (Rhoda, upon seeing the list, tells Bess, “I haven’t identified a fauna in lord knows how long.” Bless you, Rhoda.)
– As I said, Mary calls a babysitting agency before Lou comes over. You you know what she should’ve done: Need a babysitter? Save time! Call The Babysitter’s Club, and reach seven experienced sitters! (And also, parents of daughters: go to a used book store and start collecting The Baby-Sitters Club series. They will love you for it, I promise.) (Also, I still know the words to that theme song. Why? Why do I know these things?)
– Continuity fail: Bess waits for Mary in Lou’s office in “The Care and Feeding of Parents” and when Lou walks in he asks her, “Don’t I know you?” I should say so, Lou – you babysat her two episodes ago!
-Continuity win: Lou won’t take the essay to Snyder Publishing because he’s waiting to give them the book we learned about in season one – his novel based on his 1958 Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal experiences.
– Phyllis ends up renting the apartment to five airline stewardesses. Rhoda is appalled.
-Speaking of Phyllis,( and the aforementioned “comedy writing balls”) I think she may have gone a bit too far with one of her barbs. I actually gasped when she said the following. Not cool, Phyllis! (Though the look on Rhoda’s face almost makes up for it.)
1970s vs Today:
– Rhoda suggests renting the empty apartment to Robert Redford. I thought it seemed a little early for a Redford reference, but in 1972, he had already done Barefoot in the Park and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Just till next year, Rhoda. 1973 will bring The Way We Were and The Sting.
-The supposedly roomy empty apartment rents for $225, and is considered expensive. Mary pays $125 and Rhoda, $87.50.
-“You want to make cookies? You go get a box of cookies, You get a plate. Boom boom boom, you made cookies.” – Lou Grant’s Guide to Baking
– “I’ll send my bill to your accountant. Is he still going to Wilson High?” – Ted Baxter’s attorney, Michael Lee. Incidentally, Lee is played by Jack Bender, who went on to become a prolific and Emmy-winning television director, as well as an executive producer on Lost.
– “Do anything you want kid, just don’t play with matches.” – Lou Grant’s Guide to Babysitting
– Consider adding shoe shines to your expense accounts, gentleman. After all, if your shoes look dull, you probably feel dull. – Ted Baxter
And that’ll do it for this week, folks. Thanks to all who came back after my unplanned hiatus. Next week, we close out season two(!) with:
– Where There’s Smoke, There’s Rhoda
– You Certainly are a Big Boy
– Some of My Best Friends are Rhoda
– His Two Right Arms