Happy Thanksgiving, Retrowatchers! I hope you all had a lovely holiday. This year, I am thankful for my renewed interest in writing and blogging, Netflix’s massive DVD library (and Hulu, when the DVDs arrived damaged), all of you who read Retrowatching, and of course, for Mary, Ted, Rhoda, Lou, and Phyllis*, James Burrows, Allan Burns, Treva Silverman, Martin Cohen, Steven Pritzker, and everyone else associated with the great Mary Tyler Moore.
*Ok, fine, in the spirit of the holidays, I can be thankful for Murray, too.
We’ve arrived at the end of season two. It’s been a long journey, and not necessarily as easy as season one, but I’d say overall it was a good season. We learned a little more about the kind of man Lou is in “The Six-and-a-Half-Year Itch.” Bess Lindstrom became a real character, had some wonderful scenes with Mary, held her own with Lou, and reminded us that Phyllis always means well. Rhoda continued to be her awesome self (with one exception, to be discussed shortly). Ted remained Ted, as he should, but we learned a bit about his upbringing and his insecurities in “Cover Boy”, “And Now, Sitting in for Ted Baxter”, and “Ted Over Heels.” And Mary continued to be a pushover just on the brink of annoyance, and a Golden Person.
Perhaps most surprising of all (at least to me), is that Phyllis got several chances to shine, particularly in the last third of the season. You may recall Phyllis was a character I took issue with almost immediately. One of the strengths of season two is the reassessment of her character. She’s still the Phyllis we first met – selfish, generally irresponsible, out of touch, and overcompensating – but she’s also more. Despite her unconventional ways, she is a good mother with her daughter’s best interest at heart. She’s also a good friend – not only to Mary, but I would argue also to Rhoda. (See: Their shared excitement for Mary’s big date in “The Five-Minute Dress” and her genuine looking out for Rhoda’s career in “The Square-Shaped Room”). Phyllis was used frequently in season two, and consequently, she HAD to become more than just the nosy and slightly annoying downstairs neighbor. I’m not going so far as to say that she is among my favorites, but she’s come a long way. I can see the beginnings of the character development that eventually lead to a spinoff.
So how does season two go out? Let’s find out. This week, we discuss episodes 21-24, including:
Episode 21: Where There’s Smoke, There’s Rhoda
Episode 22: You Certainly Are a Big Boy
Episode 23: Some of My Best Friends are Rhoda
Episode 24: His Two Right Arms
Let’s start with the bad so as to end on a high note: “His Two Right Arms.” Eesch. It’s a thinly-disguised backdoor pilot featuring Bill “Major Healey” Daily as the new, extremely incompetent city councilman, Pete Peterson. Mary recruits him for her Sunday talk show, Face The People, before realizing he has no business answering questions in front of a live audience. The episode was written by Jim Parker and Arnold Morgolin, two writers whose IMDB profiles are not particularly impressive. They also don’t seem to overlap, so I don’t know if MTM Enterprises teamed them up on a whim or if they called it quits after the failed pilot. The episode also features Isabella Sanford as the mother of one of one of Peterson’s staffers. She’s mostly wasted. (She got her successful spinoff three years later with The Jeffersons.)
I knew something was off when we were introduced to Peterson’s headquarters and his staff well before Mary arrived. Knowing that the show doesn’t suddenly go from a newsroom to a councilman’s office, I wondered why we were spending so much time with these characters. Second tip: The dialogue. After two seasons, MTM has an established tone, and this isn’t it. Even the dialogue in “Feeb” is better than this:
Staffer Girl 1: So then what are you going to do tonight?
Staffer Girl 2: Oh I’ll either go out with a fantastic man to dinner and a movie, or if I don’t meet one, I’ll just go home and clean the oven.
And imagine, the show didn’t get picked up!
There’s not much else to say about “His Two Right Arms,” except that Bill Daily’s performance as a fumbling politician isn’t terrible. Evidently MTM agreed, as Daily was cast* in a similar role that fall as the “the friendly but inept neighbor”** Howard Bordon in The Bob Newhart Show.
*My guess is that Daily had some type of deal with MTM Enterprises or CBS and when “His Two Right Arms” flopped, he was given The Bob Newhart Show.
**Character description from Wikipedia -I’ve never seen the show. Am not sure it will make the Retrowatching list, as Newhart is someone I respect but for whom a little goes a long way.
Shake it off, Retrowatchers. Shake it off. Let’s get back to the ACTUAL Mary Tyler Moore show.
Speaking of unsuccessful backdoor pilots*, “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Rhoda” and “You Certainly Are a Big Boy” were both written by Martin Cohen. Cohen isn’t quite up to Silverman status as an MTM writer, but he has yet to deliver a bad episode. Remember when Lou read the news in “Thoroughly Unmilitant Mary?” Cohen. Mary’s anguish at leaving WJM in “Party is Such Sweet Sorrow?” Cohen. These two are no different.
*As previously established, Martin Cohen is the co-creator of Who’s the Boss, a show that had a whopping THREE backdoor pilots: “Charmed Lives” airing at the end of season two and featuring Fran Drescher, “Mona”, airing in the show’s third season, and “Living Dolls”, in season five. Of the three, “Living Dolls” made it to series, though it only lasted 12 episodes. I don’t remember “Charmed Lives” but I DO remember “Mona” and “Living Dolls,” the latter because it starred a young Leah Remini as a friend of Sam’s who goes to New York to become a model (hence, the title). Not sure why I remember “Mona” – the episode revolves around Mona’s brother buying a hotel and asking Mona to help him run it. Maybe because there are flashbacks to Mona’s childhood? Either way, it’s memorable. Both “Living Dolls” and “Mona” are good episodes in my head -certainly better than “His Two Right Arms”- but I saw them when I was a kid, so who knows?
While they are both good, “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Rhoda” is the stronger episode. Rhoda’s apartment catches on fire and Mary opens her apartment up to Rhoda until it can be repaired. A match made in heaven right? Wrong! Rhoda and Mary make excellent best friends, but terrible roommates. Well, let’s be fair: Rhoda is a terrible roommate. You know I love Rhoda Morgenstern, but it’s the truth. She’s messy, she stays up late (a problem when sharing a one-room apartment), she takes advantage of Mary’s offer to lend her some clothes, she blames Mary for not waking her up when she is late for work, and worst of all, she makes a huge mess in the kitchen and LEAVES THE DISHES SITTING OVERNIGHT.
This marked the first time in MTM history that I was firmly on Mary’s side instead of Rhoda’s. I side with Rhoda when it comes to her difficulty with Mary being a Golden Person. I side with Rhoda when Phyllis gives her a hard time about her weight or single status. I even side with Rhoda when she redecorates Lou’s apartment into a blinding white monstrosity. But girl: You are a guest in Mary’s home. Pick up after yourself, get to work on time, do the damn dishes and most important: stop taking advantage of your best friend’s generosity!
When you’ve got Phyllis giving Rhoda grief over taking advantage of Mary (“You may have Mary jumping for you, Rhoda, but not me.”) there’s a problem. This is what bothers me the most: Rhoda is constantly telling Mary to stick up for herself and not be such a pushover, and yet when the opportunity arises, she takes advantage. She gives Mary a guilt trip over the sad little cot Mary procures for Rhoda to sleep on, so they trade off nights. She tells Mary she couldn’t possibly go to sleep at 11:30 p.m. (really, Rhoda?) and keeps Mary up watching the portable TV. All of her clothes are destroyed, and she wears Mary’s new nightgown and best suit without asking. Not exactly best friend behavior.
Fortunately, Rhoda makes good in the end. After two nights, she decides to go to a hotel: “My apartment isn’t going to be ready for another three days. How long can we continue this Oscar and Felix routine?” she asks Mary. She says that Mary is driving HER crazy: Mary’s morning cheerfulness is like living with Dinah Shore (okay, I will give her that one – cheerful morning people are THE WORST), Mary’s a neat freak, and worst of all, Rhoda knows that she is driving Mary crazy. When Mary protests, Rhoda says: “Mary, please. I have been nice enough to tell you how impossible you are to live with, you might at least extend me the same courtesy.” There’s the Rhoda I know and love! Welcome back!
“You Certainly Are a Big Boy” is a Mary dating story that works.* Mary begins dating Matt Bryan, a handsome architect several years older than Mary. Despite the age difference – and the 24-year-old son – Mary continues seeing him. That’s not the problem – the problem is that they date without actually talking. Matt only takes Mary out to places where they either can’t talk (the theater) or it’s too loud to talk (cranking up the music as soon as Mary gets into the car). It turns out that Matt is just bad at relationships – he’s afraid to get close to people and has a habit of running away. He tells Mary that he doesn’t want to do that this time, and they agree to start communicating. Of course, this is after he proposes and Mary points out how little they know each other: “There has to be something in between Man of La Mancha and ‘Will you marry me?'”
*They still need improvement – see “The Five-Minute Dress”, “I Am Curious Cooper” – but the dating stories got marginally better this season. They also became less frequent.
One of the funnier bits in the episode is all of the men being perplexed by and jealous of Matt Bryan’s youthfulness. He is 44 – only two years younger than Lou – but the differences are vast. The best scene comes when Matt’s son, Matt Jr., visits Mary in the newsroom and Ted mistakes him for Matt Sr.
We also learn Ted’s age, something I’ve been wondering for a long time. He’s 44. (Or perhaps 45, being eight months older than Matt Sr.)
Last but not least, we come to the ACTUAL finale of season two, “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda.” Guys, this is heavy. It could be deemed “A Very Special Episode,” as it deals with a sensitive topic, but its so well written,and the confrontation scene is so well acted, that it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed. We know writer Steve Pritzker can do funny (“Second Story Story”, “More Than Neighbors”), and we know he can combine funny with bittersweet (“And Now, Sitting in for Ted Baxter”). We can now add the tough combination of funny and serious to his resume.
The issue dealt with here is antisemitism. Mary meets her new friend/potential BFF Joanne when Joanne accidentally rear-ends her. My notes say, “Whoa, first thing I notice, Joanne looks and dresses a lot like Rhoda.” It’s true – Joanne, as played by Mary Frann – seems like a prettier, more put together version of Rhoda. She, too, wears scarves in her hair and plays tennis. Except her scarves are nicer and her tennis court isn’t in a high school, but a country club. Naturally, Rhoda feels threatened, especially when Mary starts to spend all of her time with Joanne.
I immediately distrusted Joanne. First: She’s set up as an obvious foil to Rhoda, and c’mon, there are no substitutes. Second: She asks Mary if she can just pay for Mary’s car repairs instead of going through insurance, and then changes the subject every time Mary brings it up. One of my biggest pet peeves in life (besides leaving dishes to sit overnight) is people who avoid, or flat out ignore, reimbursement. My spider sense was tingling from the start. (Clearly I am a much better judge of character than Mary.)
The climax of the episode – in which Mary discovers Joanne’s true colors and finally grows a spine – is so well done that not much can really be said. Props to Frann for playing a flawed and thankless role so well. You did your job, Ms. Frann – I didn’t like you, despite your cute hair. And props to Moore, for playing a difficult and complicated scene convincingly. It really COULD have gone “Very Special Episode”, but didn’t.
Two more thoughts on this episode:
1.) Yowza, Mary Tyler Moore! How great does she look in that tennis outfit? Also how cute is the little bit with her practicing tennis? I decided to leave it in because it’s such an endearing little scene.
2.) Antisemitism seems like a weird topic for a TV show in 2013 (though I guess it still happens), but this originally aired in 1972. If Mary and Rhoda are supposed to be about 30-31, that means they were born in 1941-42, during World War II. It’s not so crazy to think that antisemitism was still a harsh reality in the United States.
– Gordy returns (!!) very briefly, in “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Rhoda.”
– Rhoda cooks dinner for Mary in her teeny tiny kitchen – chicken horseradish soup. I love horseradish, but this just sounds disgusting.
– Cooking in a real kitchen is a big step up for Rhoda, as she only has a hotplate. How is it possible that Rhoda doesn’t have a kitchen?
– Matt Bryan Sr. asks to take some sketches of Mary’s apartment and ends up sketching her. Not a bad pickup, sir. Not bad at all.
-Rhoda and Mary make up their own rules for tennis. For instance, they don’t play with a net. I want to hang out with them so badly.
-Phyllis is very excited about Joanne as a Rhoda replacement. I actually thought she would pick up on Joanne’s slipperiness, as Phyllis has been more aware lately.
– I wonder how many backdoor pilots have actually made it to series. This article from The AV Club discusses failed pilots. This article mentions a few recent successes (Private Practice, The Originals). Most of what I could find focused on the failures. Anyone know more successes?
– Matt Sr. is played by Bradford Dillman, who’s had a long movie career playing handsome men, including JJ in The Way We Were. I am now obligated to show you the following scene from Sex and the City. Any time The Way We Were is mentioned, this is where my mind goes. I don’t particularly care for the movie, but love this scene. “Your girl is lovely, Hubble.”
1970s vs. Today:
– Lou tells Mary to pull Matt Sr.’s file (Murray did a story on him) and he tries to tempt Mary into looking at it. This is what people did pre-internet.
– Lou says that Ted should be on a half hour after the Star Spangled Banner – TV did actually used to shut off at some point at night, didn’t it?
– Rhoda: Do you have any horseradish?
Phyllis: Isn’t that kind of a strange way to greet somebody?
a few minutes later:
Mary: How about strong mustard?
Phyllis: Doesn’t anybody say hello anymore?
– Murray: I hope I look that good when I’m his age.
Lou: Murray, you don’t look that good now, why should it get any better?
(Me: Murray’s younger than 44?)
-“You look like a cheerleader for the school of nursing.” – Rhoda on Mary’s new tennis whites.
-“If you ever feel you want to know one better, I know a real good one.” – Mary Richards on Rhoda Morgenstern
-You take yourself and you don’t ask questions. -Rhoda knows what to take in a fire. Mary grabs a plant and her decorative M. Oh, Mary.
– Once you get past bunk beds, no one should have a roommate. – Gordy
-You can’t use a copy machine to print photos. – Ted Baxter
And that will do it for this week. Whew – we made it through season two! Up next: season three, aka the last season currently available on Hulu, for anyone following that way. Subsequent seasons are available for purchase on Amazon streaming, or you can do it the old fashioned way like me, via Netflix DVDs. I hear season three is a good one for Ted, so I’m excited. Let’s hope it’s also the season they make Murray interesting.
Next week, we will discuss:
-The Good-Time News
– What is Mary Richards Really Like?
– Who’s In Charge Here?
-Enter Rhoda’s Parents