Happy 2014, Retrowatchers! I hope the new year is treating you well. Mine has been smashing thus far. This week, we will delve further into the third season of Mary Tyler Moore. But first, I have to address something. It’s been bothering me since the start of the season.
I realize the ’70s was arguably the cruelest decade for fashion. Mistakes were made. The prints. The colors. The pants. None of it is good. Surprisingly though, I made it three seasons without being truly horrified by a fashion choice. Yes, there have been ridiculous dresses, intentionally and unintentionally. But even the frilliest, pinkest bridesmaid dress does not offend my senses more than Mary’s short, poofy haircut. I get that it was the style at the time, but still: WHY? It’s just wrong on every level.
With that out of the way, let’s get back into season three. This week, we discuss episodes 5-8, including:
Episode 5: It’s Whether You Win or Lose
Episode 6: Rhoda the Beautiful
Episode 7: Just Around the Corner
Episode 8: But Seriously, Folks
This batch of episodes runs the gamut from ultra serious to ultra silly, and also introduces two new writers, Martin Donovan and a promising young man you may have heard of, Ed. Weinberger. If I am being completely honest, I will admit to not enjoying this batch as much as the last, but season three is still coming on strong. Everything is so established at this point, and it’s just fun to hang out with these characters. This is especially true for “It’s Whether You Win Or Lose.”
I don’t have a lot to say about this episode. It’s just fun. No serious topics are discussed (that happens later), the show isn’t addressing a hot button issue or giving one character a spotlight episode. We are just hanging out with these characters, watching them be funny. In this episode, the funny is a poker game in which Ted has no idea how to play, Lou is trying to make up for a canceled trip to Las Vegas, Mary learns that Murray has a gambling problem, and Gordy is…well, Gordy: Delightful and hilarious as always. These days it would be called a filler episode, but I quite enjoyed it. I like the gang enough that an episode such as this is a pleasure, not a chore.
“It’s Whether You Win or Lose” is written by Martin Donovan. Donovan was an established writer by the time he got to Mary Tyler Moore, having worked previously on That Girl and The Farmer’s Daughter. He only wrote two episodes of Mary Tyler Moore, both in season three. Based on this episode, I’m surprised he didn’t stick around. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments, and Donovan has a good grasp of the characters.
“Rhoda the Beautiful” is written by MTM MVP and my gal, Treva Silverman. In my first blog post, I said that there were a few episodes of MTM that I knew about, the most famous being “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” I neglected to include “Rhoda the Beautiful” on that list. Hailed as one of the all-time great episodes, I went in with very high expectations.
How did it fare? Well…I was surprised, mostly. I’m not sure what I was expecting; I guess to either be profoundly moved or to laugh nonstop. Neither was the case. Of COURSE I was touched by Rhoda’s triumph. I’m not made of stone, and it is well established that Rhoda Morgenstern is near and dear to my heart. However, I was not expecting the episode to focus so heavily on Mary and Rhoda’s friendship. I was also not expecting Cloris Leachman to break out into song in the middle of the episode.* That said, she is welcome to do it again at any point.
*Is this the most random thing to happen thus far on an episode of MTM? It was very random. Makes me wonder if Leachman had a singing clause in her contract. Don’t get me wrong, it was highly enjoyable, but also very surreal. And in a weird twist, the most enjoyable part – Mary and Rhoda ignoring her grasp for attention – is also what made it surreal.
It should go without saying that Valerie Harper gives a wonderfully rich performance. She won an Emmy for season three (her third in a row – holla!) and I bet this was the episode she submitted. I’ve never had a weight problem and I don’t know what it is like to lose a significant amount like the 20 pounds Rhoda sheds. But Rhoda’s reaction is believable – she is quietly proud, but doesn’t brag, is blind to how great she looks, and doesn’t acknowledge her hard work. Rhoda is used to being either being ignored or being the butt of the joke; suddenly being in the spotlight is something she is not equipped to handle.
The strongest part of the episode for me is Mary trying to get Rhoda to acknowledge her new body. We know that Mary is a good friend, but we also know that there is a little bit of competition between these two that sneaks out every once in awhile. (See: “…Is a Friend In Need”, “Today I am a Ma’am.”) It is great to see Mary supporting Rhoda and being genuinely proud and happy for her friend.
Mary serves as a stand in for the audience here – we are happy for Rhoda, too, and want her to discover her beauty. And like Mary, the audience is tired of Rhoda’s constant self-deprecation. However, I give it up to Silverman – she knew what she was doing. The moment Rhoda lets herself feel happy and tell Mary she won the beauty contest wouldn’t be as sweet if we had not just spent 20 minutes listening to Rhoda’s self-critiques.
The part that gets me is the way Rhoda’s voice breaks when she tells Mary that a whole auditorium of people applauded for her. Well done, Harper. Well done.
One more thing before moving on: I get that Rhoda is supposed to be the frumpy sidekick, but I have always found Valerie Harper (and Rhoda) to be stunning. Quite frankly, I never believed her to be slightly overweight – no matter how baggy they made Rhoda’s clothes – and have always found her to be the more attractive of the pair. This is not to say that Mary isn’t beautiful as well, but if I had to pick between the two, it would be Rhoda any day.
“Just Around the Corner” delivers on something I’ve been waiting for since since season one’s “Support Your Local Mother”: We finally meet Mary’s parents. Unfortunately what should be a home run is merely a single.
My issue with “Just Around the Corner”, written by the usually reliable Steven Pritzker, is that Dottie and Walter Richards aren’t interesting. The problem isn’t the acting. Nanette Fabray and Bill Quinn give capable performances. It’s the writing. Mary’s parents are normal people. Walter is a retired surgeon and Dottie is a would-be nurse who gave up school to become a young bride. All of Mary’s friends love Dottie and the two are often mistaken for sisters.
The story should work – Mary tries to be supportive of her parents’ decision to relocate to Minneapolis, but fails when they move just around the corner from her apartment. She’s a grown woman who needs her space. The episode’s best scene comes at the end, when she finally confronts her mother about spying on her. It turns out it was not her mother who was calling the apartment and hanging up, but her father. Mary continues to have the spine she grew at the end of season two, and tells her parents that while she loves them, she is a grown woman with her own life who needs space. It’s a nice moment, but not a great payoff for a mediocre episode.
The thing is, Mary SHOULD have nice, normal parents. We would expect nothing less from our Golden Person. Unfortunately, much like our pal Murray, nice normal people do not make the most interesting characters. Note to MTM writers: More Ida and Martin Morgenstern, less Dottie and Walter Richards!
And now we’ve come to the gut punch, Retrowatchers. “But Seriously, Folks” was a tough one. Don’t get me wrong – it was great – but man did it do me in.
Some facts about me:
1.) I feel hard, I feel deep, and I feel quick, particularly with storytelling. I am a crier. I cry at everything – television, movies, plays, a touching song. I’ve found myself crying on public transit reading a book more times than I care to admit. I’m still not over the deaths of fictional characters who passed away years ago, and just thinking about poor Mrs. Landingham telling Charlie that she misses her boys makes me tear up.
2.) There is nothing I hate worse than watching a person be rejected. This includes: being the only person in an empty store with a lonely salesperson; musicians playing to empty crowds in public places (i.e. the mall); flight attendants giving safety instructions to a plane full of people not paying attention; people who leave in the middle of a Q&A at film festivals (Leave before it starts if you have somewhere else to be! It’s called manners!); and – you guessed it – stand up comedians at open mic nights.
So, this episode was basically my worst nightmare. Add the endearing and familiar Jerry Van Dyke as sweet sad sack Wes Callison, and I’m a goner.
Poor Wes just can’t win. He quits his job as a writer on Chuckes the Clown, doesn’t get hired as the correspondent for WJM’s “The Lighter Side” news segment, and has a terrible opening night as a comic at the Melody Lounge Midtown Bowling Lanes. It’s so bad, Mary runs to the bathroom in the middle of his set in tears. (Oh boy. I’m in pain thinking about it.)
The upside to the episode is it gives Lou the opportunity to be awesome once again.* He follows Mary to the bathroom and comforts her in my favorite Mary/Lou scene to date. It is the perfect mix sweet and funny:
So many great gags in those three minutes. My favorite is the woman leaving the bathroom in the middle of Mary and Lou’s embrace. Makes me laugh out loud every time.
*Quite frankly, after the first four episodes of season three, he needs the opportunity. That’s right, Lou. I haven’t forgotten.
And who had the skills to bring us such a touching and hilarious episode of television? The one and only Ed. Weinberger. If the name isn’t familiar, perhaps these names are: The Tonight Show with Johnny Caron. Taxi. Phyllis. The Cosby Show. Amen. These are just some of his credits. Weinberger joined the MTM family in season three, and went on to be an important member of MTM Enterprises, co-creating two of the aforementioned shows, Taxi and The Cosby Show.* “But Seriously Folks” was his first MTM episode, and I am excited to see more from him. What a debut!
* According to my Internet sources, Weinberger only wrote one episode of The Cosby Show, though I’m sure he was involved in most of the run. Guess which one it was? (Hint: “I brought you in this world, and I’ll take you out!”) Yes, Retrowatchers, Weinberger is responsible for this classic scene from the pilot.
– The poker game in “It’s Whether You Win or Lose” takes place on the set of the WJM show King Arte’s Castle, as it is the only room in the building with a round table. It took me until the end of the episode to make the connection, but I really hope that is because the show has a Knights of the Roundtable segment. Also, I love the little touch of having Lou sit in the throne.
– Continuity fail: There is a short scene in “Rhoda the Beautiful” celebrating Ted’s birthday. They previously celebrated his birthday in season two’s “Feeb”, which originally aired January 8, 1972. “Rhoda the Beautiful” aired October 21, 1972. Oops!
– There is a nice bit in “Just Around the Corner” where Mary suggests to Lou and Murray that they try airing lighter news stories from time to time. This was previously discussed in the season three premier, “The Good-Time News.” Cut to “But Seriously, Folks”, and Mary says that “The Lighter Side” segment Wes auditions for is Lou’s idea. What gives, Mary? That’s been your idea for weeks!
– Wes has this going for him: He’s a great boyfriend. He has a special newspaper printed for Mary after a night out with the headline Mary Richards is a Terrific Date.
– It is worth noting that Weinberger wrote the first truly (TRULY) successful “Mary dating” story of the series. Slow clap for you, Ed. Weinberger. Slow clap for you!
– He is a compulsive gambler
– He is in Calorie Cutters with Rhoda, and serves as their group leader
1970s vs. Today:
– Murray loses $375 to Ted in the poker game. According to this inflation calculator, that has the same “buying power” as $2090.93 today. Holy cow, Murray!
– Mary looks at Phyllis’s vacation slides on a viewmaster.
– Mary is annoyed that her parents are calling her apartment at all hours to see if she is there. It’s a good thing this was before cell phones. She’d never get a private moment.
-Wes’ stand up routine revolves around the game show Password. I have heard of game but have no idea how it is played. Therefore, I have no idea if he is actually funny. My guess is he is not. Poor Wes.
– “ I hate snow. I don’t like its color. I don’t like its shape. I don’t like its temperature. I don’t like how it feels or what it does. I don’t like it in snowballs. Or on hills. I don’t like anything about it. It’s a soft, wet, white, mushy melting freezing mess! I hate snow as much as I hate anything in the entire world!” – Lou Grant on snow. Noted!
-“This gives me a real feeling of power. I wonder if I’m doing this to all of Minneapolis.” – Rhoda on flickering the lights in Mary’s apartment while adjusting the temperature on her electric blanket.
-“My favorite hobbies are cheerleading, liking people, and living in America.” – Rhoda practices her pageantry.
“Ok, I wasn’t going to tell anybody this, but now I’ve decided I want to. I did not come in third. I won.” – Rhoda Morgenstern, aka the Fabulous Ms. Hempel
That’s it for this week, folks! Season three is still going strong, despite the bump with “Just Around the Corner.” I look forward to more from Ed. Weinberger, Treva, and her season three rival, Martin Cohan. Depending on how many episodes Weinberger writes, it could be a three-way fight for season MVP.
Up next, episodes 9-12, including:
-Farmer Ted and the News
– Have I Found the Guy For You
– You’ve Got a Friend
– It Was Fascination, I Know