Well hello there, Retrowatchers! I hope some of you are still with me. Please forgive my unexpected extended absence. As I mentioned in the previous post, 2014 got off to an unexpectedly busy start! To give you an indication as to how busy: I actually watched the episodes we are about to discuss in January. Eesh! Fortunately I take very detailed notes and was able to refresh my memory.
Before delving in, may I say that after the endless winter we’ve been having, I now completely agree with Lou’s assessment of snow from “It’s Whether You Win or Lose?” This pretty much sums up my current feelings for this winter:
“ 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!”
Word, Lou! I always knew you were very wise.
Okay, enough chitchat, let’s get to it. This week we discuss episodes 9-12 of season three, including:
Episode 9: Farmer Ted and the News
Episode 10: Have I Found the Guy For You
Episode 11: You’ve Got a Friend
Episode 12: It Was Fascination, I Know
This was another mixed bag for me, with two really great episodes, one episode with some strong moments, and one that just felt weird. Instead of going in order, I’m going to start with the outlier, “Have I Found the Guy For You,” written by Charlotte Brown.
This is the 58th episode of Mary Tyler Moore. Several previous episodes have dealt with prickly, if timely, topics successfully such as racism (“Some of My Best Friends are Rhoda”); infidelity (“The Six-and-a-Half Year Itch”); and teenage sexuality (“The Birds…and…um…Bees.”).
“Have I Found the Guy For You” also tackles a topic relevant to single women in their 30s: dating a separated man. Unlike the aforementioned episodes, this one does not rise to the top. It just felt…weird. And maybe a little forced. I note that this is Charlotte Brown’s only episode of MTM. And while I think the woman is a talented writer (more on that later), she doesn’t seem like a fit for this show. (Though she DID write several episodes of Rhoda. So who knows?)
Mary is devastated to learn her friends Jack and Linda Foster are divorcing. They have been her gold standard married couple for years. For reasons unbeknownst to Rhoda and the audience*, Mary thinks nothing of it when Jack asks her out to dinner immediately after announcing his separation. She feels she is being a good friend to the newly separated Jack. Five weeks and several dinners later, Mary finally admits this may not be so innocent. And here is where the show lost me: Jack tells Mary that he has feelings for her. Mary admits she has feelings for him, but cannot can act on them until checking with Linda. To no one’s surprise, Linda is NOT cool with it. Weirdly, Linda is painted as the bad guy, but I think she’s totally in the right. One does not date their friend’s ex-husband, especially when it’s only been five weeks. This is like, girl code 101. You just don’t. Even if you are the titular character.
*Writing about this episode, it occurs to me: Mary really needs Rhoda. She warns Mary from the start that Jack is pursuing her. Rhoda is written as the spaz, but she helps Mary just as often as Mary helps her. I accept that Valerie Harper leaves the show after season 4, but it’s really hard for me to imagine what it will be like. Their friendship is – for me – the heart of the show. Rhoda is the heart of the show. She is its Tim Riggins, its Pam Beesley, its Xander Harris. Rhoda, what are we going to do without you?
My other problem with this episode (besides it being another “everyone loves Mary, because of course they do!” story) is that when we first meet Jack and Linda, they seem very happy. The next day, Mary learns of their separation. I detected no underlying resentment or passive aggressiveness between them. From a storytelling standpoint, this is a problem. Not only that, they are the happiest separated couple I’ve ever seen. Which just seems weird. Granted, I have never been married, but I imagine that ending even the unhappiest of marriages results in a grieving period. Shouldn’t the marriage of two relatively happy people who have outgrown each other also be mourned?
Mary certainly seems to think so, as she is the only one who is upset about the break up. This is the only part of the story that worked for me. We’ve all experienced the ending of a relationship between two mutual friends. It’s tricky. Can you still be friends with both people? Whose side do you take? What really happened?
This wasn’t a bad episode; it just very tonally off from the rest of the show. For as “aw shucks” as she can be, Mary is smarter than written here. She should have known that Jack was pursuing her and that Linda would not give Mary her blessing. I don’t mind Mary being a “Golden Person,” but this went too far.
Let’s move on.
Speaking of short-lived MTM writers, we’ve come to the second and last Martin Donovan episode, “Farmer Ted and the News.”
If anyone reading this knows why Donovan only wrote two episodes of MTM, please send me an email or leave a comment. The Internet has been no help. The only thing I can think is that he got a job writing for Room 222 (the next credit on his IMDB page) and was not able to work on both shows. Room 222‘s gain is our loss because Donovan is a solid comedy writer. His first episode, “It’s Whether You Win or Lose,” had several laugh out loud moments, as does “Farmer Ted and the News.”
Ted’s contract is up for renewal and he’s looking to play hardball. First he wants a raise. When Lou refuses, he brings in the big guns: His agent, Bella Swan, a delightful old lady* who refers to her client as “Teddy.” Bella gets Lou to agree to a non-exclusive contract. Everyone at the station has a big laugh at the thought of Ted appearing on Broadway or in films, but the joke is on them: Ms. Swan isn’t as sweet as she looks. Ted starts booking local commercials and raking in the dough. Pretty soon the face of WJM is also the face of tomato slicers and hair trimmers, and the voice of dog food.
*I was totally expecting Ted’s agent to be Phyllis.
Lou’s outrage is our delight. No one plays distraught like Edward Asner, and it’s always a hoot to watch. Lou becomes a shadow of his former self. He can’t sleep. He stops drinking. He doesn’t even yell in the newsroom. The impossible has happened: Lou Grant was outsmarted by Ted Baxter.
Ted Baxter’s finally got me. I’ve gone over his contract a dozen times. There’s nothing I can do to stop him. First it was that tomato slicer, then it was the commercial for that woman’s product. I didn’t even know what it was. I had to ask my wife what they used it for. She wasn’t sure. Mary, he’s got me.
Fortunately, his stupor doesn’t last long. Lou snaps out of it when a commercial for Ma and Pa’s County Pork Sausage featuring Farmer Ted airs during the six o’clock news hour. Confidence restored, he tells Ted his contract is exclusive: “Ted if you don’t stop doing those commercials, I’m gonna punch your face out.”
All that, and we get to see Murray blow a gasket when he learns Ted’s salary.
To be fair, $31,000 in 1972 is equivalent to $172,000 today. Considering Ted is a terrible newsman, I don’t blame Murray for his reaction.
And now we come to my favorite of the batch, “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Steve Pritzker penned the episode in which we meet Mary’s parents, “Just Around the Corner.” You may recall that I was not a huge fan. It was fine, if unremarkable. Pritzker kicks it up several notches with “You’ve Got a Friend,” a much more successful story about Mary’s parents. Suddenly, Walter and Dottie Richards are interesting.
Walter is not taking retirement well. So desperate to be useful again, he is thrilled to learn Rhoda is sick when he and Dottie visit Mary, immediately taking her temperature and sending her off to bed. After witnessing this and hearing her mother complain about Walter’s lack of a social life, Mary sets her father up on a friend date with Lou. This goes about as well as you would expect – the only thing these two men have in common Mary.* Walter is as uptight as Lou is loose. Not even sports can bring the two men together.
*One would think that the two most important men in Mary’s life – her father and her boss/surrogate father figure – would have more to talk about.
“You’ve Got a Friend reminds me of Richard Gilmore’s retirement from the insurance business in the Gilmore Girls episode “Richard in Stars Hollow.” So desperate to get Richard out of the house and away from her affairs, Emily sends her husband to Stars Hollow for the day. He proves to drive his daughter just as crazy as his wife, criticizing her food choices and the way she runs her business. But while “Richard in Stars Hollow” ends with the titular character alone in his study with nothing to do after alienating himself from his wife and his daughter, “You’ve Got a Friend” ends with Mary and Walter bonding during dinner at Mary’s apartment.
Another thing that struck me about this episode is that Walter is among the generation of fathers seen in television (and in real life) who worked hard providing for their families and were rarely at home. These men were stalwart. Showing emotion and communicating with their children were foreign concepts. Before that were the “father knows best” types – the Mike Brady’s and Ward Cleaver’s. And afterwards you had the fathers who could provide for their families economically and emotionally – the Dr. Huxtable’s and Dan Connor’s. I appreciate seeing the Walter Richards’ of the world. It highlights an interesting time in history. (That said, I am glad I was raised by a man closer to Heathcliff Huxtable than Walter Richards.)
Speaking of the Huxtable’s, our final episode is the second from Ed. Weinberger, last seen in his stunning debut, “But Seriously, Folks.”
“It Was Fascination, I Know” is not so stunning. I wouldn’t call it a sophomore slump, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Weinberger’s debut. It’s more of a filler episode than anything else – Bess’s new boyfriend meets Mary, falls for her, and begins wooing her. He creepily spends the day with her at WJM by telling everyone that he is on assignment for the school newspaper. And he oddly thinks that he has a chance with Mary, despite their vast age difference. Mary finally sets him straight, though much later than one would think.
This is not a new story, but it’s been done better and played for laughs instead of creepy undertones. The only part of the episode that worked for me – and proved that “But Seriously Folks” was not a fluke – is when Phyllis confesses she didn’t go to her senior prom. Cloris Leachman absolutely nails it, leaving even Rhoda speechless. It’s nothing short of stunning.
Only Phyllis could tell heart wrenching story like that in one moment and in the next get a huge laugh. I’m beginning to understand the Cloris Leachman love.
– Continuity win: The mirror in Ted’s dressing room still has several lights out.
– Continuity fail: In “You’ve Got a Friend,” Mary says her parents moved to town three weeks ago. However, we know that five weeks pass in “Have I Found a Guy For You.”
-Mary gives her dad a jewelry making kit. He makes Mary a pin in the shape of a human heart. First: Yikes. Second: Why would one give their father a jewelry making kit?
– Ted has goofy subplots in “Have I Found a Guy For You” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” In the former, he gets a new, expensive haircut by telling the barber he would mention him on the news. When Lou forbids it, he spends the episode stalling and making excuses to the barber. In the latter, he gets his annual physical at the free clinic by dressing up as a bum. Interesting to see the writers experimenting with the formula and creating these little subplots. My relatively limited knowledge of TV history doesn’t see the two-to-three plot structure really talking hold until the late ’80s and early ’90s. Nice to see MTM ahead of the curve.
– Charlotte Brown may not fit into the MTM world, but the woman is funny. She is credited for writing the two-part premier of The Powers That Be, a short-lived but terrific show featuring David Hyde Pierce and a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt among others. Anyone who can write a gag like the one below has serious comedy chops:
1970s vs. Today:
– Rhoda says she wants a marriage like Pat and Dick Nixon: “You know he can’t fool around.” Watergate happened that summer, but Nixon hadn’t been tried yet, and in fact was reelected 11 days before the episode originally aired. 42 years later, it’s jarring to hear a Nixon joke.
– Ted gives Mary advice on how to deal with her young admirer by quoting an Ozzie and Harriet rerun
-“Last week he must have taken my temperature at least 100 times.” – Dottie Richards describes living with her newly-retired husband
-“I used to go fishing with a surgeon. Boy could that man clean a fish.” – Lou Grant picks his friends strategically
– Walter: You know most people think alcohol is a relaxant. It’s actually a depressant.
Lou: I enjoy getting a little depressed now and then. As a matter of fact every once in awhile I like to go out and get stinking gloomy.
-Walter: Mary do you ever get lonely?
Mary: No not too often, Daddy. I have a good life.
And that’s it for this time, folks! Thanks for staying with me during my unexpected hiatus. I promise it won’t be so long between posts, so get ready for next time, in which we discuss episodes 13-16, including:
– Operation: Lou
– Rhoda Morgenstern: Minneapolis to New York
– The Courtship of Mary’s Father’s Daughter
– Lou’s Place
Glad you are back. I’ve missed reading these posts.