Happy summer, Retrowatchers! At long last! I had my doubts as to it ever being warm again, but am writing this while wearing a sundress sporting a tan. Let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief: Ahhh!
We’ve made it to the end of season three. And what a season it has been: Lou Grant bought a bar, had a bullet removed from an unmentionable area, and went on an awkward Man Date with Mary’s father. We finally met Mary’s parents and Rhoda’s dad. Rhoda won a beauty contest, pondered a move to New York, and (spoiler alert) opened her own store. Ted hired an agent and briefly dabbeled in commercials, became temporary BFF’s with Lou, and got a girlfriend. Phyllis, of all people, came out of the season the most progressive, encouraging Mary to go out for a promotion and hardly batted an eye when she found out her brother is gay. Murray…well…nothing much happens to our Murray. (Nothing ever happens to Murray.) As for Mary – she had quite a year as well. She finally got a raise, reconnected with her father, and nearly got engaged before realizing she’s not looking for Prince Charming. (Retrowatching HQ remains firmly #TeamDanWhitfield.) We met some new people – some good (Georgette, Walter Richards, Ben Sutherland, Philly); some not so good (the majority of Mary’s dates, most especially he-who-shall-not-be-mentioned-again, Warren Sturges.) The writers started to change structure a bit in season three, experimenting with subplots and comic runners. These mostly went to Ted; a few went to Rhoda. And speaking of writers, the question still remains: Who is this season’s MVP?
The answer will be revealed at the end of this post. First, let’s finish out season three. This time, we will discuss episodes 21-24, including:
Episode 21: Murray Faces Life
Episode 22: Remembrance of Things Past
Episode 23: Put On a Happy Face
Episode 24: Mary Richards and the Incredible Plant Lady
On a scale of 1-10, I’d give this batch a solid 8. There were a few things that didn’t work for me, but on the whole, it was pretty good. As usual, let’s end on a high note and begin with what didn’t work.
On paper, this is a solid story: A schoolmate of Murray’s wins the Pulitzer Prize, forcing him to take a hard look at his life, which spirals into a midlife crisis. After allowing him to wallow for a few days, the WJM crew rallies, and eventually Murray realizes that while he has yet to accomplished everything he wants, he’s surrounded by people who love him. Or in the words of Clarence Odbody: “No man is failure who has friends.”
I like this story. Murray has reached a point in his career where he should be taking stock. As we’ve discussed previously: Murray is the normal one at WJM. If anyone should be having a midlife crisis, it’s him.
It’s also delightful to see Ted, Mary, and Lou support Murray in their various ways. Lou reaches out and gives Murray a man on the street assignment that has to be scrapped when all of Murray’s questions have to do with the world ending: “Two nuns broke into tears because he looked like he knew something.” Mary tries to support Murray as he has always supported her. Ted invites him for a guys night out and Murray is so desperate, he actually agrees. In the episode’s best scene, Ted and Murray go back to Ted’s bachelor pad – which looks exactly like you think it does – and Ted attempts to cheer Murray up through puppetry.* Really. That is not a typo. (See above picture.) Why does it not surprise me that Ted works through his issues by talking to a hand puppet dog named Fluffy?
*I don’t recall any ventriloquism during this scene, but Ted doing puppetry is a precursor to his ventriloquism with the Cosmic Cow in Too Close for Comfort. And yes, the only reason I know about this is from The Greatest Event in Television History.
The problem with this Murray-centric episode is, well, Murray. While MacLoed has a few good lines, Murray as a character is not strong enough to carry an episode. I’m beginning to wonder if this is not MacLoed’s fault. He’s done okay in season three. (See: ripping off Ted’s shirt pocket.) My original hypothesis stands: While Murray is a needed character, he’s just not very interesting. But hey, if this is what it took to learn that Ted’s apartment is filled with pictures of himself and a puppet named Fluffy, bring it on.
I’m not sure what to think of “Remembrance of Things Past,” written by Jenna McMahon and Dick Clair. On the one hand, it rings true to life, and there is a very funny subplot about Ted going to DC and trying to interview President Nixon. On the other hand, it is an incredibly frustrating episode for Mary that ends confoundedly. (And if you really want to get into it, is a complete failure of continuity for Mary’s pre-Minneapolis life. More on that later.)
We are introduced to Tom Vernon, who is The One Who Got Away. Tom calls Mary when he is in town for a few days. She agonizes over calling him back, and then over whether or not to make plans to see him. I’m not sure what is worse: seeing Mary in agony over a man, or the fact that it hits so close to home. Not to make this all about me, but just saying: I’ve been there. Ladies, we’ve all been there. Gents, from what I hear anecdotally, most of you have also been there. We can all relate, which is what makes this story both great and incredibly frustrating:
“Saturday, we’d go out. Sunday, I’d cry. Monday, I never wanted to see him again and by Thursday I prayed he’d call back. Friday he did. Saturday we’d go out.”
Of course Tom is late picking her up and convinces her to stay in, and of course he doesn’t call the next day when he says he will. Instead, he shows up with a box of pizza that night, assuming Mary is free and that nothing is wrong. Mary plays along until opening the box and discovering Tom has ordered anchovies:
“Oh Tom, can’t you even remember that I hate anchovies? I mean, look, I can take a lot,you know, but I just cannot take you walking in here with a pizza that’s smothered in anchovies. I really don’t think that’s being too demanding of me to expect you to remember that I hate anchovies.”
Tom finally (finally!) realizes that Mary is upset, and they discuss their relationship. Tom tells Mary he loves her but he can’t be who she wants: a partner, a husband, a father. It’s a nice, well acted scene…that doesn’t belong in the show. First, the entire basis of Mary Tyler Moore is that Mary doesn‘t want to be a wife and mother. She is open to it if the right guy comes along but she’s not on a constant search for Mr. Right. Second, are we seriously supposed to feel bad for Tom? He’d love to settle down with Mary because he loves he so much, but he just can’t stop his bachelor lifestyle? Listen, I am no hater of men. I think that most are kind and decent people. But Tom is full of shit. I didn’t buy his woe-is-me story at all. If he cares about Mary as much as he proclaims, then man up and settle down.
On the plus side, Ted goes to Washington and is on a mission to interview the president, which gives us scenes like this:
Fortunately, the season ends on a high note with two great episodes, “Put on a Happy Face” and “Mary Richards and the Incredible Plant Lady.”
Retrowatchers, I don’t think I have laughed harder at a single episode of this show than I did at “Put on a Happy Face.” I don’t mean little chuckles either, I mean big, guffawing laughs. This is a perfect episode. Not one word or action is wasted, and the story slowly builds to the hilarious final scene. Bonus points: Dan is mentioned as someone Mary is still seeing (#TeamDanWhitfield) and we learn that Rhoda is still seeing his pal Jonas.
Marilyn Suzanne Miller and Monica McGowan Johnson were 23 and 27, respectively, when they wrote “Put On a Happy Face.” It was their debut episode. They did not last long as a team – they wrote two more episodes of Mary Tyler Moore before disbanding in 1974 – but each went onto great writing careers. Miller was one of only three female writers on the debut season of Saturday Night Live, where she contributed to “Wild and Crazy Guys” sketches and wrote the famous “Dancing in the Dark” sketch. As if that weren’t enough, she wrote for Lily Tomlin and Tracy Ullman. McGown Johnson became a frequent collaborator with another comedy legend, Albert Brooks, and wrote four films with him: The Muse, Mother, Lost in America, and The Scout. So, you know, these ladies have just a little talent for writing comedy.
It’s that time of year again at WJM – The Teddy Awards are upon us. We haven’t been since season one’s “Bob and Rhoda and Teddy and Mary,” so let me remind you: Television Editors Awards. Mary has been nominated. At the beginning of the week, she is wide eyed and excited for the upcoming ceremony. By the end of the week, she’s a wreck. Everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong. (I subtitled the episode, “Mary Richards and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Week.”) First, Dan cancels. Then her hair starts sticking up in weird places. Then she twists her ankle. Then she gets sick. Then the cleaners ruins her dress and she has to borrow one from Rhoda By the day of the awards, she is a wreck.
What makes this episode so successful is that it avoids feeling tired. This is a classic sitcom set up, and one that, frankly, I usually find stressful. But McGowan Johnson and Miller pull it off. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Moore is one of televisions greatest comediennes. The other thing that makes it work, I think, is that this is happening to Mary. Where these plots normally lose me is when I start feeling sorry for the character, and thus cannot enjoy their decent. But as we know (and as Rhoda reminds us here lest we forget), this is Mary. The Golden Person. She has a perfect life. So she’s having a bad week; it happens to everyone. We, like Rhoda, know this is temporary: “Admit it Mary, suddenly your life got crummy. It’ll get better. It has to. You’re not the crummy life type.”
An instant classic. “Put on a Happy Face” now joins the ranks of “The Six-and-a-Half-Year Itch,” “The Birds…and…Um…Bees,” “Rhoda the Beautiful,” and “Lou’s Place.”
We end the season with the reliable Martin Cohen. “Mary Richards and the Incredible Plant Lady” is our semi-annual test of Mary and Rhoda’s friendship.
Rhoda has been holding out on us: she has a gift for horticulture. She would like to open up her own boutique, but needs some start up money. Enter Mary. She lends Rhoda $1295 (nearly $7,000 by today’s standards) to start her business. Rhoda says she will pay Mary back within the month.
Six weeks later, Rhoda’s business is doing so well that she is able to take on Georgette full time and buy fancy clothes. But she still hasn’t paid Mary back. Mary, of course, says nothing, and quietly seethes. Earlier in the episode, we learned that Mary has been considering buying a new car, but chose to lend that money to Rhoda instead.
Rhoda proves to once again be the world’s best gift giver when she tricks Mary into coming to the car dealership so she can surprise Mary with her reimbursement: the new car Mary wanted. It’s a sweet way to end the season, and it’s good to see Rhoda doing so well. I also appreciate the fact that Georgette is now one of the gang. She starts working for Rhoda and is present for the big surprise. It’s always great to see a character intended for one or two episodes fit in so well they keep coming back.
– Speaking of Georgette, “Murray Faces Life” has a major continuity fail: Ted refers to his apartment as a bachelor pad and brags about having frequent guests. Three episodes earlier, he was confessing his love to Georgette.
– Another continuity fail: Mary moved to Minneapolis about three years ago at this point. In the series premiere, we met her boyfriend, Bill, and learned that one of the reasons she moved is because she didn’t want to be engaged to him. In “Remembrance of Things Past,” Mary says that she hasn’t seen Tom in two and a half years. How does Tom fit with our original narrative?
-Gordy sighting! He is mentioned to fill in if Ted doesn’t get back from DC on time. Sadly, Ted makes it and we do not get to see Gordy.
– Other elements of Mary Richards’ Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week: She gets in trouble with Lou for throwing away the obituaries and has to recreate the file. Her bag of groceries breaks as she is entering her apartment and she misses a phone call. She wakes up late when her alarm didn’t go off. Gets a flat tire. Her hair dryer breaks. Leaves her umbrella at work and gets rained on the night of the banquet. Steps in puddle and gets her slipper wet. Her false eyelash falls just as she wins the award.
– Future Braverman Craig T. Nelson pops up in “Mary Richards and the Incredible Plant Lady” as one of the mechanics at the dealership. Who knew he used to be good looking?
– Speaking of which, Mary takes her car to the dealer for maintenance. Lorelai and Emily Gilmore would not approve.
– Georgette’s many jobs is now a recurring gag. So far she has had five: plant boutique salesgirl, Rent-a-Car salesgirl, a window dresser, a manicurist, and selling cosmetics.
1970s vs. Today:
– The final two episodes of season three contain a lot of Nixon jokes. He would be tried in July; the final two episodes aired in February and March. I imagine that he was the talk of the nation for much of 1973.
– “I used to think that I might have a shot at the Pulitzer prize. Thought I could become a concert pianist. Or that my hair would stop coming out on the comb. Well it finally stopped.” – Mid-life Crisis Murray
-“Well it sounds like fun, but I think I’ll stay at home and write some obituaries.” – Mary knows how to refuse a night out.
– “I’m sorry, I don’t usually get this way in front of the cleaners.” -Mary Richards, frustrated customer
“As long as I got the store, why don’t I make it into a plant boutique. You know with a name like Rhoda’s Dendrin.” – Rhoda the Incredibly Punny Plant Lady
-“It’s called a prayer plant. But don’t worry, it’s non-denominational.” Georgette, proving once again Georgia Engel kills it on every line
Season three MVP(s)?
Very tough. Treva Silverman only wrote two episodes, but they were “Rhoda the Beautiful” and “Rhoda Morgenstern: Minneapolis to New York.” The former is a beautiful character study and the latter gave us Georgette. Ed. Weinberger came in swinging with “But Seriously Folks,” then produced the funniest scene of the season with the forced singalong in “Lou’s Place,” and then showed his compassionate side in “The Georgette Story.” There’s also Elias Davis and David Pollak to consider- the Ted and Lou Bromance would not have been possible without “Operation: Lou,” and they brought back Dan Whitfield in “The Courtship of Mary’s Father’s Daughter.” Finally, there are the new contenders, Miller and McGowan Johnson.
All of these writers are worthy. But if I have to pick one – which I suppose I do since I started this whole MVP thing – I have to go with Ed. Weinberger. The way he turned a terribly uncomfortable situation (Mary’s date failing at stand up comedy) into one of the funniest (Lou subsequently comforting Mary in the bathroom) while still showing compassion in “But Seriously Folks” was masterful. I still laugh when I think about the forced singalong in “Lou’s Place,” and how, once again he turned a terrible situation hilarious. And Georgette listing all of her good qualities in “The Georgette Story” is among the most endearing MTM scenes. So, congrats, Weinberger. You win!
And that will do it for season three, Retrowatchers! Next time, we will start season 4, and begin the countdown to Rhoda’s departure. (I can’t even…I’m still in denial over this.) We will discuss:
– The Lars Affair
– Angels in the Snow
– Rhoda’s Sister Gets Married
– The Lou and Edie Story
Before leaving, I have to share one other standout scene from “Put on a Happy Face.” Once again, there is nothing Edward Asner can’t do. Enjoy.