Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rhoda season 3

When word broke this past winter that Valerie Harper was battling brain cancer, I was prompted to pick up my DVD of Rhoda Season 3, which I'd purchased just a month or two earlier. I don't know: I guess I wanted to see Valerie Harper at a time when she was healthy and vibrant; I wanted to be reminded of how much pleasure her performances had given me over the years. The first episode I watched was Michael Leeson's "Rhoda Questions Her Life and Flies to Paris," and it was a honey. Rhoda Season 3 is the season where Rhoda and Joe separated: aka, the season where the ratings tanked. Creators Burns and Brooks did a lot of interviews at the time to justify the break-up. Life was so perfect for Rhoda Gerard -- the writers had trouble coming up with stories; they wanted back that firecracker we'd all fallen in love with on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the one whose insecurities always put her on the offensive. But the truth is, by splitting up Rhoda and Joe, they didn't get that Rhoda back -- at least not right away. For much of Season 3, she's just an unhappy mess. "Brenda, was I ever any fun?" she asks her younger sister at one point, and Brenda replies, nostalgically, "Yeah, you used to be great fun, Rhoda." It takes at least a year for Rhoda to regain her self-respect and her sass; what we're left with in Season 3 is one very sad lady.

But that said, time has done wonderful things for Rhoda Season 3. At the time, TV Guide complained that the show couldn't decide if it was a sitcom or a soap. Nowadays shows don't need to decide. Friends neatly walked the line between sitcom and soap for ten years; How I Met Your Mother has been doing it for nine. The sense of loss and pain that runs through much of Rhoda Season 3 -- and inspires some of Valerie Harper's most moving performances -- doesn't seem jarring anymore; it certainly don't seem out of place within a sitcom format.

Now that we're 35 years past the show's original airing, none of us are over-romanticizing Rhoda's marriage anymore. Back in 1976, there was a real sense of betrayal that the writers had robbed us of our fairy-tale ending; we'd watched Rhoda blossom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show: drop the weight, lose the attitude, and reveal herself as a woman capable of loving, and being loved in return. Didn't she deserve a happy ending? I don't think anyone in 2013 still thinks David Groh was the happy ending. Now it's easier to see that the lasting relationship on the show is between Valerie Harper and Julie Kavner. You want a happy ending? How about having a sibling you're that close to? (I didn't have one.) Rhoda and Brenda: there's your love story.

The cast shake-ups in Season 3 look better with age as well. Thirty-five years later, we no longer lament the missing-in-action Nancy Walker. In the fall of 1976, you turned to ABC and watched her on The Nancy Walker Show (and then, after midseason, on Blansky's Beauties), and there was the constant, puzzling reminder that Rhoda's mother -- that perpetual thorn in her side -- was off doing something else. Now she's out of sight, out of mind; if anything, we take comfort in the fact that while Rhoda was going through the worst year of her life, Nancy Walker was off crashing and burning in two series. As bad as Rhoda Gerard's life got that season -- well, Nancy Walker's was probably worse.

In 1976, Ron Silver was at the start of his career; when he turned up on Rhoda as wimpy wannabe lady-killer Gary Levi, he didn't make much of an impression -- for all we knew, the actor might have been playing himself. Now that he's appeared in a wealth of impressive, audacious roles (and in the thorniest one-man show I've ever seen), Gary the lovable loser is clearly a performance, and a rather endearing one at that. (He's also on the receiving end of some of Rhoda's best jabs that season, and for that reason alone he's indispensable. "I'm gonna go take a shower," he announces to Rhoda and Brenda in one of his first appearances. "Does anybody want to join me?" -- to which Rhoda deadpans, "Sorry, Gare, I never rub-a-dub-dub with a schlub.") And if Anne Meara seemed a little strident during her (brief) run during Rhoda Season 3, we're unlikely to complain anymore. Now we've seen her on everything from Archie Bunker's Place to ALF, from Murphy Brown to Sex and the City to The King of Queens -- and for me, she'll always be the woman who co-wrote and starred (opposite Hal Linden) in the 1983 CBS film The Other Woman, still one of the best made-for-television movies I've ever seen (certainly the best romantic comedy). Now I watch her on Rhoda, and go "That's Anne Meara, a national treasure." There are people who've earned the right to be beyond criticism: Anne Meara, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Michele Lee -- maybe four others.

Mostly, I watch Rhoda Season 3 now and I'm reminded how much I enjoyed Charlotte Brown's writing. If the whole season is a warm-up for her best script, the Season 4 opener (22 minutes of mother vs. daughter banter: all the things you wish you could say to your parents, and all the things you're terrified they'd say back), what a warm-up it is! Let's put the season in perspective for a second. CBS, the land of smart sitcoms, was just losing its dominance in the Nielsens: ABC's Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley had risen to the top of the ratings heap; two days after Rhoda Season 3 ended, ABC's Three's Company premiered, and jiggle TV soon ruled the airwaves. That Rhoda Season 3 is so adult and uncompromising is particularly impressive given that it aired in an 8 PM timeslot; it's CBS's assault on the dreaded Family Viewing Hour, and Charlotte Brown is there leading the charge.

In the season opener, Brown's "The Separation," Rhoda and Joe get into it; she knows he's drifting away, and it terrifies her. He says he needs to cool off, and heads for the door. She responds, instinctively, "Joe, you walk out that door now, don't --" and he interrupts, raising his voice, "Don't come back? Is that what you were going to say?" And she backpedals instantly: "Who was going to say such a thing? There are many ways to end that sentence," and improvising and stammering like mad, continues, "Don't, uh, forget to pick up some milk. Don't, uh, c-cross against the light. Don't talk to strangers. Don't do this to me..." But Joe isn't just taking off to get some air; he's taking off, period: moving out -- and the best he can manage before he goes is a perfunctory "you gonna be OK?" And Rhoda's response is, well, pure Rhoda: "Of course not." She's not going to be noble and brave, like one of those self-sacrificing Thirties heroines; she's going to tell it like it is. Valerie Harper gives a lot of heartbreaking performances during Season 3, but the scene in which Rhoda watches Joe walk out is in a class of its own.

That's not to imply that the season is all turmoil and tears. Geoffrey Neigher and Coleman Mitchell pen a couple episodes featuring lounge lizard Johnny Venture (Michael Delano, a great addition to the cast) that are among the series' funniest -- and they give Rhoda (and Harper) a welcome relief from all the separation anxiety. And several episodes spotlighting Julie Kavner (in particular, Leeson's "An Elephant Never Forgets") are warm and well-played. But when it comes time for the somber stuff, that's Charlotte Brown's domain. About two-thirds of the way through the season, in Brown's "The Ultimatum" (sounds like a Waltons episode, doesn't it?), we see the last of Joe. Rhoda knows it (we in the audience don't know yet that it's David Groh's final appearance), and she's struggling. Where does she turn? To her best friend Mary, of course. She reaches her on the phone, in her Minneapolis apartment, and lets her know she's counting on her: "I really need some clear thinking. You always know what to say. You always see a problem and cut right through to the nub. So whaddaya think, Mare? Tell me my life isn't over. Tell me I can get along without Joe." On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary would have said something wise and winning, the kind of thing you need your friend to say in a crisis. But on Rhoda, she says the kind of useless pap that friends really do say. First she stalls for time -- "Rhoda, Rhoda" -- then the best she can do is parrot, in an overly emphatic way, Rhoda's own words: "Your life...isn't...over. You can get along...without...Joe." That's it. There's a pause, a perfect pause, then Rhoda sighs, "Still got the touch," with a ruefulness that pretty much epitomizes the brilliant Rhoda Season 3. It's perhaps the saddest moment in a wonderfully sad season, and another great turn by Harper, who plays Rhoda with a combination of toughness and terror that's quite unlike anything I've seen on the small screen. No quick fixes for Rhoda Morgenstern: nothing to soothe the pain; nothing to ease the loneliness. Forget those Minneapolis winters; New York is the coldest town of all.