Monday, January 15, 2018

Rhoda season 3

Rhoda Season 3 is daring and wonderful and strange. It's arguably the most adult and uncompromising sitcom season of the '70s, and since nothing like it has come along since -- the dissolution of a fairy-tale marriage, told in real time -- it remains one of the most bold and unconventional seasons of any sitcom, period. It's also a bit of a mess. Its aspirations are heady, but they're undermined by self doubts, second thoughts and apparent audience pandering. Beneath the unraveling of Rhoda's marriage is a creative team discovering -- much like Rhoda herself -- that intelligence and conviction only take you so far, and reacting with the same muddled insecurities as their heroine. Season 3 is a world where seemingly everything is falling apart -- before and behind the camera -- but that duality energizes the season as much as it hobbles it, giving it a complexity that's uncommon and startling. It's beautiful chaos: restless and alive in a way sitcoms rarely are.

There are times when the tone varies so drastically from week to week that it's tough to get your bearings. But this is New York City in the mid-'70s, a time when "bearings" are a luxury most people can't afford. It's the Abe Beame era: of fiscal crises and citywide blackouts, of Son of Sam and terrorist bombings. But it's also the hub of the nation's Bicentennial celebration, and the site of the Democratic National Convention; it's still, at heart, a town where people come to party -- and to succeed: "If I can make it there," as Sinatra soon began crooning. It's the land of Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver, but also of Made for Each Other and Annie Hall. (Fittingly, at one point Rhoda's sister Brenda manages an offscreen conversation with Woody Allen.) That's the New York City of Rhoda Season 3, and even the season's unsettling -- frequently uncertain -- shifts in tone seem consistent with a town whose only aim is to keep you off-balance: to make you feel that you're at once thriving, floundering, and suffocating.

Rhoda Season 3 is a season to cherish; it's also a season that audiences of the time hated -- hated for reasons that are tough to fathom if you didn't live through it all. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where Valerie Harper's Rhoda Morgenstern had spent four seasons, she'd begun as an overweight smart-aleck who couldn't get a decent guy to give her the time of day, then blossomed into a svelte beauty who -- like her best friend Mary -- couldn't find a man who measured up. In a few short years, she went from belittling herself to belittling the losers she kept being set up with, and we loved her for her candor and resiliency. (From Mary Tyler Moore Season 3, her description of a recent date: "A real zero. I mean, this guy could walk through an electric eye door, it wouldn't open.") And finally, in Season 4's "Love Blooms at Hemples," she found someone worthy, put her heart on the line -- and he didn't reciprocate. We'd waited three years for Rhoda to find love, and instead, she found heartbreak -- or at least, it was as heartbreaking as a sitcom working within a traditional episodic format got at that time. (In other words, the incident, a crushing blow for Rhoda, was never referenced again.)

So when she packed up her trademark head scarves and moved from Minneapolis to New York City in the fall of 1974, and (in the pilot episode of her own series) found love with a divorcé named Joe Gerard, it was -- for a good chunk of the viewing audience -- the "happily ever after" that most of us never got. Rhoda had landed her dream guy: he was tall, dark and handsome -- hell, he was so macho, he owned a wrecking company, and could frequently be found sporting a hard hat and a shirt buttoned just north of the navel. And so Rhoda settled into married life, and Rhoda established itself as a top-10 hit. And finally, Rhoda had it all.

But how do you write a sitcom about a woman who has it all? Married life turned Rhoda into a much more conventional television heroine, and Rhoda into a much more traditional sitcom. No critic at the time was more vocal or insightful than John Leonard in The New York Times, who wrote midway through Rhoda's first season:

Some of us have had qualms about Rhoda from the beginning. Yes, we loved Valerie Harper and Nancy Walker and the wedding. But what was the program going to be about? It hopped around until the wedding in late October. Then it settled down, and is not a place I particularly want to visit. It is, instead, the sort of place I've been trying to get out of for years. It is I Married Joan and it is I Love Lucy, the zany housewife as the white tornado in her own kitchen.

Rhoda worries about the furniture in her apartment. She worries about Joe's old girl friends. She worries about Joe's wanting to stay home and her wanting to go out. She worries about Brenda's involvement with a married man. (That episode could have been rescued. If, faced with the evidence Rhoda had so tediously collected, Brenda had said, “So what?” or, “He's better than nothing,” the program might for a moment have sounded as though it belonged to the 1970's instead of the 1950's.)

Let me make feminist noises. Rhoda should get out of the house and go to work. Her job should be demanding and rewarding. Joe should have to make some compromises. That's what people do when they get married these days, and there's no earthly reason why a sophisticated sitcom can't find the humor in these adjustments, exploit it and instruct us. Instead, the writers and producers of Rhoda have gone to the 1950's vending machine, deposited the small change of themselves, and gotten old yuks in new cans. It's a waste of talent.

Yet when it came to devising decent stories for Rhoda, the writers were stymied. Yes, they could have dug deep into the issues facing a contemporary couple, but there's no way that David Groh, who played Joe, would have been up to the challenge. And Rhoda's window-dressing career -- a leftover from her days in Minneapolis -- was a story-telling dead end; they could hardly give us episodes of Rhoda dressing department-store dummies. So that left the writers with two choices: Rhoda was either going to fixate over trivial matters, which she did for much of Season 1, or the writers were going to look elsewhere for story-lines, as they did through most of Season 2. In Season 2, Rhoda feels like the comic sidekick in her own series. One week is about Brenda quitting her job; then she hunts for a roommate, then convinces Joe to hire her boyfriend Nick. Rhoda's father has an uneasy reunion with a friend, while Rhoda's mother becomes convinced her husband is unfaithful. And through it all there's Rhoda waiting nearby with some witty rejoinder. Mary Tyler Moore, in the first few seasons of her own show, was always focal, even when the writers hadn't yet figured out how to make her funny; Rhoda by Season 2 is funny but no longer focal.

So after Season 2 wrapped, the writers realized they had work to do; how do they get the spotlight back on their star -- and give her a story-line worthy of her talents? So they decide to have Rhoda and Joe separate. It serves multiple purposes: it opens up story-lines, groundbreaking ones; it shifts the focus back to Harper, with a showcase designed to restore her vulnerability and intensity; and it eases Groh off the canvas. (Although creators James Brooks and Allan Burns postured that they were doing this to shake up Rhoda's world, an unnamed insider insisted to TV Guide that the real problem was "they'd hired a lousy actor to play Joe.")

The PR during the summer of 1976 was relentless, as Brooks and Burns tried to prepare the audience for what was coming. Life was too perfect for Rhoda Gerard, they insisted -- there were no good stories left to tell; they wanted back that firecracker we'd all fallen in love with on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the one whose insecurities put her on the offensive. And they maintained that the separation story-line wasn't just for Rhoda, but for the viewers as well; even if the audience had shown no signs of tiring of the series, Brooks and Burns were confident that -- if the show continued down its present path -- they would in time. They'd see that the show lacked focus and relevance, and flee. As it happens, Brooks and Burns gave their audience too much credit; ironically, this was precisely the time when audiences began to shrink away from thinking-man's television. After six years of topicality, viewers wanted escape. They wanted easy laughs and cheap gags. And they probably wanted more of Rhoda Season 2, a season so relentlessly upbeat that its theme song was accompanied by a chorus of chirping children.

And instead, along comes Season 3, a watershed moment in adult television. 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, supplanting such stalwarts as All in the Family, M*A*S*H and Maude; 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 ambitious is particularly impressive given that it aired in an 8 PM timeslot; it's CBS's assault on the dreaded Family Viewing Hour, going boldly where no sitcom had gone. (Imagine Lucy divorcing Ricky, or Rob Petrie deciding to dump Laura, or Samantha Stephens realizing she'd be better off without Darrin.) And audiences rejected the premise out of hand, registering their disapproval by changing the channel -- and the ratings tanked. (David Groh even started to get hate mail for "leaving Rhoda.") And oh sure, there were some (myself included) who thought that Rhoda's separation was the best thing to happen to the series, who felt -- regardless of any gaffes committed along the way -- that it lent it urgency and weight, and elevated Harper's performances to a level no other sitcom actress of her time was remotely matching. But we were, at that time, a silent minority.

Forty years later, viewed from a distance, Rhoda Season 3 is the miracle you don't see coming: the transformation of a solid but bland sitcom into something ferociously unpredictable and achingly real. Time has done wonderful things to Season 3. First and foremost, the tone and structure no longer startle; the use of an episodic format to tell a continuing story-line no longer feels unfamiliar and strange. At the time, TV Guide complained that the show couldn't decide if it was a sitcom or a soap. Today shows don't need to decide. Friends and How I Met Your Mother neatly walked the line between sitcom and soap for ten years. Nowadays, it's commonplace for sitcoms to feature dynamic story-lines: even ones infused with disillusion and grief. The sense of loss and pain that runs through much of Rhoda Season 3 -- and inspires Valerie Harper's most striking performances -- doesn't seem jarring anymore; it certainly don't seem out of place within a sitcom format. And now that four decades have passed, no one's over-romanticizing Rhoda's marriage, or posturing that Joe was "the one." No one's shocked or dismayed by the subject matter either; what was once controversial is now commonplace. (When Groh passed away in 2008, obituaries simply noted that he was best remembered as Rhoda's husband, whom she'd eventually divorced. No big deal.) Now it's easier to see that the lasting relationship is between Valerie Harper and Julie Kavner's characters. You want a happy ending? How about having a sibling you're that close to? Rhoda and Brenda: there's your love story.

The cast changes in Season 3 seemed disorienting in 1976. Nancy Walker had been wooed away by ABC, and so Rhoda's mother and father were (temporarily, as it turned out) written off: embarking, after the first episode, on a cross-country road trip. In the fall of 1976, you turned to ABC and watched The Nancy Walker Show (and then, after that bombed, Walker's midseason replacement Blansky's Beauties), and there was the puzzling sight of Rhoda's mother -- that perpetual thorn in her side, the woman who was happiest when she was micro-managing her daughter's life -- off doing something else. You had that odd, weekly reminder of what was missing. 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's life got that season -- well, Walker's was probably worse.

With Nancy Walker and Harold Gould gone, and David Groh demoted to recurring, it meant at least a few new characters were needed to pick up the slack; otherwise it was all Rhoda and Brenda, all the time. Ron Silver joins the cast in episode 3 as neighbor Gary Levi, a wimp in wolf's clothing. He's designed as an irritant who'll soften into a confidante -- just like Rhoda herself in the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- and his transformation is tied to Rhoda's own seasonal arc. In the earliest episodes, when Rhoda is adrift, Gary's on the receiving end of some of her best jabs. She boosts her self-esteem by taking down his. ("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 quips, "Sorry, Gare, I never rub-a-dub-dub with a schlub.") And then, once Rhoda gets back on her feet and no longer needs a target, the writers lighten up on Gary's affectations. Silver's a marvel, but he's dutiful and unassuming, and it's easy to take his work for granted. The one time an episode focuses in on Harper and Silver, in Charlotte Brown's knockout farce "Meet the Levys," the two actors click like they've been working together for years; the audience howls with pleasure at watching their characters one-up each other. And the problem with Gary is that he never gets another showcase that strong; after that episode, he's eased back into the ensemble, but he's eased back a touch too far. It would have been interesting to see how Gary would have fared if they'd let him keep a bit of his edge, but you get the sense that the writers feel they've been audacious enough and need to play it safe for a while.

Anne Meara is -- well, Anne Meara, and she's marvelous. It's too bad the writers didn't seem to know it. She's Sally Gallagher, divorced airline hostess, whom Rhoda meets at a singles weekend in episode 4, when the two of them end up as bunkmates and neither has the confidence to come out of their cabin. Sally's been through everything Rhoda's experiencing -- she's Ethel to Rhoda's Lucy. She's also a strong presence: exactly what Harper needs. Nancy Walker and David Groh didn't have much in common in the acting department, but they were both immovable objects to Valerie Harper's irresistible force. They allowed her to go a little crazy. Meara takes over that role in Season 3, and beautifully; Sally and Rhoda convince as instant friends. At her best, she has a "take no prisoners" attitude: brittle and defensive, tossing off one-liners in Meara's best manner. But then, like Gary, she's softened -- in her case, given a weakness for arrogant men. Did someone insist that she needed to be needier, so she'd be more "likable"? Rhoda and Brenda have enough issues in the self-esteem department; by weakening Sally, they render her redundant -- and sadly, she's gone by episode 14. (The internet is full of statements like "viewers didn't take to her" -- I have no idea if that's true, but if so, why were the writers letting the audience dictate story? And that said, if Sally felt a little brassy for 1976 -- when wise-ass characters were expected to be the brunt of their own jokes -- she seems spot-on in 2017.) And with Meara gone, the show feels underpopulated. In the season's penultimate episode, Beverly Sanders returns as Rhoda's best friend Susie, whom she'd played intermittently for the first two seasons, and it's the season's nadir. Rhoda and Susie have a pajama party and make crank calls, and there's no tension in the performances or topicality in the script. Meara is missed.

But at least after Sally disappears, a couple of new players are added to the mix, both invaluable. In episode 5, Nick had offered to take Rhoda and Brenda out on the town, and brought along a buddy of his: lounge lizard Johnny Venture. Michael DeLano infused Johnny with the breezy vulgarity of every Vegas showman (and the costumer decked him out with more jewelry than the show windows at Tiffany's), but he was charming and charismatic -- and a perfect foil for Harper. When he's invited back midseason, you instantly see the wisdom. And late in the season, Brenda has a first date with a sweet bumpkin named Benny Goodwin, and as with DeLano, the chemistry is there, and the actor (Ray Buktenica) is swiftly promoted to recurring. And by that point, Rhoda has embraced a new format more emblematic of the MTM house style, and more familiar to its team of writers. It's no longer a series about an extended family, but about a blended one: six damaged but undaunted souls, searching for solace in a city steeped in chaos.

The first nine episodes of Season 3 are the best string of episodes in the series' run. There's nothing remotely close. In the season opener, Charlotte Brown's "The Separation," Rhoda and Joe are looking to purchase an apartment, and he sabotages the sale. (The writers recognize that it's those kind of watershed moments when emotions run highest.) Rhoda and Joe get into it; she feels him drifting, and it terrifies her. At the height of the fight, he announces he needs some air and heads for the door. She responds, instinctually, "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, alarmed by his intensity: "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 is no longer weighing his options; he's already decided to move out -- and the best he can manage before he goes is a perfunctory "You gonna be OK?" Rhoda's response is a classic: "Of course not." And those three words pretty much set up the season. She's not "gonna make it after all," like her best friend in Minneapolis -- or at least, the show is making no promises. Hell, it can't even assure us she's going to be all right. We're in uncharted territory.

"The Separation" features the first in a string of startlingly raw performances by Valerie Harper. However much Rhoda rallies through the course of the season, her hurt and fear and resentment are always simmering beneath the surface. (Sometimes Harper's performances are so edgy -- often at the unlikeliest times -- that you're left dumbstruck by their audacity.) The first few weeks of Season 3 nail every moment: Joe's departure, Gary's arrival, Sally's introduction, Johnny's intrusion. And then, in episode 6, Brown sends Rhoda and Joe to a marriage counselor, where they air every grievance, including their dissatisfaction with their sex life.

Rhoda: It was fine after the separation. But for a couple of months before, it was not so fine. Right, Joe?
Joe: What do you mean "Right, Joe?" You saying it's my fault?
Rhoda: No.
Joe: Look, Rhoda, I work hard. I come home, I'm very tired. I don't have time for all that kissing. (To the counselor) She wants me to kiss her for nine years.
Rhoda: I do not want to be kissed for nine years. I just don't want to feel like I've been taken captive by a pirate ship.
Joe: Hey, you're nuts. I never had that complaint before.
Rhoda: Or after?
Joe: Hey, I wasn't gonna say after.
Rhoda (defiant): OK, I'm very sorry!
Joe (angry): Well, I'm sorry too!
Rhoda: So am I.
Joe: Fine.
Rhoda: Good.
Joe: Terrific.

Even the truces are tense. Ultimately, Joe admits he's unsure he wants to be married at all, and Rhoda asks the obvious question: "Then why did you marry me?" And the writers have a ready-made answer: "You made me." And indeed it's true. As the writers had scripted it early in Season 1, Joe had wanted to live together; it's Rhoda who'd pressed for a wedding. And the writers use that here to explain why the marriage is failing. Harper's reaction is a classic -- furious and mortified: "You swore that you would never throw that up to me." It gets a huge laugh -- even Jim Brooks, in the audience, responds with his trademark honk. But it's laughter cloaked in pain, like so much of Season 3. And to see how far the show has come in a half-dozen episodes, you only need to compare it to a similar line in Season 2's "Rhoda's Sellout," in which Joe complains that Rhoda is always getting her pride hurt -- like that time she suggested eggs for breakfast, and he countered with cereal, and she took it personally -- and she insists, "You promised you'd never throw that up to me again." In Season 3, Rhoda is fighting for her marriage; what a relief after Season 2, when her most pressing problem was the breakfast menu.

And mind you, those early episodes aren't all turmoil and tears. Even as Rhoda's marriage is falling apart, she's rediscovering her capacity for spontaneity, for daring, for joy. As the eighth episode of the season begins, Michael Leeson's "Rhoda Questions Her Life and Flies to Paris," Rhoda is fixating over something Joe said in therapy: that she's become dull. (Brenda: "If you're dull, I must be dead.") Rhoda fears he may be right: "Maybe I have settled down too much. Do you realize in two years of married life, I went from a black negligee to flannel pajamas with horsies on them?" The script carefully counters Rhoda's ruminations with bright exchanges and clever bits: the first meeting between Gary and Sally; the first encounter between Sally and Rhoda's doorman Carlton; and -- in a very funny running gag -- the supporting cast, one by one, mistaking Rhoda's pancake batter for a breakfast shake, and helping themselves. (Once you've heard Julie Kavner bemoan, "I drank pancake," you're unlikely to forget it.) Finally, Rhoda and Brenda decide to shake up their lives; each will write down three things they've always dreamed of doing, but haven't had the nerve. (Brenda: "Does 'fettuccini' have two t's?" Rhoda: "I don't know. I spelled it with one.") And when they have to choose one of their fantasies, and act on it, Rhoda winds up with "go to Paris for the weekend." As she weighs the pros and cons of spending so much money on something so frivolous, Brenda and Sally are there to act as audience surrogates, dragging her out of her comfort zone. And indeed she does go, and has a marvelous time; there's even a terrific button when she returns. Brenda's fantasy had been to call Woody Allen, whose phone number she'd gotten from a co-worker. When Brenda meets her sister at the airport and announces that she made the call, Rhoda can't wait to hear more: "What did he say?" And Brenda admits, "He thought it was really stupid that you went to Paris for just a weekend." Cue the closing credits, as the audience claps and cheers.

As noted, the first nine episodes of the season are Rhoda at its best. And the remaining fifteen are scrappier. At their worst, they're still superior to most everything in the first two seasons, because Harper unleashed can enliven even the most turgid scenes. But whether it's due to network interference, declining ratings or audience feedback, the writers back away from the subject matter, and start to intersperse more traditional sitcom plots -- and although Rhoda's life remains in turmoil, it's less from the pain of separation than from the screwball scenarios that befall most sitcom heroines: Nick drops his accordion on her foot and breaks her toe; she's mistaken for a hooker and arrested; she develops an allergic reaction and blotches appear on her face. She even manages to host a rotten party. Some of it is admittedly entertaining, but when you alternate between this and the separation anxiety, it makes for a pretty strange mix. There are tactical errors, too. In addition to the stumbles with Gary and Sally's characters, the writers wallow too long in Rhoda's self-pity, then offer up a pair of episodes that tease the possibility of a reconciliation with Joe. (It's exactly the wrong time, midway through the season, to give the audience false hope.) And ironically, although there are far fewer Brenda-centric episodes in Season 3 than in Season 2 (and although several are winners, notably Leeson's "An Elephant Never Forgets" and Brown's "Nose Job"), they feel a bit like an intrusion. With Rhoda's life so fascinating again, and Harper on fire, why are we turning elsewhere for stories? (And that said, you succumb to the best of them, because it's not just Harper who ups her game in Season 3: Julie Kavner's a marvel. Instead of being merely adorably self-deprecating, as in the first two seasons, she has moments when she seems as vivid and disturbing as Harper.)

Rhoda Season 3 ultimately wants to be many things: insightful character drama, raunchy crowd-pleaser, and tight ensemble comedy. By midseason, the series feels like it's furiously multitasking -- and frequently flailing. But it's a season multitasking much like its heroine. Neither Rhoda nor the writers seem to know which way to turn next; the only thing you can count on is that Harper will hold it all together -- both the contemporary story-lines and the more commonplace ones -- with furious determination. When Rhoda is mistaken for a hooker, and the cop tries to cart her off, she grabs onto her sofa and drags it halfway across the living room -- but Harper doesn't just go for laughs. She lets you see why she's resisting arrest: because in the crime-infested cities of the mid-'70s, you do anything you can to avoid spending a night in jail. And when Rhoda winds up in the ER with the broken toe, and struggles to get triaged and treated, Harper makes it clear that underneath her fierce facade is the fear that -- as with her marriage -- things won't go the way she hopes. (As she admits to Joe early in the season, less self-pityingly than prophetically, "I am not a lucky person.") You see her simultaneously fighting for her dignity and steeling herself for defeat. Harper suffers humiliations large and small in Season 3, but she's rarely been more vibrant; she's once again the star of her own series, and she seems game for anything.

The middle third of the season is a muddle, but the writers eventually find their way back. Two-thirds of the way through, in Brown's "The Ultimatum," after months of trying to save her marriage and maintain her sanity -- all while dealing with her sister's insecurities and her neighbor's demands, her best friend's neuroses and her own failing business -- Rhoda comes unglued. It's the first few minutes of the episode, but it's sixteen episodes into the season, and the pressure has been mounting. Racing to finish a deadline, and dealing with distraction upon distraction, Rhoda's nerves are on edge. When Carlton buzzes up, she implores him, her voice shaking, "Carlton, please. Please don't let this be a dumb thing. I mean, I can't handle it now. I cannot." And when it is indeed a dumb thing -- a reminder about proper use of the trash shoot -- she screams into the intercom: something raw and piercing and primal. (Compare it to a scene that season on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, when Mary lets loose in similar fashion. The set-up: she's taking a bath, and Lou, Murray and Ted intrude and won't leave. When Mary screams, it's played as comedy, and there's nothing more at stake than her modesty. Rhoda sounds like she's fighting for her sanity -- and it's unnerving. Small wonder audiences hungry for escapism defected to Little House on the Prairie and The Captain and Tenille.)

In "The Ultimatum," we see the last of Joe. For months, he's been calling the shots: dating his wife once a week, and otherwise, leading a bachelor's life. Rhoda can't stand still any longer. She reaches a point where she's prepared to take a stand: either he gives her more time, or she starts seeing other men. She's bluffing, of course, but when he calls her on it, she knows she has to make good on her threat. In a typical sitcom contrivance, it's her marriage counselor who, upon hearing of her new arrangement, asks her out and becomes her "first date" -- but the surprising part is, she has a nice time. She sees a way forward. And from there, the season proceeds towards its finale with greater assurance. The episode quality remains uneven, but every few weeks, we get another glimpse of Rhoda getting on with her life -- and that (momentarily) sets things right. The week after "The Ultimatum" features the first return of Johnny Venture, who sets his sights on Rhoda, plying her with chocolate and trinkets and flattery, all to no avail. Finally, in the episode's final moments, he pulls her in for a surprise kiss. And instead of fighting him off, she yields, leaning into it -- and when he walks away, slinging his coat over his shoulder with the air of a job well done, her lips curl into a half-smile that's both dazed and delighted. A few episodes later, she has her first date (with Brenda's boss), and although she fears he might have expectations she's not prepared to meet, he proves the perfect gentleman: walking her to her door after dinner, explaining that he's sensitive to her situation and not about to press her further -- leaving her to lament, after he goes, "I was gonna ask him in." And by the time the season finale hits, and Rhoda is reconnecting with her wild side in an impromptu trip to Vegas, the transformation of the series and its heroine are complete.

But back to "The Ultimatum," because it's the essence of what sets Rhoda Season 3 apart from -- well, just about everything. The writers have, through the course of the season, eased Joe off the canvas. But there'll be no "final goodbye" -- heaven knows how the audience would react to that. Better that they simply prove that the show has a future without him, which they do, and continue along. But still: it would be nice to commemorate and punctuate the moment when Rhoda decides to move on. So where does she turn? To her best friend Mary, of course. She reaches her on the phone, in her Minneapolis apartment, as Mary emerges from the shower. They start with a little banter -- don't they always? "Rhoda? I can't hear you -- I've got this towel wrapped around my head." "Ah, Mare, still trying to look like me." But then Rhoda gets to the point, and updates her friend, 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, the kind of thing you need a friend to say in a crisis. But in Rhoda Season 3, the best she can offer is the kind of useless pap that friends really do say: first stalling for time ("Rhoda, Rhoda"), then parroting, in an overly emphatic way, Rhoda's own words: "Your life isn't over. You can get along without Joe." Reassurance has never sounded so empty. The camera fastens on Harper's face. There's a pause, a perfect pause, then Rhoda sighs, "Still got the touch," with a ruefulness that pretty much epitomizes the intrepid, incisive Season 3. It's perhaps the saddest moment in a wonderfully sad season, and another dazzling turn by Harper, who plays Rhoda with a combination of toughness and terror that's 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.


Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, I delve into WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you have a preference for dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, plus a dozen essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.

17 comments:

  1. Tommy, this is splendid. Thank you. I didn't have the first-run experience of absorbing it once a week (I was a basement-dwelling grad student at the time, with no TV), but I caught up with every episode later, in syndication.* And I certainly remember this stretch seeming chaotic and uneven, but also weirdly fascinating and different. And it took your analysis to make all that clear to me.

    (*A bit of testimony as to how much the series' popularity and "buzz" decreased during and after this time: When I finally did acquire a [used B&W] TV in summer of 1979, and bought a TV Guide, I was astonished to discovered that CBS was showing Rhoda reruns in primetime, and after a little research to learn that the series had been only recently cancelled -- in December 1978, in fact. I hadn't heard anybody talk about it in years, my parents included, and so I could only assume that it had been cancelled after 2 or 3 seasons and was long gone. That it had managed 4.5, and was practically still around, was a giant surprise. But that's how much it had vanished from the pop culture radar.)

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    1. Jon, thank you so much for the lovely response, and it is so nice to hear from you -- we are long overdue a "catch-up"! I rewatched Season 3 of Rhoda this past fall, while Philip and I were up in Pennsylvania where he was doing a show, and like you, elements that felt baffling and disorienting to me when I first watched seemed clearer now, with the benefit of four decades of age and experience, and a greater understanding of how the industry works. And yes indeed, as you say, the publicity ahead of Season 3 was the last big "buzz" the series enjoyed. A ratings slide began in Season 3 (although it ticked up a bit in Season 4), but nothing in its final two seasons got audiences talking about it again. And CBS, who was dumping or adapting a lot of their line-up to embrace the kid-friendly programming that had launched ABC to the top of the ratings heap, had no enthusiasm left for a show like Rhoda. They stranded its final season in a Saturday night death slot, and it quickly shuttered, with several episodes left unaired. Ironically, the series Good Times was airing directly behind it, garnering the same awful ratings, and CBS pulled it too -- but then they brought it back later that season, to air the remainder of its episodes: a courtesy Rhoda was denied. Good Times had J.J. and his "Dyn-o-mite" catchphrase and more of what networks were looking for at the time. Rhoda, by clinging to a view of adults acting like adults, was already a relic of an earlier era.

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    2. One other thing about Rhoda, on a really trivial statistical note: it belongs to a small group of series that were really popular and high-profile for a while, but by the end had lost so much buzz that they were canceled mid-season. Another example would be The A-Team (not a personal favorite, but it fits here), also four and a half. (It also leads to an Eddie Velez tangent I like, but enough is enough....)

      I'm sure there are more, but internet searches, which turn up fan-boy lists of all kinds of obscure TV stuff, have so far failed me on this one.

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  2. "Life is such a sweet insanity"....

    The first line of the theme song of "Valerie": a typical 1980s family sitcom that just so happened to be a star vehicle for that great Valerie Harper (before other drama came into play).

    That lyric certainly plays into a certain comedic air (we see the Hogan family tackling Harper after she catches a high flying football) that all sitcoms love to exude.

    I also see that lyric as the perfect example of this season of RHODA that you mentioned. This took a very brutal life moment and managed to get pathos and heartbreak seeped into 1970s sitcom...and watching Rhoda cope and work through it was certainly endearing at times as much as it was hair raising.

    I truthfully haven't seen this season in quite some time. Even as a young kid, it seemed jarring and off-putting and yet, I oddly admired it despite not fully grasping it.

    It may be intriguing to go back and view the season now that I'm older and have a better sense of what exactly is going on.

    This was the perfect example of the writers painting themselves into a corner and having to take drastic measures to get out. This type of plot point would almost seem to be expected in today's tv viewing world but it's no surprise that the audiences back then treated the failed marriage as an equivalent of the apocalypse.

    I may seek this season out again soon. Definitely enjoyed the read!

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    1. So glad you gave a look, Anthony, and so pleased you enjoyed. As you said, today we'd think nothing about this kind of story-line; in 1976, it was so revolutionary that Brooks and Burns felt they had to "prepare" the audience in advance -- and in retrospect, I think that was their biggest mistake. I think because they knew it was apt to (initially, at least) upset a lot of people, they felt their best move was to announce the story-line in advance, to give people time to prepare. But as we saw, all they did was get people so riled up, they refused to watch. Whereas if audiences had just gone into the season with no awareness of the upcoming story-line (and heaven knows, it's not like, in 1976, you'd have to work hard to keep the story-line "under wraps" -- nothing got out in those days), the audience might have had a different reaction. Shocked at first, but after Episode 1, they'd have probably thought, "Oh, it's probably just a two-parter; they'll be back together next week." And after a few episodes, they'd think, "He'll be home for Christmas." And after a while, as the writers hoped, the audience might have gotten used to the new format and the renewed focus on the title character. But ironically, by letting the cat out of the bag, they didn't educate their audience; they alienated them.

      (By the way, so funny that you mention the sitcom Valerie: I refer to it at length in the "Best of 2017" essay I posted last week -- under, of course, the Jason Bateman starrer Ozark.)

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  3. I actually liked Rhoda and Joe married...and while season 3 had some great moments with their marriage going through problems...I think divorce was an easy way out for the writers. I think they should have reconciled at the end of the 3rd season..and the 4th season showing them moving forward..with Rhoda becoming pregnant (Rhoda as a mom...rhoda's mom as a grand ma...comic gold).

    To me season 4 and 5 had Rhoda as single again..and it was no hum to me because it seemed like the show was trying to be MTM instead of Rhoda.

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    1. There were so many articles written about Rhoda after Season 2, when Brooks and Burns announced the "separation story-line," but it's interesting: I remember few articles after that, and certainly none that pinpoint the moment when they thought, "Yes, we like the series better without Joe. Let's write him off." Was that their desired gameplan all along, I wonder, or was there a point midway through Season 3 that they decided to move forward with the divorce? I don't think more than ten episodes could have aired by the time they wrote Joe's farewell, so they must have made that decision pretty early in Season 3, but I do wonder what the discussions were like -- and if they ever thought about the couple reconciling, and even, as you said, starting a family. The series really is such an oddity: so much format changing, it sometimes feels like four different shows. I have one friend who thinks Season 3 is its nadir; I know people who think it doesn't get good until Season 4; and some, like you, prefer the married years. I quite like Season 4 -- I like getting Rhoda out of the window-dressing business and putting her in a setting where she can actually interact with people, and I like Kenneth McMillan -- but I certainly agree that by Season 5, it starts to feel like The Mary Tyler Moore Show redux, an issue I suspect is exacerbated by the two writers from MTM's final two seasons -- David Lloyd and Bob Ellison -- joining the writing staff for Season 5. At its best, Rhoda had a tang all its own; that final season, despite the talent involved, feels generic to me.

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    2. Until Valerie Harper said it in an interview, I had never thought about the fact that the first 2 or 3 seasons of Rhoda was almost a blueprint for Mad About You.. but it makes sense. Even Jamie and Paul on Mad about You had marital problems/separation for several episodes one season.. but they got back together and ended up pregnant with a baby to finish off the final season or two. So I actually think Rhoda's first two or three seasons was ahead of it's time showing a modern day couple married.. juggling family.. etc.. especially given how the 70s was about women's liberation.

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    3. Jayson, what brilliant observation!

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  4. I think that all 110 episodes are perfection. I am glad that you kind of agree.

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    1. I wouldn't say I feel all 110 episodes are "perfection" -- there are seasons I like better than others, and within those seasons, episodes I like better than others. (That's true of pretty much all the shows I love.) But none of that detracts from my affection for the series; there was never a time I was even remotely tempted to stop watching. I was a fan, and nothing could have undermined my adoration for Rhoda and for Valerie Harper.

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  5. I've loved Rhoda since the MTM show , so when they gave her her own show, I was delighted!! I've always watched off and on for years and have always come to the same conclusion, Joe never really really loved Rhoda the way she of course loved him. I always thought it was a forced effort on his part, and felt like he was pushed in to a relationship with her, it also didn't help that he was not a very nice man, it always seemed like he was on edge about something and she was the one always trying to make him happy, scurrying after him like a puppy. So as sad as their separation and ultimate divorce was, I was happy to see her be rid of him, I always thought she was a ray of sunshine, next to his dark cloudy personality.

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    1. I can't disagree with your estimation of Joe. I don't think David Groh was able to put a lot of shadings on his character, particularly the negative emotions -- I think too often he defaulted to "angry." And Harper was so gifted -- so able to express myriad emotions, both good and bad, in a single line reading -- that Joe came off poorly by comparison. I'm not saying Groh was untalented; I just don't think he was the right actor for the role, and I agree: the series was better off without him.

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  6. I can't believe the great fortune I found when I stumbled upon this fantastic blog. Mr. Krasker has captured the essence of Rhoda Season 3 - a transitional season that broke America's heart. It is from the lens of today that we can truly appreciate the fact that the dissolution of a marriage is, literally, heart-breaking. I hated that season when I watched it as a kid, but now I am mesmerized by it. It unfolds methodically, and until I read this blog, I never appreciated the nature of how wonderfully, horrifically, humorously, and woefully Rhoda and Joe's break-up was handled. In hindsight, it was BRILLIANT. I still remember the TV Guide ad proclaiming "Rhoda and Joe Split!" as the season premiere. But that season saw Archie (almost) cheat on Edith, Maude separate from Walter, and Florida becoming a widow on Good Times. So I kept waiting for Rhoda and Joe to get back together.

    But they didn't.

    The episode where Rhoda ends up in the emergency room with a broken toe or something hammered it home. Joe is gone. She's not sure what name to use or what her marital status is. Harper's performance made this a profound, thought-provoking scene. Indeed - who are you when in the midst of the breakup of a marriage? Great work, Tommy!

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    1. Fred, I'm so delighted you found this blog, and doubly delighted you enjoyed the essay. Boy, that scene you point out in the emergency room -- where Rhoda is uncertain how to declare her marital status or, for that matter, which name to use -- really does cut to the heart of the season. I'm embarrassed I left it out. :) It's funny, too: I'd forgotten that, even though the writers had warned us that Rhoda and Joe would split, they didn't indicate that it would be permanent. I'd forgotten that, as we watched back in 1976-77, there was always the possibility (and as you say, based on other Lear sitcoms, the near-certainty) that they'd reconcile. That was one part of the picture I don't address: how alarming it is when he's "just gone." Not even a big scene where they decide to divorce; he just stops being a presence.

      This last week -- since Valerie Harper's passing -- has been so strange. Pageviews of this essay have quadrupled. I'm delighted folks are finding it, as ultimately it's such a love letter to Harper -- but I get so sad thinking how folks are Googling her name because they miss her so much. I share the feeling.

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  7. This is fantastic. I wrote a similar recollection of season three but this adds layers I never even considered.

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    1. Terrence, thank you for the kind words. I think Rhoda Season 3 is one of those seasons that reveals new riches every time you watch it. There's simply so much to talk about. This latest rewatch took me in this direction, but honestly, another could take me somewhere else entirely! I look forward to reading your essay, and I will seek it out now. (If it's not under your name, but rather under a nom de plume, do leave a link here if you get a chance, or shoot me an email.) Thanks again!

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