Viewing The Mary Tyler Moore Show some 40+ years after it originally aired, there are only two big surprises. First, the brilliance of the soft reboot at the top of Season 3 is more apparent than ever. The show that premiered in September of 1970 featured engaging characters and appealing settings, but it was still a product of its time. The characters were mostly defined by single traits, and the plots often revolved around misunderstandings or devolved into capers (e.g., “Murray is working a second job, but hasn’t told his wife, so she assumes he’s having an affair with Mary”). But in Season 3, creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks — and incoming producer Ed. Weinberger — decided to aim higher: to more fully develop the core characters, and to let character — rather than plot — dictate story. That became the template for decades of MTM Enterprises sitcoms to come. In 1972, you were aware that the show was evolving; Burns, Brooks and Weinberger’s strategy was deemed so successful that TV Guide devoted a cover story to it the following spring. But today, it feels more like a transformation, because given what we now recognize as the MTM “house style,” the first two seasons don’t feel much like The Mary Tyler Moore Show at all.
As noted, we felt the leap in quality as Season 3 got underway, even if we didn’t recognize or fully appreciate how much of a leap it was. What we didn’t notice at the time was the creative decline during the final season and a half. When Mary Tyler Moore elected not to continue after Season 7, there was very much a sense that the show was going out on a high. Although viewing figures were fading, critical adoration and industry acclaim were not, and the addition of David Lloyd to the writing staff in Season 5 had seemed like a godsend. Forty years later, the malaise that sets in midway through Season 6 is clear; with Mary’s home life minimized — and all the plots revolving around the goings-on at WJM — the writers struggle for ideas. A lot of plots get rehashed two and three times over, and you can sense the wear and tear on the actors; instead of continuing to explore and expand their characters, they fall back on the tried and true. The show rarely again scales the heights that it had for the past three seasons, when you had no idea where the writers or characters were headed next — and were exhilarated by the possibilities. But if the lead characters grow less dimensional by the end, they’re never less than inviting; they remain the second family that you look forward to revisiting.
Below, my ten favorite Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes, plus another ten that I adore:
10. Ted’s Wedding: I promised myself I wasn’t going to do a lot of “event” episodes. It’s easier to nail both the “aw’s” and the guffaws when you’ve got a milestone to hang them on; how many great sitcoms really screw up a wedding, or a birth, or a funeral? But this one is too good to pass up, as Ted, following a year’s worth of proposals to Georgette (with no intention of following through), asks her to marry him over brunch at Mary’s. (Mary, disgusted: “Ted, you proposed with an onion roll in your mouth.”) A humiliated Georgette lays down the law — it’s now or never — and Ted says yes. “Ted’s Wedding” is the apotheosis of writer David Lloyd’s approach to the series, which means it’s the apotheosis of the Season 6 style: where everything has point and purpose, where every line is either a set-up or a pay-off — and the more obvious the set-up, the more extended and exultant the pay-off. In a classic example, Ted asks if there’ll be wedding cake, and Mary — who’s barely just gotten off the phone with their friends, inviting them over — cautions him, “Ted, the whole wedding was put together in a half an hour.” The doorbell rings as she continues, “I mean, you can’t expect too much preparation on that kind of notice.” And in walks Sue Ann, dressed in a floral-print skirt and matching hat, carrying a bouquet and corsages, a box with champagne and rice, and a neatly wrapped gift for the happy couple. "Ted's Wedding" is pretty much a note-perfect event episode, where the character dynamics are carefully layered onto all the obligatory moments: the heart-to-heart between the bride and her maid of honor (“You do love him?” Mary asks with caution. “Of course, Mary,” Georgette assures her: “Somebody has to”); the advice from the best man to the groom (“You know how you always are?” Lou asks Ted, with limited time to turn him into a proper husband: “Don’t be that way”); Ted turning to Murray to dictate his vows to him (when he’s asked to speak from the heart at the ceremony), which Murray — predictably but amusingly — seizes as an opportunity to zing him; and Georgette tossing Mary the bouquet — only for Sue Ann to snatch it away. And it’s punctuated by the perfect tag. As the guests depart, Ted takes in the wonder of what’s happened. “Well!” he exclaims, then redirecting himself toward the dining room table, asks Mary, with utter sincerity, “What’s for dessert?” Also worth a look: the following — and follow-up — episode, “Lou Douses an Old Flame.” Another Lloyd script, it’s a rare example of his style at its most casual. There’s barely a plot: Lou hears from the woman who sent him a “Dear John” letter during World War II; Ted insists Mary throw him the bachelor party he never had. But in its loose and low-key way, everything works. The punchlines are sharp and swift, as when Lou’s foul mood threatens to dampen Ted’s party; Mary asks him, “Can I see you in my bedroom,” and when Lou dutifully complies, Sue Ann stands there incredulous: “If I’d only known it was that easy.” And a sight gag is foreshadowed so many times, with such specificity, that you’re blinded to the (hilarious) variation that ultimately ensues.
9. The Shame of the Cities: The dark horse of my countdown, an episode unlikely to be in anyone else’s 10-best list. A late Season 5 effort by freelancers Michael Elias and Arnie Kogen, it’s MTM humor at its most aggressive, not a style to which the show typically aspired. But as this is an episode focusing on Lou’s eagerness to dust off his investigative reporting skills (now that Mary has taken over his producing chores), the His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks-ian insistence of the playing feels right. (At one point, Lou scores laughs by insulting Mary, and then she turns it around and nails just as many laughs hurling the same insults back at him. Later, Lou screams in a quick burst of hysteria that shocks us as much as it does Mary.) Lou and Mary decide to do a political expose that backfires when the politician they’re profiling turns out to be scrupulously honest. They decide to air the special anyway, in the hope that people might want to see a one-hour news report about an honest politician: a feel-good story, something uplifting. But no one does. And it’s then that the episode takes off, as Mary — seated at a bar with Lou and his girlfriend Charlene and clearly having drunk her way through the onscreen broadcast — realizes the sad reality of TV news, and struggles to put her inebriated thoughts into words: “If it weren’t for the rotten things that happen in this world, we couldn’t put on the news show. We should be grateful to all the people who do those rotten things. We should stop them in the streets and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Mugger.’ ‘Thank you, Mr. Thief.’ ‘Thank you, Mr. Maniac.’” It’s a brilliant drunk routine, never once resorting the sort of cheap tricks that others would rely on; there are no hiccups in Moore’s performance, literally or figuratively. (Moore is so funny that guest star Sheree North at one point visibly breaks up.) It’s a tour-de-force that’s largely overlooked in studies of Moore’s work, but it’s one of her finest, and it elevates a solid, if standard, episode into — well, into #9 in my countdown. Also worth a look: another Moore showcase, Lloyd’s “Mary’s Insomnia,” one of the bright spots in Season 7. It’s sadly steeped in a Neanderthal understanding of the dangers of sleeping pills — and chooses twice to mock victims of prescription drug addiction (in moments typically cut from the syndication print) — but the character humor is spot on. Two story-lines buoy each other and occasionally converge: Murray’s promise not to insult Ted if he agrees to speak at his daughter’s class, and Lou’s resolve to keep Mary from growing addicted to sleeping pills. A Writer’s Guild Award nominee, it was probably Moore’s Emmy reel, as it’s a careful and caring spotlight, with an extended piece of silent comedy to close Act I and a memorable block comedy scene in Act II, where her bubble bath is interrupted by the arrival of her co-workers, and she lets loose with mortification, disbelief, outrage — and ultimately, a shriek that shakes the rafters.
8. My Brother’s Keeper: It’s a perfect example of how pretty much everything Burns, Brooks and Weinberger touched in Season 3 turned to gold, because writers Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon were not well-suited to The Mary Tyler Moore Show (they’re best remembered for creating the Mama’s Family sketches on The Carol Burnett Show), but this episode — no doubt with a lot of input from the creative staff — is a knockout. It was Cloris Leachman’s Emmy reel that season, and with good reason: Phyllis is at her most controlling and neurotic — but also at her most entertaining. The simplest of plots (Phyllis hopes to set up her visiting brother with Mary, but he takes a shine to Rhoda instead) brings the uneasy relationship between Rhoda and Phyllis to a boil; the result is breezy, diverting and beautifully played, with great exchanges between unlikely characters and effective running gags. (Phyllis is given to responding to any and all criticism by insisting, “I don’t do that. Mother does that” — there’s even a button the final time.) As a bonus, it’s got the first of Mary’s memorably awful parties, which is ruined here when Ted decides to halt the festivities for a game of twenty questions (“Now it can be anything in the whole world: animal, vegetable... rocks”) and when Phyllis — imagining her brother building a life with Rhoda — begins to weep center stage. The show is best known for its denouement, which was not in the shooting script, but rather a last-minute inspiration when the intended ending fell flat. As it stands, it’s one of the best-remembered bits in Mary Tyler Moore Show history: daring and funny and so clever that it doesn’t matter that it essentially negates half of what came before it. And the lack of follow-up in the tag — which clearly wasn’t rewritten when the end of Act II was overhauled — is perfect; it actually turns a punchline into a lovely moment that speaks to the humanistic approach at the heart of the series. Also worth a look: the episode that basically made “My Brother’s Keeper” possible, Treva Silverman’s “Rhoda the Beautiful” from earlier that season. When Valerie Harper came back from hiatus twenty pounds lighter, Brooks and Burns charged Silverman with penning an episode about it. (It was a lightning-bulb moment for the creative team that as the cast members changed, their characters needed to as well.) Rhoda has shed the extra weight that she’s always claimed stood in the way of her happiness, but can’t seem to accept or embrace it; those twenty pounds were always her comforting excuse for any failures that came her way. It’s one of the season’s many episodes about self-esteem and self-respect, and although Rhoda is ultimately validated by winning a beauty pageant, the script is careful to note and even mock the inanities of such contests. (One bit alone is worth the price of admission: Phyllis recalling her own experience in a beauty pageant and winning the talent portion, then launching into a full-throated rendition of “Ten Cents a Dance” — all while Mary and Rhoda go about their business, blithely ignoring her.) The episode earned Harper — deservedly — her third consecutive Emmy.
7. You’ve Got a Friend: Mary, determined to find a friend for her father (who’s retired from his medical practice), realizes she should start by getting to know him better herself. It’s staff writer Steve Pritzker’s last script, and his best — a sign of how well he adjusted to the new house style in Season 3. The humor all feels character-driven, and the quieter moments never descend into the maudlin. Pritzker had introduced Mary’s mother and father four episodes earlier; it obviously seemed like a good idea at the time, but for a show where the regulars were being stretched in exciting directions, the presence of two new characters felt like a bit of an intrusion — and they’re gone after a handful of appearances. But all the appearances are good, and this one is elevated by the rapport and warmth between Moore and Bill Quinn (as her father). Onscreen, it’s best remembered for the moment when Mary’s mother, preparing to leave her husband to his dinner with Mary, calls out from the door, “Don’t forget to take your pill,” and both he and Mary chime in, “I won’t.” (Mary’s reaction to her slip of the tongue is priceless.) Behind the scenes, it’s the episode where — when Mary is preparing dinner for her father and slicing vegetables — she nicks her finger, and the moment was so convincing that stagehands, unaware that it was scripted, rushed to her aid. Mary and her father pass their evening together — as family members do — by revisiting the past, and given that all the events referenced happened decades before, it’s remarkable how inviting and consequential Moore and Quinn make them seem. They pass from reminiscences of old boyfriends (“Guess who I ran into the other day? Bobby Morgan.” “Who’s Bobby Morgan?” “Dad, you remember: he’s a boy I went with when I was a senior in high school. Come on, Dad, you remember: you and Mom came home early one night [and] found Bobby and me with the lights out.” “I never trusted that kid.” “He’s a priest now”) to surprise revelations (“You missed my graduation for a tonsillectomy? Mom told me it was an emergency gall bladder thing, which I could understand, but a tonsillectomy?” “Yah, but he had adenoids too”) to overdue questions (“Are you ever lonely?” “No, not too often, Daddy. I have a good life.” “I’m glad”). And in MTM fashion, a scene that could get too solemn has a quick comic button, and one that grows naturally out of the moment. It’s slice-of-life humor at its best, yet still manages to invoke tears (without asking for them). Also worth a look: the best effort from the series’ other earliest staff writer, Treva Silverman, Season 4’s “Better Late...That’s a Pun...Than Never,” in which Mary and Rhoda, updating the WJM obituary files into the wee hours of the night, start putting their own spin on them — and Ted ends up reading one of their most irreverent efforts on the air. (“For a long time, Wee Willie Winkie was the oldest living citizen in Minneapolis. There were other citizens who were older — however, they happened to be dead.”) Mary bristles at the idea of a two-week suspension and walks — a decision she instantly regrets. One of Moore’s best performances (the second half is a crying jag that she has to start, stop and restart on cue), it was designed as her Emmy reel, and indeed she won two Emmy Awards for it in 1974, for Best Actress in a Comedy Series and (the short-lived) Actress of the Year.
6. Lou’s First Date: By Season 4, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was operating like a well-oiled machine. The new format — character-driven comedy that stressed the value of kindness and companionship — had grown so assured that the show could take off in unexpected directions, without losing its way. Here, Ed. Weinberger and his writing partner Stan Daniels returned to the ongoing story of Lou’s separation from his wife Edie (a plot set in motion four episodes earlier). The first half of the episode, as the writers conceived it, was pure character comedy, as Lou — discovering that Edie will be attending an upcoming broadcasters' dinner with a date — charges Mary with finding him a date. And then the script, quite on its own, went somewhere unexpected. Weinberger and Daniels checked in with Brooks and Burns to make sure their idea wasn’t too outrageous, and Brooks and Burns told them to go for it. And so, as a result of one ill-timed phone call, Mary manages to set up Lou not with the middle-aged Ellen Dudley, but with her 80-year-old mother-in-law Martha. (Mary: “Mr. Grant, won't you please let me explain? You see, there are two Mrs. Dudleys.” Lou: “Mary, there are thousands of Mrs. Dudleys.”) Three years earlier, the initial audience sampling the pilot episode hadn’t responded well to the character of Rhoda, so the creators had added a line before the final taping where young Bess notes how much she likes Rhoda — and that turned the audience around. In a similar vein, our acceptance of Mrs. Dudley is encouraged by the most innocent voice, that of Georgette, who sees nothing unusual about the pairing, as she inquires of the elderly woman, “Have you and Mr. Grant been going together long?” At the dinner, Lou — encountering Edie with her date — fibs and lets them think that he’s there with Mary, but then he’s overcome with guilt: “What did I just do?” “Well, it was a tough spot,” Mary consoles him, but he counters, “Not that tough.” And he rights the wrong, introducing Mrs. Dudley to Edie as his date and repeating a remark Georgette had made earlier: “Did you know that Martha was the flower girl at Thomas Alva Edison’s wedding?” He doesn’t just introduce Mrs. Dudley; he introduces her with pride. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, even 80-year-old women given to proclaiming “These old legs don’t always do what I tell them to” are deserving of — and accorded — the same level of dignity as everyone else, and as a result, a mistaken-identity caper (the kind the show had carefully avoided for a year now) becomes a series classic. Also worth a look: another episode title with Lou and an apostrophe, the previous season’s “Lou’s Place,” one of Weinberger’s earliest efforts. It’s a self-imposed fish-out-of-water comedy, in which Lou decides to buy his favorite bar, McCloskey’s, when the owner passes away. But can gruff Lou Grant channel his warm and inviting side? Does he have one? It’s a standard but strong episode elevated by the showpiece at the end: Lou encouraging the patrons in a singalong of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which takes a darker turn when he starts to treat his customers like employees. The scene is loud, a little scary and riotously funny — and quite unlike anything else in The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s seven seasons.
5. What Do You Do When the Boss Says, “I Love You”?: David Pollock and Elias Davis wrote four Mary Tyler Moore scripts; the last one, in Season 4, isn’t great, but the first three — all in Season 3 — are knockouts. It’s tempting to call them — by virtue of those three scripts alone — the most successful freelancers in the series’ history. They’ve noted that Burns, Brooks and Weinberger were very hands on — that by the time they left the story meetings, they’d come away with all the key beats, and sometimes, several of the jokes. But clearly their talents were a natural fit for the series (they went on to M*A*S*H and Frasier, among others); they take a show in transition, and not merely nail that transitional stage, but capture some of its key moments. (See also #1, below.) Here it’s a redefining of Lou Grant, who up to this point was still basically the tough-talking, hard-drinking boss of the pilot. “What Do You Do” reconceives Lou both in terms of how he’s seen, and how he responds to that. WJM’s new program director Barbara Coleman has fallen for him, to the surprise of Mary and Rhoda. (Mary, stammering: “I just never thought of him as being — you know...” Rhoda: “Yeah, there are two people I’ve never thought of as being romantic: Lou — and the guy I’m going with now.”) As Barbara, Lois Nettleton, who elevated every series that was smart enough to engage her (is there a better Golden Girls episode than “Isn’t It Romantic”, with Nettleton as a literal friend of Dorothy?), is at her best here: projecting that combination of warmth, intelligence and fragility that she always brought to the small screen. And Ed Asner’s Lou is revelatory: at first shocked and flustered by what he senses in Barbara’s behavior; then haltingly confronting her, tallying what 25 years of marriage mean by nervously rattling off (and occasionally forgetting) the names of his children and grandchildren; and finally, firmly concluding, “If I’m gonna have any extracurricular activities, frankly I’m better off bowling.” And ultimately confessing his pleasure that someone like Barbara Coleman finds him attractive. (“Son of a gun,” he grins, as we cut to commercial.) “What Do You Do” contains two of my favorite scenes in the series: one where Mary cagily reveals to Mr. Grant that the new program director is a woman and awaits his reaction, and the other where Barbara, Mary and Rhoda return from dinner, and Mary admits, “Do you know that there was a time when I would rather die than go out with the girls on Saturday night?” — prompting them to recollect some of their worst dates, including Rhoda’s description of a guy from the previous Friday: “A real zero. I mean, this guy could walk through an electric eye door — it wouldn’t open.” Also worth a look: “Murray Faces Life,” another Season 3 offering, in which writer Martin Cohan gives Murray both the deepening and the humanizing that “What Do You Do” afforded Lou. It’s Gavin McLeod’s best showcase — and probably his best performance — as Murray learns that one of his college chums has won a prestigious award and becomes disenchanted with his lot. It culminates in an evening of bonding with Ted, and a puppet show that’s irreverent and irresistible. Apparently emboldened by this offering, the writers began to chronicle Murray’s midlife crises in annual episodes (he’s tempted to have an affair, he tells off the station owner and gets fired, he becomes convinced that he’s in love with Mary) — all of them awful.
4. Not Just Another Pretty Face: This is the archetypical Ed. Weinberger episode (co-written, like all his post-Season 4 scripts, with Stan Daniels). When Weinberger joined the creative team as producer in Season 3, he seemed — on paper at least — like an odd choice; Burns and Brooks were determined to mine the show for greater character humor, to move away from traditional sitcom shtick, and Weinberger’s most recent gig was writing for Johnny Carson. (To his credit, he’d previously created The Bill Cosby Show, the rare sitcom at that time not to feature a laugh track.) But Weinberger’s gift for sketch comedy ended up suiting the rebooted Mary Tyler Moore Show perfectly. His way of handling a plot was to establish a premise and then pass it from character to character, for their reactions or recollections; he turned situation-driven plots into character-driven explorations. In this case, it’s Mary dating an incredibly good-looking man — and coming to realize, through her interactions with friends and co-workers, that she’s only seeing him because he’s so attractive. Phyllis is smitten (“Maybe some time the four of us could all go to dinner together, Mary. You and Lars and me and Paul. I mean, me and Lars and you and Paul"), whereas Lou is outraged: “Mary, you know what you’re getting involved with? A commercial for the dry look. I hate to tell you this, but he’s prettier than you are.” It’s one of the show’s funniest outings, but also one of director Jay Sandrich’s most meticulous efforts, where he seems to catch every expression and inflection, without ever pausing or interrupting the action. (No one on The Mary Tyler Moore Show — at its best — ever stood still to tell a joke; they ate and drank and cleaned and cooked and chatted, and the comedy flowed naturally from that.) An exchange between Mary and Phyllis about a wine stain on a chair is a verbal and visual marvel: clearly carefully staged and shot, but seemingly loose and improvised. Bonus points for the inspired casting of Robert Wolders, best remembered today for his marriage to Merle Oberon (25 years his senior), then his relationships with, in turn, Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda’s widow Shirlee. The handsome actor, intentionally or not, manages to seem as vapid as the script no doubt intended — but he’s also so undeniably charming that you not only buy into the attraction, but into Mary’s unexpected realization at the end. Also worth a look: the previous episode, the Season 5 opener, Weinberger and Daniels’ Emmy-winning “Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?” It’s a “big event” episode, as Mary gets some inside information that she decides to air, then refuses to reveal her source. She assures Mr. Grant that she’s confident in her decision, even if it means going to jail. It’s the right thing to do, and the integrity of her profession trumps all other considerations. There’s just one problem: “I don’t want to go to jail, Mr. Grant! I’m afraid to go to jail. I’ve never been to jail, Mr. Grant — I never even had to stay after school!” (Stan Daniels was such a master at this kind of joke — where a character says something, then immediately does a 180-degree shift — that it’s now known in the industry as a “Stan Daniels turn.“) “Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?” assured viewers that the series would be just fine without Valerie Harper (who had left at the end of Season 4 to launch Rhoda), as indeed it was — for a while; Season 5 was the first time the show took home the Emmy for Best Comedy Series.
3. Mary Moves Out: The second episode of Season 6, and a bellwether of how the tone and texture of the show are shifting as it heads into its penultimate season. The previous three seasons had been marked by such steady character growth that you had no idea how anyone would respond to any given incident or remark; David Lloyd’s approach, which becomes the standard from here on, is dependent upon us knowing exactly how everyone is going to respond — and looking forward to it. (It’s ultimately, ironically, a style at which only he excelled.) And the reason it works so well in “Mary Moves Out” is that that very predictability is part of the plot: Mary is feeling like she’s in a rut, trapped doing the same things day in and day out. In a scene as meta as the show ever got, she predicts what each character is going to say upon entering the newsroom on a Monday morning. (As Ted enters, she speaks for him: “If anyone wants you, you’ll be in your dressing room with Georgette answering your fan mail.” Ted is briefly offended, then admits he was going to say just that. “Exactly,” she replies, “And I of course will say ‘there is no fan mail today,’ you’ll say ‘why not,’ and Murray will say some kind of joke like ‘because your fan died, Ted.’”) And the joke behind “Mary Moves Out” is that her friends don’t convince her that her life is fascinating; they comes to realize that their own lives are equally boring. There’s a memorable scene in which each character has their turn describing how dull their routine has become; the bits pass from Murray to Ted to Sue Ann, all of them brilliantly in character, and finally Lou caps it all: “Let’s face it, life is a bore. You’re born. You die. And everything in between — is nothing but filler.” “Mary Moves Out” is essentially a series of comic routines, but whereas those sorts of episodes are typically hit-or-miss, the batting average here is just shy of a thousand. It contains my favorite (and my most-quoted) Lou Grant line, when he arrives at the office hung over and asks Mary, “Did you ever feel so rotten that you’d have to rally to die?” And amusingly, for an episode that ends by arguing that real change is in fact possible, its big shake-up to the series’ status quo (foreshadowed in the episode’s title) quickly proves a story-telling dead end. Also worth a look: the series’ most famous episode, “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” a mere five episodes later. In “Mary Moves Out,” Lloyd finds the humor in boredom; in “Chuckles,” he finds the humor in death. It was an episode Jay Sandrich had so little faith in, he asked for the week off (Joan Darling stepped in and was Emmy-nominated); it ended up being the series’ most celebrated half-hour, and Moore’s best-remembered bit, a tour-de-force of laughter and tears that few other comediennes could pull off. “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is a very good episode that only became a classic when John Leonard, in The New York Times, proclaimed it “the funniest half hour in television history,” and everyone from the Television Academy to generations of fans and feature writers jumped on the bandwagon. But there are far worse bandwagons to jump on, and it’s a mighty entertaining half hour besides.
2. A New Sue Ann: When Betty White guested as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens in the Season 4 opener, the creative team knew they had something special on their hands; they just didn’t know what. It took them over a year to figure it out. At times, Sue Ann was the squeaky-clean image of domesticity, fanatical in her passion for comportment and appearances. Other times, she displayed a shrewd wit, or a sharp tongue, or was defined mostly by her libido. Which was the real — or even the best — Sue Ann Nivens? In Season 5’s “A New Sue Ann,” David Lloyd figures out the answer: all of them. Lloyd has since admitted that Sue Ann, somewhat to his embarrassment, was the voice that came easiest to him. What Lloyd captured in Sue Ann (and which became the template moving forward) was a character whose bright veneer and brittle underside were so intertwined, both could present themselves in the same breath. Sue Ann could serve as her own set-up and punchline. (Jokes that served as their own set-up and punchline were Lloyd’s speciality. No wonder her character came easily.) In this episode, White’s first real showcase, Sue Ann falls prey to an Eve Harrington type, Gloria Munson, who goes after her job. It’s one of those Lloyd scripts where every line seems quotable, and most of them involve Sue Ann acting as both straight man and comedy partner. When Gloria spots Sue Ann in the newsroom and announces that she’s her idol — her absolute favorite TV personality — Sue Ann responds, “I don’t believe I’ve met this adorable and perceptive youngster.“ (Kindness and conceit, hand in hand.) Advising Gloria to pursue her dreams of working in the industry, she insists, “I think television needs bright young women. Look at me. And to a certain extent, Mary.” (Encouragement, self-absorption and envy masquerading as bitchery — in sixteen words.) Later, when Gloria has started to worm her way onto Sue Ann’s show, Sue Ann summons Mary to her dressing room, where she’s arranging roses. Mary tries to engage her, but Sue Ann keeps deflecting to the flowers: “If I concentrate on these aromatic blooms, I can create a floral fantasy. Whereas if I think about Gloria, I’m apt to rip their smelly little heads off.” It’s a scenario that resolves itself with Sue Ann giving everyone at the station food poisoning and letting Gloria take the rap — yet somehow, an episode that ends with the entire cast clutching their bellies and Ted having an “uh oh” moment on the air manages to be the series’ most ebullient half hour. Also worth a look: another episode that firmly establishes a newcomer, Season 3’s “The Georgette Story.” When Georgia Engel’s first (brief) appearance in Season 3 charmed the audience, the writers quickly inserted her into future scripts as Ted’s new girlfriend. (It served Ted Knight's desire to add new colors to his character.) Ed. Weinberger then wrote her this showcase, in which we really get to know Georgette, and in which she gets to know herself a little better, as Mary and Rhoda — concerned that she’s letting Ted walk all over her — teach her the value of self-respect. When Mary and Rhoda ask Georgette to say something nice about herself, she’s initially flustered, but after a while, she’s understands why they’re trying to help her. They ask her to try again, and she responds, “I’m good with my hands. And I’m a pretty fair country cook. And I like to think I’m a nice person.” “Just nice?” Mary gently coaxes her. “Very nice,” Georgette responds — then realizing that she could go a little further, and that they know it: “Damn nice.” And it’s at that point that the audience fully, forcefully embraces Georgia Engel as a new series regular.
1. The Courtship of Mary’s Father’s Daughter: The metamorphosis that the show is undergoing in Season 3 is clear from this episode’s format. Act I, though utterly delightful, plays like standard sitcom fare, as Mary is invited to the engagement party of an old beau (Dan, from Season 2) and ends up inadvertently breaking up the happy couple. Act II is pure character study: Mary and Dan have started dating again, she suspects he’s going to ask her to marry him, but she’s uncertain if she wants to. (Rhoda: “Well, it’s the very least you could do after you busted up his engagement.”) The more people express their delight at Mary’s new relationship, the more resistant she becomes, but articulating her unease — even to herself — is challenging. It’s the simplest of premises, grounded by three extended scenes between, in turn, Mary and Rhoda, Mary and Lou, and Mary and Dan, with staging just as expressive as the sentiments themselves. (There’s a marvelous bit with Lou’s handkerchief: subtle, hilarious and totally in character.) Ed. Weinberger, talking in 1973 about the soft reboot in Season 3, described the new Mary as “aggressively feminine instead of passively feminine.” (It didn't sound as chauvinistic forty years ago.) Some of that is the toughening of Mary Richards that’s apparent at the top of Season 3. But halfway through the season, in “The Courtship of Mary’s Father’s Daughter” (its title a nod to the Bill Bixby starrer The Courtship of Eddie’s Father), we see just how aggressively feminine Mary can be, as she and Dan are locked out of her apartment and seek temporary refuge in the stairwell, with take-out Chinese food that Rhoda has provided. When Dan realizes that Mary isn’t going to accept his proposal, he’s about to bolt (“I don’t know how long I can wait”), but she stops him. “I don’t know either, but I do know one thing” — and defiant and deliberate, “I know that you are not going to leave me alone... with two plates... of lychee chicken.” It’s safe to say that lychee chicken has never sounded sexier or more quietly empowered. But the heart of the episode comes in the tag, as Mary tells Rhoda that she and Dan have reached an understanding: “I think he was surprised to find out that I am not living my life in a constant search for the right man to marry. You know something? I was pretty surprised to find that out myself.” It’s not a proclamation; it’s a discovery — and Rhoda is quick to chime in: “I know. There was a time when I went to bed every night thinking, ‘Well, there goes another day not married.’ Now I just wait till New Year’s and think, ‘There goes another year not married.’ Mary, I’m telling you, it’s progress.” Rhoda’s humorous spin doesn’t undermine Mary’s sincerity; on the contrary, the specificity of her framing makes the sentiment paradoxically more universal. And then, as always, a moment that might seem too serious — or heaven forbid, too preachy — is buttoned by something comic: in this case, a visual gag set up early on, which has been playing out, in various guises, for the entire episode. The audience laughs — loudly — not just at how funny it is, but how unexpected yet utterly right it is. In its understated way, this episode by Elias Davis and David Pollock — which is about nothing more and nothing less than the ways in which women were redefining themselves in the early ‘70s — is The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s finest (half) hour. It’s overlooked in discussions of the series, but it’s a quiet masterpiece. Also worth a look: “Put On a Happy Face,” another Season 3 offering, this one by freelancers Marilyn Suzanne Miller and Monica McGowan. In the same interview quoted above, Weinberger noted that now “[Mary] sometimes even is made to look lousy — which all women do occasionally.” (Again, it sounded less offensive in 1973.) The point he was making was that not only had Mary Richards been toughened, but Mary Tyler Moore herself had been humanized. No longer “Little Miss Perfect,” she became that TV rarity: the star who holds herself up to ridicule. And not slapstick ridicule, like Lucille Ball, but the kind that hurts. This episode riffs on that premise, detailing a week — the lead-up to the annual Teddy Awards — where everything goes wrong for Mary: she sprains her ankle and catches a cold; the cleaners ruin her best dress; her hairdryer breaks down as she’s getting ready for the ceremony, and her false eyelashes fall off in the rain. And of course, she wins an award, and is forced to hobble to the stage, sneezing and looking downright awful, wallowing in self-pity to a roomful of her peers: “I usually look so much better than this...” It was a transformative moment for Moore, and for the series.
Do you enjoy in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, 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 prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and fourteen essays devoted to each season 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.