Thursday, November 14, 2019

The 10 Best “Mary Tyler Moore Show” Episodes

This entry began as The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 3, but honestly, I’ve written so many long essays lately, I needed a change of pace, and an old-fashioned 10-best list — drawn from the entire seven-season run — seemed like a good solution. What distinguishes this “best of MTM” list from all the others? Well, first of all, I’ve been watching the series since it originally aired. Second, I couldn’t settle on ten favorites, but I could settle on twenty, so after each episode, I’m offering up another that I love — so consider this sort of a “two for the price of one” sale. Third, as is my wont, I’m going to focus a lot on the intent behind — and development of — the episodes themselves (and how they reflect the seasons in which they aired). And finally, it’s the only Mary Tyler Moore Show list that won’t be counting down to “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”

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.

26 comments:

  1. I remember every one of these episodes...except The Courtship of Mary's Father's Daughter. Now I need to figure out how to rewatch that one.

    Another great read, Tommy. You may not think of these top tens as long essays, but even the condensed format provides me a deep dive into the production of these stories. I always learn a bunch of fab stuff when I read your blog!

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    1. So glad you enjoyed, Bob. I confess, I intended for this essay to be shorter, but the words just started flowing... The stuff about Emmy reels and the TV Guide interview and the various writer anecdotes were all things I had read and retained over the last 50 years. If nothing else, this blog definitely serves as a means of decluttering my brain!

      The series is currently on Hulu, or you can purchase individual episodes at Apple TV for just two bucks. Not a bad deal! :)

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    2. By the way, it was so nice to hear that you remember almost all these episodes. I confess, I've seen most of them several times -- and some dozens of times -- but I don't think I've seen "Shame of the Cities" more than twice, and perhaps not since its original airing. But I remembered Moore's drunk routine, and when I rewatched the episode recently, it delighted and impressed me just as much as it did in 1975.

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  2. Tommy, I'd call this the most insightful writing I've seen about this series -- and I've collected a fair amount of material on and around the topic. I was going to ask "how in the world do you know what was on everybody's Emmy reel?" but you just answered that. (I'm still astounded.)

    I'm going to have to restrain myself forcibly lest my comment equal your article in length, but here goes: Though we didn't have the term "soft reboot" back then, that's just what Season 3 was like: not at all inconsistent with what preceded it (which certainly had many enjoyable episodes), but that's when it clicked into focus and became the show I treasure. As for a creative decline in the last season and a half... part of me thinks that's putting it a little strongly (some of the prize episodes come from that time, after all), and another part of me knows exactly what you're talking about. They did revisit similar ideas too often. Plus we had to have our "Ted episode" and our "Murray episode" each season to keep the actors happy, which could be like eating our vegetables in order to earn dessert.

    I'm also glad to see that you don't time the decline simultaneously with Mary's move to the new apartment, which I hear a lot and usually argue against (though the two aren't ENTIRELY unrelated). I think acknowledging that at a certain point one needs to move out of the shabby if cute student-like digs, and live somewhere appropriate to one's "station in life" was actually a smart move, at a time when new blood would have benefited the show. The problem was, nothing was created to make use of the new environment: there was a stab at it with the guy who showed her the apartment, and Penny Marshall & Mary Kay Place as the new neighbors (all advertised as "additions to the cast" in TV Guide), but nothing came of them and they vanished after one appearances (two, for Marshall). Maybe that's realistic -- the inhabitants of that sort of apartment building don't become a neighborhood -- but it wasn't helpful, and I still wonder if it was so impossible to find new foils for Mary after Rhoda and Phyllis left. I do think that the addition of Sue Ann was inspired (I remember watching her first episode with friends in grad school, and all of us marveling that the show was still so fresh and unexpected); I was never as crazy about Georgette, though as you rightly point out, she had her moments.

    Your actual listing of episodes is inspired, I think, and it'll inspire me to get the DVDs off the shelf and plan a viewing session. And it's a pleasure to see a list for the show that doesn't ritualistically lead to "Chuckles" as #1! Not that I think ill of it, any more than you do; but like some other gems of the large and small screen, it's better if encountered unexpectedly and unheralded -- the incessant praise makes it less surprising.

    There's a lot more to talk about -- like how I think Lou's divorce, a promising premise in theory, was fumbled in practice, or what some of my own favorites that you didn't mention would be -- but enough is enough. Thanks again for sharing your wonderful insights.

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    1. Jon, I have to say: what you wrote was so kind, and moved me so much, I started to well up with tears. (Because I've been watching so much of this freaking series, I immediately thought of Mary, in "You've Got a Friend," telling her father, "It isn't only the dumb things that make my cry" -- and then I thought of Lars's visiting Uncle Gustav, who began to cry during the Volvo commercials. I've really watched too many episodes recently.) As you know, this blog is just a hobby for me, but man, do I pour a lot of myself into it -- and maybe more on this essay than any other -- so your praise means an awful lot. I truly didn't realize, until I started writing, how many details I'd accumulated about this series since 1970, right down to which episodes were Emmy submissions. It all just kind of poured out: seven years of the series, and 50 years of my life.

      We're in agreement on so many points. I definitely don't think the move to the high-rise was a mistake -- I like the idea -- but it is indeed a problem that it generates absolutely no story-line, and as you said, it's baffling that they couldn't come up with one decent home-life foil for Mary. It's that lack of an added texture that Rhoda (and occasionally Phyllis) brought to the show that's so damaging -- for me, at least -- in the final season-and-a-half. Mary talking about her life with Georgette is not the same as Mary talking to Rhoda; there's no give and take, no banter, no exchange of ideas or attitudes. There's no counterpoint. And so you're left with a newsroom comedy that's not really about a newsroom. (The whole "where will we go next" aspect of the series -- that really blossoms in Season 3 -- is gone. Will the next scene be at the newsroom or at home? Will it be Mary and Rhoda discussing their personal lives, or talking about the newsroom and offering fresh perspective?)

      I cut a lot from this essay -- it was way too long -- but I did refer to the rehashing of plots in the last season-and-a-half in one specific area: the "changing of job status" episode. Murray quits to produce Sue Ann's show; then he's going to quit, so Lou makes him co-producer; then he tells off the station owner and gets fired. Meanwhile, Mary and Lou walk, and Sue Ann gets the axe. I think the straining for ideas -- and the loss of texture in terms of how the stories could unfold and be explored, with Mary's home-life gone -- make me see the last season-and-a-half as a disappointment, compared to what came before it. As noted, I sure didn't see it originally.

      So funny what you say about Lou's divorce: totally agree. Great idea, not a great execution. I have always found that, although Season 4 is in many ways the full flowering of the MTM "house style," it's a weaker season than Season 3. In part, it's because the freelance scripts are just worse. But in part, I think it's because Lou's separation, as it plays out through the season, is just not that interesting or well-handled (with the obvious exception of "Lou's First Date"). I find a lot of the Season 4 Lou episodes (e.g., "Just Friends" and "Cottage for Sale") are the ones I skip.

      OK, I know you didn't want to write a tome, but you gotta at least tell me some of your own favorites that I didn't mention.

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    2. Let me wait a day or so for my own favorites till I've looked at them again, and made sure they measure up to memory. But let me take a stab at more nuance about The Divorce of Lou and Edie Grant.

      I see two main problems in the execution. One of them has to do with Edie's reasons. It feels to me as if they wanted to get comedy out of the phenomenon (a real one at that time) of a watered-down popular-magazine version of the women's movement permeating popular culture, leading women like her to want to end a marriage for, basically, insufficient reasons. But then, being decent people who weren't anti-feminist, they didn't want to mock her or her ideas, so she -- and the whole story -- ended up being neither funny nor truly dramatic. (We got "you only go around once" -- "you're leaving me for a beer commercial??" but without context or consequences; it felt like a remnant of the original idea.) It just pulled its punches in all directions, and left us with nothing.

      The other problem was the casting of Edie. I can't recall seeing Priscilla Morrill in anything else, so maybe I'm doing her an injustice, but on the basis of her appearances here I'd say she doesn't have a funny bone in her body. Even if well written, the sequence needed someone with a light touch, someone who could give and take with Ed Asner and let us laugh at Edie without belittling her. Who would that have been, at that date? Bea Arthur, if she weren't occupied with the Norman Lear shows? Eileen Heckart, before she got used as Aunt Flo? Maureen Stapleton, if she'd decided a TV paycheck might be attractive?

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    3. Treva Silverman did an interview once, talking about the genesis of “The Lou and Edie Story.” I gather she and Burns and Brooks and Weinberger were breaking story on an episode about Lou and Edie having a big fight, and then mapping out how they would reconcile at the end, and someone said, “What if they don’t reconcile?” And everyone went “Ooh!!” (Silverman reported, “I got goosebumps.”) And from that came the continuing story of Lou and Edie’s separation. I don’t know if the initial fight had a feminist slant, or if that element was added after they decided to make it a continuing story-line. But man, I agree with you: it did not work at all. I was actually going to quote the “beer commercial” line earlier, but was afraid I’d paraphrase, because I don’t think I’ve seen the episode since the ‘70s. Even in 1973 (when I was 14), I didn’t like it, and I really hated that beer joke, which seemed to trivialize everything they were going for.

      I agree with everything you said. I think there was one other issue, in that we’d never seen Edie before, so they basically bring her to life simply so she can leave. So there’s no real sense of what the character has been going through except what she tells us; even if we’d just had a few episodes of her being the dutiful wife (like Marie), we could have imagined that there had been issues simmering beneath the surface. But there’s nothing to imagine. It’s rather shocking to think that that episode won two Emmy’s for Best Writing, but of course, it was taking on a contemporary theme — it was “important.” It’s just sad, because so many of the tenets of feminism are expressed so beautifully — without being heavy-handed — in Season 3, in “Rhoda the Beautiful” and “The Courtship” and “Georgette’s Story.” But trying to put a feminist slant on the dissolution of Lou’s marriage results in something empty and jokey and preachy.

      Priscilla Morrill played Stephanie’s mother on Newhart, and was very funny. I feel like, with “The Lou and Edie Story,” everyone was feeling the “weight” of the moment. Who knows? Maybe she was told she had to be “speaking for women everywhere.”

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    4. I remember one of the writers saying before the show aired, "This is happening to so many marriages these days..." but naturally I can't remember who or where. As you say, the show itself was feminist in so many ways (and was celebrated as such), but when it came down to it they couldn't decide what they wanted to say with this story line, and so said nothing. (As an indisputable 70s front-lines feminist looking back at things like consciousness-raising groups and conceding that sometimes marriages ended then for insufficient reasons, there's Nora Ephron's quote "But the main problem with our marriages was not that our husbands wouldn’t share the housework but that we were unbelievably irritable young women and our husbands irritated us unbelievably." Of course that's a perspective from a long time later, and no doubt she meant to be provocative.)

      I now remember Priscilla Morrill on Newhart. I don't recall her as actually *funny* in the role, but she was all right, I admit, and portrayed the type they were going for. (José Ferrer amused me far more as the father.)

      I'll have to do some rewatching this weekend so I can pick out some episodes that you didn't.

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    5. My own selection of episodes is still to come, but I wanted to mention a few disconnected items:

      A long time ago, in a phone conversation, you and I realized we were, on some weird level, kindred spirits, when we realized that not only did we both remember the name of the young blond guy working at the desk behind Mary's (Pete), but we could name the actor who played him (Benjamin Chulay -- he got credited in the two episodes where he had lines to say).

      As always, one has to apply different standards of "continuity" in TV shows that preceded... well, the best dividing line is the coming of home video, with entire seasons or series available at will. Before that, nobody cared if the same guest actor returned every year as a different character, or if a recurring character was recast -- in fact it was part of the fun, noticing such details and then letting them go. Likewise, there's no point in collecting evidence about how old Laura Petrie really was when she got married or what her maiden name was; the writers made such details whatever they needed to be at the moment, trusting the audience not to remember or care. Same here with the lack of consistency about what happened with Mary's recurring boyfriends a year later, or Lou's girlfriend Charlene suddenly being a different actress for one episode. It was deemed not to matter.

      One other niggling question, getting into more explicit territory than I generally get here: Has the vernacular changed that much, or were writers, director, producers, actors, standards&practices all so clueless, that Mary happily proclaiming "My Aunt Flo is coming for a visit!" didn't raise any questions for anybody?

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    6. Unless it was meant as a "let's see if we can get this past the network censors" joke, I suspect "Aunt Flo" is what happens when all six of your writing producers are men. I googled to see if I could determine when Aunt Flo was adopted as a euphemism, but alas, my efforts were in vain.

      Yes, of course, Ben Chulay, son of John Chulay, the assistant director. I think we mostly remembered his name because we saw his dad's name every week in the closing credits -- so when you see another Chulay, it sticks in your head. Of course, that begs the question: in those days before internet, how did we know he was John's son? How did we know *anything* before internet?

      Ah yes, episodic television -- remember that? As I recall, after Mary and Dan start seeing each other seriously in "The Courtship of Mary's Father's Daughter," they make maybe one more effort to reference him before he's forgotten altogether. And when he returns for one episode in Season 6, it's only as a foil for Mary's current romance with Ted Bessell, and we're encouraged to root for Ted's character because we're told Dan "made Mary cry" three years earlier, which might have been an interesting story to see instead of being told about it after the fact. And although I love me some Janis Paige (I'm not sure a day goes by that Philip and I don't quote one of her lines in 'Silk Stockings'), having her sub for Sheree North annoyed me no end. I mean, if North isn't available, wait till she is, and if she's not interested in coming back, write something else. Again, although as you note it's not unusual for shows of that era, it still feels representative of a sort of malaise that sets in late in Season 6. (It's like imagining if they'd brought Dan back in Season 3, but with another actor. Would "Courtship" really have the impact it does?) I think 'Designing Women' might have been the first sitcom that I really felt cared about consistency and continuity (in terms of details it revealed about its core characters, and its use of the supporting and bit players); of course, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason was writing most episodes the first four seasons, so it was easier for her to keep track, but I think she felt that level of consistent detail was important for the credibility of the characters. (Currently doing a 'Designing' rewatch, with an eye toward a future essay.)

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    7. P.S. Speaking of (lack of) consistency and continuity in those days, it bugged me in the first episode of 'Rhoda' when she announced in the opening sequence, "I was born in the Bronx in December, 1941." I thought, "No, you weren't: you were over 30 when 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' began in 1970." But as you said, those details weren't important back then, and in this case, were happily discarded for a good WWII joke.

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    8. I think we assumed Benjamin was the son because it's such a typical thing to imagine -- a producer gets his twentysomething kid a job as an extra. And that turned out to be exactly the case! He now bills himself as J. Benjamin Chulay and is a TV editor, most recently for Bones.

      Yes, Dan was one of the bits of discontinuity that I was thinking about, but I didn't have the details at hand. The recasting of recurring roles became less prevalent but never really stopped -- Jamie Buchman had 3 pairs of parents in the course of Mad About You. One of the evolutions that probably changed attitudes about this (in addition to the coming of home video) was the increasing serialization not just of dramas, but of all scripted series, in the 1980s in the wake of the primetime soaps and MTM's dramas like Hill Street Blues. We were now expected to remember people and incidents from one season to the next.

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    9. A great piece! I totally agree with the order of the ranking too! "The Courtship of Mary's Father's Daughter" is one episode I love rewatching the scence where the woman says "you're Mary, i've heard so much about you" is pure comic gold! That had to be a great writer's room. The legnths they go to for a joke is masterful!

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    10. James, thanks so much for reading and for commenting -- and what a pleasure to meet another fan of “The Courtship of Mary’s Father’s Daughter.” You know, I was so focused on talking about the episode in terms of what it “says” that I didn’t really focus — as you note — on how extremely funny it is. I’ve watched the episode countless times with people who had never seen it before, and every single time, when Mary and Rhoda are trying to escape the engagement party (because everyone’s wondering which one is Mary), and Rhoda says to her, “What do you say we go — Alice?”, the person I’m watching with bursts out laughing. It’s a surefire gag. And a great reminder that sometimes the best jokes are the good old-fashioned ones. Yes, it must have been amazing to be part of that writers’ room.

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  3. thanks for this interest in this wonderful show!....the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I look on and forward to finding more about your favorite episodes of other tv sitcoms. and maybe other genres....movies, music, broadway. Maybe even Lucy (Ball) shows too!, Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligans Island, Dick Van Dyke Show, (new and old), Andy Griffith,MR. Ed, Jack Benny, That Girl, Bewitched, Everybody Loves Raymond, Three's Company,Three's A Crowd, Too Close For Comfort, The Love Boat, My Three Sons, Alice, The jeffersons, Sanford and Son....all among my very favorites. Your keen insight is simply superb!

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    1. Thanks for reading -- and so glad you enjoyed. I wrote early in 2018 about Bewitched Season 2, and I could definitely see myself tackling a few of the other series you name. Honestly, I never know what I'm going to write about till the idea strikes me; three weeks ago, I didn't even know I was going to write a Mary Tyler Moore Show essay! :)

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  4. Dear Mr. Krasker:

    Greetings!!

    First of all, you give an interesting and insightful essay on my favorite all-time Television show, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show!”

    As well, can you list and post, the episodic Emmy Reel Submissions of TMTMS producers, and of Mary’s performances, for the competing years of:

    1971
    1972
    1973
    1975

    It would be interesting what Mary Tyler Moore and her show’s producers submitted for Emmy competition!

    Also, are you a TV Academy Member, or where is that particular information posted?

    Mr. Krasker, are you interested in penning Essays on these classic Television Shows:

    “I Love Lucy”
    “Our Miss Brooks”
    “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show”
    “Private Secretary”
    “The Ann Sothern Show”

    Keep up the interesting penning on our favorite sitcoms!

    Cordially,

    Selwyn Emerson Miller
    5Cent
    ��

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    1. Selwyn, what a great pleasure to “meet” you, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the essay. I *wish* I were a member of the TV Academy — I’ve been in the entertainment industry for 30 years, but on the music side, not the film & television side. But I was a devoted fan of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ when it originally aired, and have never stopped rewatching — and when I was younger, I hoped to become a TV writer, so I’ve always been fascinated by which episodes actors and producers used as their Emmy submissions. Unfortunately, the ones I note here are pretty much the only ones I know. Valerie Harper thanked Treva Silverman in her 1973 Emmy acceptance speech, so it was easy to guess even then that it was for “Rhoda, the Beautiful,” and Silverman herself later confirmed it. For some reason (I’m unsure why), Cloris Leachman’s Emmy submissions for 1973-75 (“My Brother’s Keeper,” “The Lars Affair,” and “Phyllis Whips Inflation”) have been made public, and can be verified all over the internet. And Treva Silverman did an extensive interview for the Television Academy Foundation (it's available for viewing at their website), where she spoke about the practice at TMTMS of actually conceiving episodes as the actors’ Emmy submissions, and she specifically speaks about “Better Late...That’s a Pun...Than Never” as an example of that, as a showcase for Moore that was designed as her Emmy reel. (I had long presumed that was Moore’s 1974 submission, but it was nice to see it confirmed.) But sadly, beyond those examples, I know nothing more about which episodes the actors and producers chose to share with voters. I’ve long suspected Moore chose “Mary’s Insomnia” in 1977, but that’s pure speculation (and thus, when I refer to it in my essay, I'm careful to put a “probably” before it). Obviously, any of the producers could supply a full list of episode submissions, and believe me, if I had easy access to any of them, I definitely would have asked! :)

      I may well write about ‘I Love Lucy’ at some point; I confess, my knowledge of other ‘50s sitcoms isn’t as strong, and it’s a gap in my knowledge I look forward to filling. I definitely have essays on some other ‘70s and ‘80s sitcoms in the works.

      Again, thanks so much for writing, and for your kind words.

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  5. Hey this is a fantastic essay about one of my favorite shows, and I’ve read way too much about MTM. Kudos.

    I don’t necessarily agree with your choices — I hate the moment where Murray zings Ted in his vows, it just seems mean and gratuitous —but I’m impressed with the thought you put into this. Not a Christmas Story and Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Writer are my favorite unheralded MTM episodes.

    On my recent rewatch I kept expecting the quality to go down in season 7 but I thought it was pretty great. I love Ted’s Change of Heart and Mary Midwife.The humor is definitely broader than it has been; three episodes end with someone getting doused, or dumped in, food, including the great one you list. But it’s pretty typical for sitcoms to get broader as they age. The episode where Ted is nearly seduced seems to have been influenced by the racy shows coming in the air at that time, like Three’s Company.

    What’s interesting is that, even though it’s justly celebrated for having a lot of female writers early on, MTM is mostly written by men in its last work-oriented seasons. The Last Show had seven writers, all men.

    As far as Lou’s divorce, I agree it wasn’t handled perfectly but in retrospect it makes a little more sense. Edie wanted something different, even if she doesn’t express it perfectly, and times had changed so she was able to act on it. Old fashioned Lou ridicules her reasoning as a beer commercial. And yet in the end he’s powerless to stop it. Neither one of them is really right, or wrong. Usually sitcoms, particularly old ones, make judgements, yet that episode really doesn’t. One reason why it feels unfulfilling is because it doesn’t take a side. And really, it would be hard for the audience to sympathize with someone divorcing lovable Lou. It ends with her leaving and him pissed. He doesn’t have any big sitcom moment of acceptance, which is good. That wouldn’t be true to the character.

    I find that episode very hard to watch; it’s too sad. But its ambiguity and messiness is one reason why it’s so powerful.

    The one where Murray falls in love with Mary is also interesting but also a little sudden. Its completely forgotten by the next episode. I think the episodic structure of sitcoms (back then) sometimes let the show down.

    Anyway keep up the great work and I look forward to reading your other writings.

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    1. Hey Rob, so glad you found your way here, and thanks for the kind words. Believe me, I never expect folks to automatically agree with my conclusions or choices. Quite often, I’m aware that my feelings differ from "fan consensus." (I always feel that if I were just going to parrot the same talking points as others before me, what would be the point of writing? So I only choose subjects where I feel I have something to add to the conversation, and where I feel passionate about my own convictions. And even though I call these kinds of essays “The 10 Best,” what I’m really saying, of course, is “My 10 Favorites” — it’s all so very subjective.) So I’m always delighted when folks offer up their own differing opinions — and in that vein, I’m so pleased to hear you reflect on some of your own favorite unheralded episodes, and also to share your opinions about Season 7.

      I confess, when the show originally aired, Season 7 seemed marvelous to me; 40 years later, the coarsening of the comedy and the stagnation of the characterizations trouble me more. (Just as you don’t love it when Murray zings Ted during his wedding vows, I don’t love Mary and Lou’s fight in “Mary Midwife,” culminating in the “Not if you stick it up your nose” line. I just feel the writers hitting the beats way too hard by that point, and Lloyd manufacturing a fight just so it can resolve itself when Lou delivers Georgette’s baby.) But I readily confess, I’m aware that mine is an uncommon opinion, and that I didn’t feel the same way at all in 1976-77. During the original run, David Lloyd could do no wrong where I was concerned.

      I love hearing your thoughts on Lou and Edie’s divorce, and on “The Lou and Edie Story” in particular. As I mentioned above, I don’t think I’ve seen the episode since the ‘70s. I had very strong opinions about it then, but I really need to rewatch it now and see if my feelings have changed — particularly in light of some of the cogent arguments you make. I might just give it a rewatch this coming weekend!

      Again, so glad you stopped by. Do take a look around, and hopefully you’ll see some other things that appeal to you. :)

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  6. One more thing: Lois Nettleton was once married to Jean Shepherd, writer/narrator of A Christmas Story. In addition to MTM, I’ve ling been obsessed with him.

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    1. I had no idea Lois Nettleton was married to Jean Shepherd. One of my very first essays, back in 2012, was about Lois Nettleton, simply because I admire her TV work so much. It was a very short essay, just four or five paragraphs, and it was before I had any idea exactly whom I was writing this blog *for*. A few years later, I went back and reread it and went “yuk” — and deleted it. But I would love to do an essay like that again, maybe picking five actors who guested a lot during TV’s Silver Age and always elevated the material and, occasionally, the very quality of the shows themselves.

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  7. Here are a few of my favorite "Mary Tyler Moore Show" episodes that Tommy didn't already cover (and he did pick a lot of the best). It's not exhaustive, and I didn't rewatch the whole series. But here are some that pleased me this time around, in broadcast order:

    "The Good Time News" (Season 3 / Episode 1): One plot is what the title suggests, a mandate from the station manager to make the news more entertaining (to Lou's protest "News is truth, and I don't want to make it fake," he replies "Why not?"). The other is Mary's realization that she makes $50 a week less than the man who held the job before her. Lou's reasoning why this is true (he had a family, etc.) overpowers Mary's Midwestern reticence (I share it, I grew up in Illinois), but only temporarily, and in the end she does answer him back and get her raise. And it's all done without preaching or heaviness.

    "The Lars Affair" (4/1): I mean, come on! This is a classic if ever there was one. Even the fact that there was actual adultery on a comedy show (admittedly the married participant was a never-seen offstage character) was a bit startling at the time. All the more so because the party of the second part was Betty White! Viewers today for whom she's imagine of a naughty grandma may not realize how completely squeaky-clean sunny her TV persona was up until this moment. She was never the same afterwards, and I remember how thrilled my grad-school viewing party was with everything that happened in this half hour, but especially the realization that there was more to Betty White than we'd known. (Virtuoso work from Cloris Leachman too.)

    (to be continued -- this was too long)

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  8. (continuation)

    "The Dinner Party" (4/10): And this built on that realization, as we discovered that The Happy Homemaker wasn't going to be a one-shot guest appearance, but we were getting her back. This began the "Mary gives terrible parties" running gag that lasted the rest of the series; it needed only a slight retro-fitting to the previous dinner party we'd seen, where although everyone said "Thanks, Mar, great party" as they left, it was after all when Lou and Edie had their first fight in public. The disaster kept building and building, in that wonderful way where we can anticipate the payoff ahead of time, and then it's better than we'd imagined. Sue Ann, asked for advice, invites herself. Ted, not invited, pouts and schemes. Rhoda brings along a coworker who's just been fired (Henry Winkler in his primetime debut, politely answering each "How you doing?" greeting with "I just got fired"). Sue Ann has timed dinner to be served at the exact instant people arrive (Veal Prince Orloff become an eternal punch line all by itself). Lou helps himself to three of the six portions offered, and then has to put the surplus back on the platter ("You know, I'm not as hungry as I thought"). One of my candidates for peak of the series.

    "What Are Friends For?" (5/10): Usually I don't have much time for "underneath it all, Sue Ann is lonely" premises (same for Ted or Murray). But this one has enough sharpness to overcome that, with Sue Ann and Mary in adjoining hotel rooms at a Chicago conference, and Mary giving as good as she gets (even if she does cave in the end and agree to dinner with the two loudmouth men). And a wonderful payoff line from Mary at the very end.

    "Ted Baxter's Famous Broadcasters' School" (4/23): One of those you-can-see-it-coming-a-mile-away premises, where the fun is all in the execution. Fortunately, the fun is considerable. Of course the school bearing Ted's name is all a scam for the man who proposed it (though I'd love to see the spreadsheet for how this trick actually makes him a profit). Of course the gang will get roped into helping Ted out of the jam. It's less predictable that only one student (the always-wonderful Leonard Frey) shows up and insists on getting his money's worth. But just watch it play out.

    Okay, that's it for me for now.

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    1. “Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcasters’ School” has never thrilled me quite as much as it does others, but I'm right there with you on the other four. Man, this show was good. :) I definitely had “Good Time News” as a top-10 possibility, and am actually baffled how I *didn’t* have “The Lars Affair” on my initial list, as few episodes gave me more joy when they originally aired. And I suspect knowing I was including “A New Sue Ann” made me decide to omit “What Are Friends For?”, another David Lloyd (defining) showcase for Betty White just four weeks later. (Sue Ann’s “I may do a dab of cooking” followed by Mary’s “I may do a dab of drinking” remains one of my favorite exchanges.)

      So pleased to hear of your love for “The Dinner Party,” and your thinking it might well be your favorite. It’s exactly the kind of episode I’m partial to, but I confess I haven’t watched it in a while, and look forward to doing so this weekend. In a similar vein, I’ve always been partial to Season 4’s unheralded “WJM Tries Harder,” in which the news team enjoys one of its rare on-air successes.

      Interesting fact about you yourself, Jon: you have an uncanny knack for knowing which episodes the producers themselves felt were important. I used to have a list of what order the episodes were filmed in (which often varied greatly from the order in which they aired). I don’t have it anymore, but I’m quite certain that “Good Time News” was something like the 14th episode filmed for Season 3, but was then moved up to be the season opener; I suspect Brooks and Burns wanted something up front to define the new house style, especially the tougher Mary and her (carefully unstressed) embrace of feminist issues. And similarly, when Betty White proved such a hit in “The Lars Affair,” Weinberger wrote “Dinner Party,” which was then rushed onto the air, out of shooting sequence, to establish her as a continuing presence in Season 4. (The same thing had happened with Weinberger and Engels and “The Georgette Story” in Season 3.)

      As always, things that are probably of interest only to you and to me. Or maybe just me...

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    2. “Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcasters’ School” is indeed different for me from the others I named. The others are in one way or another unpredictable; it's ultra-predictable in structure, which would normally bug me because I'd be ahead of the story. But seeing it all work out turns out to be satisfying enough to justify the whole thing.

      I was tempted to mention "The System" (5/17) because it's a structure they never used before or afterwards, spacing the action out over several months with onscreen indications of dates. But I don't find it all that satisfying in the end.

      I took another look at "Not Just Another Pretty Face," which you wrote about. In that case, I really don't buy the basic premise at all (you date someone good-looking, so all your friends tell you to break up with him because it must be for purely physical reasons? within the first week??). But it doesn't matter, because it's stuffed with so many delicious bits along the way. Sue Ann laughs riotously at something not-funny the guy says, and when some asks "Doesn't he have a great sense of humor?" she gurgles, "No, but who cares?" But my favorite is a silent moment: after Phyllis asks her what else the relationship could be based on but physical attraction, Mary walks away from her and toward us with the biggest smuggest most satisfied smile of the entire series. Yeah, Mary was gettin' some on the regular.

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