The Mary Tyler Moore Show

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977, was one of the most influential situation comedies in the history of American television, highly regarded by audiences and critics alike. The show, set in Minneapolis, centers around Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore), a single career woman in her thirties who works as the associate producer of the six o'clock news at WJMTV Channel 12, the lowest-rated station in the city. This premise, while seemingly simple, broke new ground for situation comedy by featuring an unmarried, professional woman as the central character and by shifting the setting of the sitcom from the home and the traditional family to the workplace, where a new kind of family was formed, a family consisting of characters in whom audiences felt invested and toward whom they felt a deep affection. In its seven year run, the show raised the standards for comedy writing, acting, directing, and producing, garnering a record 29 Emmys and thus guaranteeing it a place in the annals of American television programming.

The events surrounding the creation and development of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are part of television lore. By the late 1960s, Moore was already an established actress, having won two Emmys for her portrayal of Laura Petrie, wife of Rob Petrie, on The Dick Van Dyke Show (which ran on CBS from 1961-1966). In April of 1969, Moore re-teamed with Van Dyke for a television musical-variety show entitled Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. The program received high ratings as well as glowing reviews from critics. Impressed with the success of the show, CBS offered Moore a half-hour series, with a commitment to 13 episodes. Moore would accept only under the provision that she and then-husband Grant Tinker would have complete control of the series. CBS agreed, and Moore and Tinker formed their own independent television production company, MTM Enterprises. Tinker then hired a team of young writers, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, to create the show. As they originallyconceived it, the series would revolve around Mary Richards, a 30-year-old divorcee who had moved to Minneapolis for a job as an assistant to a gossip columnist.

CBS executives balked at the idea, convinced that audiences would think that the "new" Mary had divorced her old television husband, Dick Van Dyke. Ordered to come up with a new premise, Brooks and Burns revised the characters and the plot, and their revision became the famous first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which Mary Richards moves from a small town in Minnesota—where she and her boyfriend of two years had split up—to the urban environment of Minneapolis in order to start a new life. Within days of moving to the big city, Mary secures a job as associate producer at WJM, a local news station, completely severs ties with her ex-boyfriend, Bill (who comes to Minneapolis to ask Mary to move back home and live with him—not as his wife, but as his mistress), and befriends her upstairs neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern.

When The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered on September 19, 1970, it was not met with overwhelming critical success, and in its first year it did not rank among the top 20 shows of the season. But over the course of its seven year run, The Mary Tyler Moore Show endeared itself to critics and audiences alike (excepting the first season, it placed in the top 20 in every season but the last). The show met with such success in large part due to a talented and diverse cast, all of whom excelled at making their respective characters come to life. Leading the cast was Moore herself, whose portrayal of the lovable, seemingly perfect, somewhat insecure but, over the years, increasingly assertive Mary Richards anchored the show. Though Mary Richards could "turn the world on with her smile," she was not so flawless that audiences could not identify with her. To be sure, Moore's greatest talent was making Mary Richards human: when intimidated by others, Mary would stutter or swallow her words; when exasperated or frustrated at a situation, Mary's arms would fly wildly around her; when upset at work, Mary would sniffle, "Oh, Mr. Grant!" And while, in many ways, Mary Richards was the "girl next door," she was not so innocent or naive that she seemed an anomaly in the early 1970s. To be sure, she dated many men, had several serious relationships, and though it was never stated explicitly, had an active sex life.

Mary Richards was the center of the show, but her world would have been a much less interesting place without the supporting characters: Edward Asner in the role of Mary's tough but loveable boss, Lou Grant; Gavin McLeod as Murray Slaughter, the hardworking, wise-cracking WJM news writer; Ted Knight as Ted Baxter, WJM's egotistical, buffoonish anchorman; Valerie Harper as Jewish New Yorker Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary's sarcastic neighbor, best friend, and foil; and Cloris Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary's landlady/friend and resident snob. Both Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman exited the show (at the end of the fourth and fifth season, respectively) for their own spinoffs—Rhoda, which ran from 1974-1978, and Phyllis, which aired from 1975-1977. Around the same time as their departures, two new characters were introduced: Georgia Engel as the good-hearted but dim-witted Georgette Franklin, whom Ted dates and, in the sixth season, marries; and Betty White as the manipulative, man-hungry "Happy Homemaker," Sue Ann Nivens.

These characters, just as much as Mary Richards, contributed to the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They, like Mary, were likable because they were human; indeed, each character had flaws, but flaws with which the audience could sympathize, if not identify. Over the course of seven years, viewers learned that Lou Grant's toughness masked his inability to be emotionally vulnerable; Murray's self-deprecating comments pointed to his disappointment that he was "just a news writer"; Ted's egotistical boasting belied a real lack of confidence in his abilities; Rhoda's caustic wit served as protection against the deep insecurity she felt about her appearance; Phyllis' political and cultural elitism reassured her that her life was in order, even though she and her husband, Lars, did not have the most exciting relationship; and Sue Ann's aggressive "man-chasing" stemmed from her fear that no man would ever want her. Even soft-spoken Georgette is much more complex than meets the eye: as viewers learned in one episode, her good-heartedness provokes others—Ted in particular—to take advantage of her. With the help of Mary and Rhoda, Georgette learns to assert and believe in herself. Every character on the show was both complicated and humane, and even when the characters were at their worst behavior—as Ted, Phyllis, and Sue Ann often were—the viewers were reminded that there was something redeemable about them, something forgivable in each of them.

Though the series was originally conceived as a show about a single working woman, only a few of the 168 episodes dealt directly with Mary's unmarried status. In fact, the show was more concerned with the relationships between Mary and her co-workers and neighbors than with those between Mary and her many dates. Yet whether an episode focused on Mary's love life, home life, or work life, it often addressed—though subtly—relevant social issues of the 1970s: premarital sex, birth control, anti-Semitism, women's liberation, homosexuality, and divorce. It succeeded at incorporating such issues without resorting to preachiness or without employing the polemical style of All in the Family (which aired on CBS on the same night as The Mary Tyler Moore Show for four seasons). Rather, the humor surrounding these issues softened the controversial nature of them.

There is no better example of the show's ability to combine the serious and the humorous than in its most famous episode: "Chuckles Bites the Dust," from the sixth season. Chuckles the Clown, the host of a children's show produced by WJM, is killed by an elephant in a parade; as Murray explains, Chuckles was dressed as a peanut, and the hungry elephant tried to shell him. The unusual circumstances of his death inspire laughter rather than tears among Mary's co-workers: at the mere mention of Chuckles, everyone—Mr. Grant, Murray, Ted, Sue Ann—giggles uncontrollably. Mary is outraged at what she perceives to be their lack of decorum and respect for the dead. Murray explains that their laughter is merely their way of coping with the tragedy, but Mary remains indignant. The climax of the plot occurs at Chuckles' funeral: while all of her friends are solemn and composed, Mary, who throughout the episode had righteously denounced the "inappropriate" responses of her co-workers, finds herself unable to control her laughter. "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is still regarded not only as one of the best episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but also as one of the best half-hours of comedy ever produced for television.

At the end of the sixth season, those involved in creating in the show, particularly the writers and producers, decided that the seventh season would be The Mary Tyler Moore Show's last—not because the quality of the show was suffering, but because they wanted to end the series while the characters, plot lines, and writing were still fresh. Aired on March 19, 1977, "The Last Show" (in which everyone at the news station is fired—except Ted) has since become the exemplar of how to bring a much-loved sitcom to a graceful end. While almost every cast member moved on to other television shows (Ed Asner on Lou Grant, Gavin McLeod on The Love Boat, Ted Knight on Too Close For Comfort, Betty White on The Betty White Show and The Golden Girls, and Moore herself, who has tried her hand at several programs, including Mary and Annie McGuire), none of them matched the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Though The Mary Tyler Moore Show now belongs to the realm of "classic TV," its influence and impact cannot be underestimated. It changed the face of the situation comedy in innumerable ways. While sitcoms before The Mary Tyler Moore Show had featured women in lead roles (I Love Lucy in the 1950s, That Girl in the 1960s) The Mary Tyler Moore Show differed from its predecessors by presenting a female character who was independent, career-oriented, and most importantly, happily unmarried. Indeed, Mary remained single throughout the seven year run of the show, and the writers felt no compunction to "marry her off" in the last episode. And while it has been argued that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, despite its "career woman" lead, in fact reinforced many stereotypical gender roles—for example, even after seven years, Mary called her boss "Mr. Grant" instead of "Lou," and she often performed "motherly" or "wifely" duties for him such as buying gifts for his wife or doing his laundry—such actions might be better understood as reflecting the insecurity and uncertainty that characterized women's foray into public life in the 1970s. To be sure, Mary Richards was not alone in her experience of being the only woman at WJM; in the "real world," thousands of women, inspired by the women's movement, were entering fields previously not open to them. The difficulties that Mary experienced—difficulties in not knowing how to say "no," in asserting herself in order to be heard, in drawing a line between her professional life and her private life—were no doubt the very same conflicts that real women had to deal with as they entered a male-dominated work force.

And just as The Mary Tyler Moore Show reflected the changing role of women in society, so, too, did it reflect changing notions of the family. Whereas popular comedies of the 1950s (Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) and the 1960s (The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons) centered on the home and the relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, and traditional family structures, The Mary Tyler Moore Show challenged the definition of family itself, presenting instead a new version of the family, one consisting of friends, co-workers, and neighbors. As Mary tearfully declares in the final episode, "I just wanted you to know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking my job is too important to me and I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with, and not my family. And last night, I thought, what is a family anyway? They're just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that's what you've done for me. Thank you for being my family." By redefining the family and resituating the sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show paved the way for the dozens of other "workplace comedies" that have followed it, such as Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, Cheers, and Murphy Brown, programs which feature "families" not unlike the family on The Mary Tyler Moore Show —people not related by blood or tradition, but drawn together by work, circumstance, and ultimately, affection and love for one another.

—Ann M. Ciasullo

Further Reading:

Alley, Robert S., and Irby B. Brown. Love is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. New York Delta, 1989.

Douglas, Susan. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York, Times Books, 1994.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM "Quality Television." London, BFI Publishing, 1984.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York, Penguin, 1996.

Meehan, Diana. Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime-Time Television. Metuchen, New Jersey and London, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1983.

Moore, Mary Tyler. After All. New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.

Stark, Steven D. Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today. New York, The Free Press, 1997.

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show

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