I love Mary Tyler Moore and her self-titled, groundbreaking sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (TMTMS). It is my second favorite show after I Love Lucy. TMTMS is one of the best written sitcoms of all times. Usually shows with such large ensemble casts have at least 1-2 characters that are kind of lame, or irritating, or what have you. However, TMTMS is so well-written, so well-cast, that every character in the show is worthwhile. Every character is important. Even scenes not involving Mary Richards (Moore), the central character in the series, are worth watching. One of the best parts of TMTMS in my opinion, is the friendship between Mary and Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper).
Mary and Rhoda are such opposites personality-wise, that they don’t even seem like they should be acquaintances, let alone friends. In the 1970 pilot episode, “Love is All Around,” Rhoda is first introduced to viewers as a potential enemy of Mary Richards. Throughout the entire episode, Rhoda is contentious towards Mary, as she thinks that Mary has usurped her apartment. Thankfully, by the second episode, the writing staff had given up on the idea of Mary and Rhoda being enemies. Rhoda’s character was changed into being Mary’s new neighbor and new friend.
It is in the second episode, “Today I am a Ma’am” where we are first introduced to Rhoda’s self image issues. After Mary is called a “ma’am” in the office, she begins to feel self-conscious about being 30. Both Rhoda and Mary begin to commiserate with one another about being 30 and still being single. To make themselves feel better, Rhoda suggests that she and Mary invite someone over to the house for a small gathering. Mary invites over the suffocating Howard Arnell. Rhoda takes a different approach and invites over Armond Linton, a man she ran over with her car. When the guests show up, we’re treated to a classic Rhoda line:
RHODA (to MARY): “How can you gorge yourself and stay so skinny? I’m hungry and I can’t stand it.”
MARY: “Why don’t you eat something?”
RHODA: “I can’t. I’ve got to lose 10 pounds by 8:30.”Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in “Today, I am a Ma’am” in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970).
Throughout the rest of the first season and all of the second, Rhoda continues to be self-deprecating about her body and general attractiveness. Many of Rhoda’s lines allude to her being envious towards the tall, svelte Mary Richards. For the record, while Mary is very pretty and definitely has a good figure, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Rhoda’s appearance. Rhoda is a very beautiful woman. Thankfully, in the season three episode, “Rhoda the Beautiful,” Rhoda finally accepts the fact that she is an attractive woman.
“Rhoda the Beautiful” opens as many episodes do, with Rhoda walking into Mary’s apartment while Mary is doing some sort of household task. In this particular episode, Mary is washing dishes. She wonders aloud whether a pot that was only used to boil water needs to be washed. Rhoda, in her usual style says that she only uses paper pots. Rhoda announces to Mary that she learned that during her recent “Calorie Cutters” meeting, she had successfully met her 20-lb weight loss goal. Mary is ecstatic for Rhoda, but Rhoda in her usual self-deprecating way, won’t accept Mary’s compliments. Mary is frustrated that Rhoda will not allow herself to be happy and proud of herself for meeting her goal. To further compound Rhoda’s frustrations about her appearance, even her frenemy, Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), says that Rhoda looks fantastic. And Phyllis is being genuine.
In the second act, Rhoda visits her Calorie Cutter colleague, Murray (Gavin McLeod) for a healthy lunch. Murray compliments Rhoda and says she looks great. Rhoda reveals to Mary and Murray1 that she has entered the employees-only Ms. Hempel Beauty Pageant. Per usual, Mary and Murray are very supportive of Rhoda and are excited that she’s taking this chance. As an aside, I love how seamlessly the writers were able to integrate Mary’s home life (Rhoda and Phyllis) into Mary’s work life (Lou, Ted, and Murray). It is logical that Mary’s friends and co-workers would interact at Mary’s various infamously bad parties and become friends. Rhoda fits in perfectly with the WJM gang, even with Ted who thinks she’s Israeli and named Rita.
The third act opens with Rhoda, Mary and Phyllis trying to help Rhoda find a dress to wear in the pageant. We get to hear Rhoda express another semi-envious sentiment about Mary’s figure when she rebuffs Mary, who is offering her wardrobe. “Mary, you weigh three pounds,” Rhoda says. We also get to watch and listen to Phyllis deliver a hilarious rendition of “Ten Cents a Dance” while wearing an “endangered” Orlon coat. Mary and Rhoda are wandering in the background, looking for a dress for Rhoda. In one of my favorite parts, Mary and Rhoda imitate the contestant interviews during the Miss America pageant. Mary recalls the contestants always having a multi-part name. She re-christens Rhoda as “Miss Mary Jo Beth Ann Lou” and asks her some probing questions:
MARY (to RHODA aka MISS MARY JO BETH ANN LOU): “What are some of your favorite hobbies?”
RHODA (affecting a demure, beauty pageant contestant voice): “My favorite hobbies are cheerleading, liking people, and living in America.”
MARY: “And, uh, what…is your goal…in life?”
RHODA: “After I graduate from high school, I would like to become a brain surgeon… or a model!”Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards and Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern in “Rhoda in the Beautiful,” in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1972).
At the end of the third act, we see the dress that Rhoda finally settled on. Rhoda wears a black halter dress with a white scarf that drapes across her back. She looks fantastic. As an aside, Valerie Harper wore this same dress to accept her Emmy Award in 1971 and she looks fabulous there too. Rhoda announces to Mary and Phyllis that she placed a respectable third place. Mary and Phyllis congratulate her and the episode seems to come to an end. However, as Rhoda leaves, she somewhat lingers. Mary probes and Rhoda announces that she actually won the contest. This next moment is what I think is the most important part of the episode and is the catalyst for Rhoda’s character development. This is the moment when Rhoda finally accepts that she is an attractive woman. She no longer has the weight issue that she can hide behind and blame for her own perceived shortcomings.
RHODA (to MARY): “I sort of heard my name called, and uh… they were all applauding…for me. I couldn’t believe it.”
MARY: “Oh Rhoda. That’s so great.”
MARY: “And you deserved it.”
RHODA: “Well… they gave it to me, and I, uh, took it. So I guess I really won it. How do you like that? I won! After 32 years! Me! Mary Jo Beth Lou Ann Morgenstern!”Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in “Rhoda the Beautiful,” The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1972).
This is such an amazing moment. Then we see Rhoda in her full pageant winner regalia, crown, cape, scepter and all. She looks silly but gorgeous. Phyllis, of course still doesn’t know the truth about Rhoda’s win:
PHYLLIS (looking at Rhoda’s crown and cape): “Boy, they sure make a big fuss over third place.”
RHODA: “I won, Cookie!”Cloris Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom and Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern in “Rhoda the Beautiful” Mary Tyler Moore Show (1972).
1 One thing I have always wondered about this show: Why did they give so many characters similar sounding names? This show has a Mary, Murray and Marie!