Beloved television icon Mary Tyler Moore passed away today at the age of 80. While I knew that Mary had been in poor health for the last few years and I’m not entirely surprised by her passing, I am still very sad. I absolutely love Mary Tyler Moore. Along with I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was my “must see” show during my Nick at Nite years. I also loved The Dick Van Dyke Show, the show that put Mary on the map, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show will always have a special place in my heart.
While I Love Lucy is my #1 favorite television show of all time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show comes in a close second. While Lucy Ricardo got the best of her husband Ricky often and for the most part, always got her way, she was still expected to live up to the expectations of women in the 1950s. Lucy was expected to keep house, take care of children (or in her case, child) and attend to her husband’s needs. Husband Ricky was the breadwinner. She took care of all domestic chores. To Lucy, this life was mundane and she wanted the excitement of show business, something that Ricky experienced on a daily basis. Ricky didn’t want his wife having a career. Even when Lucy got her way and made her way onto the stage, she was still expected to return to her domestic duties. In the only two-three cringe-worthy moments in I Love Lucy, Ricky actually spanks Lucy when she does something he doesn’t like. Ricky keeps Lucy in her place and she usually always returns to domestic life even though it is apparent that she wants more.
In 1961, 24-year old Mary Tyler Moore was cast in The Dick Van Dyke Show. She landed the star-making role of Laura Petrie, wife of Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke). This role allowed Moore to showcase her talent for dancing and also her comedic skills. In addition to her excellent chemistry with Van Dyke, the role of Laura Petrie allowed Mary to establish one of her great comic shticks. Where Lucille Ball’s comedy came from situations she got herself into, much of Mary’s comedy came from being embarrassed. In the episode “My Blonde-Haired Brunette,” Laura decides that Rob has become uninterested in her. Knowing that blondes like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield are currently in vogue, Laura decides to make herself blonde. She looks horrible as a blonde and Rob tells her over the phone that he loves her brown hair and he’s taking her out to dinner. Desperate to change her hair before he comes home, she enlists friend Millie to help her. Unfortunately, Rob arrives home when Laura’s hair is only half dyed. She comes out with her half and half hair and collapses into a blubbering mess. Mary Tyler Moore became one of the all-time best criers on television. Even though Rob encouraged his wife to explore her talents, Laura Petrie ultimately was still a housewife and was expected to take care of son Ritchie and their home. Laura somewhat bridges the gap between Lucy Ricardo and Mary Richards.
Which brings us to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Dick Van Dyke Show ended in 1966 after a very successful five-year run on television. Between 1966-1970, Mary was having trouble finding her next project. She tried movies. Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) was successful, but did not lead to any big projects. In 1969, Mary and Dick reunited for a special called, Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. In this variety special, Mary and Dick portray themselves and through a variety of song and dance routines, it shows off the various sides of Mary and Dick’s musical comedy talents. This special paved the way for Mary to get her own show. In 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered.
In The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary portrayed Mary Richards, a newly single 30-year old woman who moves to Minneapolis to start a new life and career after her long-term relationship fizzles out. Mary moves into a fantastic studio apartment managed by longtime friend, Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman). Soon to be BFF, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), lives upstairs. Applying for a secretarial position at WJM News, Mary lands the job of Associate Producer. WJM’s news is the lowest rated news program in the city. Mary’s new co-workers include the brash, but secretly a softie, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), sarcastic and disillusioned writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod) and the buffoonish, arrogant anchorman, Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). Later, Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) who hosts “The Happy Homemaker” program at WJM and Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel) join the gang. Georgette ends up becoming Mrs. Ted Baxter.
Mary Richards in many ways is the ideal woman of the 1970s (and maybe even now). She’s gainfully employed and makes enough money to live independently. She has many friends and even a close-knit group of co-workers who in many ways serve as a surrogate family for Mary. While she would like to be married and have children, she isn’t desperate to have them. She goes on dates and it is even implied that she spends the night with some of them. She’s on The Pill! Prior to 1970, were there any female television characters that even had sex, let alone were on The Pill? Mother characters don’t count. Mary lived her own life according to her own terms. There were times when Mary was a bit of a pushover and naive, but this is where the Rhoda and Lou characters came in handy–they were able to express their concerns to Mary in hopes that she’d make the right decision. Throughout the 1970s, Mary Richards approached uncharted territory. In an early episode, she discovers that the man who had her job before her made $50 more a week than she does. She confronts Lou and demands to know why; In the fifth season, Mary faces the possibility of jail time for not revealing her news source; In the seventh season, Mary becomes hooked on sleeping pills. These are just a few examples.
Without further ado, my top 10 favorite episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
(This definitely isn’t meant to imply that I am not a fan of the other 158 episodes of the show)
1. Put On a Happy Face (Season 3, Ep. 23)
Mary Richards is having a really bad week. She’s late to work after her alarm fails to go off; She drips coffee on her new sweater before a meeting; she gets a flat tire; her paper bags fail causing her to drop her groceries all over the floor; she slips on the freshly waxed floor and sprains her ankle after trying to walk to the ladies’ room to fix her “hair bump”; she catches a cold from soaking her sprained foot; her date to the Teddy Awards bails; she ends up going to the award show with a “Robert Redford-type” (aka Ted Baxter); the dry cleaner ruins her dress; her hair dryer breaks; she gets a run in her stocking; it starts raining… This all culminates with Mary showing up at the Teddy Awards in a tacky dress, one wet slipper and one shoe, wearing a yellow rain slicker and haphazard hair. Her false eyelash falls off. She of course wins the Teddy Award she was nominated for and ends up a blubbering mess on the podium, only managing to apologize for her appearance. She gets her award, and Mary is spelled wrong. Of course it is.
*This is my favorite episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
2. The Dinner Party (Season 4, Ep. 10)
It’s time for another of Mary’s disastrous parties. For someone who is so pleasant and well-liked by her co-workers and friends, it becomes a running gag in the series that she can’t seem to give a good party to save her life. Nothing that happens at her parties is ever her fault, it just seems like everyone likes to bring their troubles to her parties. In this party, Mary has invited Congresswoman Geddes as her guest of honor. Her table only seats six. The guests will be: Congresswoman Geddes, Mary, Lou, Rhoda, Murray and Sue Ann (who is cooking the dinner). Sue Ann cooks exactly six portions of “Veal Prince Orloff.” Rhoda shows up with a date (Henry Winkler) who has just been fired from Hempels and she feels bad. Lou ends up taking 3 portions of Veal Prince Orloff and has to return two portions to the platter. Ted, who was not invited to the dinner party, shows up to dessert.
3. The Lars Affair (Season 4, Ep. 1)
This is the funniest Phyllis episode. This episode also introduces the Sue Ann Nivens character. In this episode, Phyllis learns that husband Lars and Sue Ann are having an affair after meeting at Mary’s party. Phyllis agonizes over the fact that her husband is cheating on her and even bakes a pie in an attempt to compete with Sue Ann. The episode culminates with a confrontation on the set of “The Happy Homemaker” where Sue Ann refuses to give Lars up even after Phyllis points out all of his faults. Sue Ann finally relents when Mary gives her an ultimatum, stating that being a homewrecker wouldn’t be a great image for “The Happy Homemaker,” it’s either Lars or her show.
4. Rhoda the Beautiful (Season 3, Ep. 6)
Perpetual dieter Rhoda has finally reached her goal. Mary, Phyllis and the WJM staff give her praise but Rhoda cannot accept any of the compliments and meets each kind statement with a self-deprecating remark. She ends up entering her department store’s “Miss Hempel Beauty Pageant.” After a hilarious scene where Mary and Phyllis help Rhoda find something to wear (and Phyllis sings “10 Cents a Dance” from Love Me or Leave Me), Rhoda leaves for the pageant. She looks fantastic and wins the contest. Rhoda is finally able to admit that she looks good.
5. You Try to Be a Nice Guy (Season 5, Ep. 21)
Mary ends up becoming reacquainted with Sherry, a prostitute she met in jail while she was incarcerated for not revealing her news source. Sherry got out of jail but was arrested again. She recruits Mary to be a character witness at her court appearance. Sherry is relying on a good character witness like Mary to keep her out of jail. Mary agrees but unwittingly becomes responsible for Sherry’s behavior after having to give an oath promising to help Sherry look for legitimate work. Mary, taking her oath seriously, is determined to find a decent job for Sherry but struggles since Sherry doesn’t have any marketable skills. Finally, Sherry tells Mary that she wants to be a fashion designer. Mary encourages her to pursue her dream. To thank her, Sherry makes Mary a custom gown. It ends up being a ridiculous, green colored concoction with lots of cutouts across Mary’s stomach and legs. Only Mary Tyler Moore could wear this dress and not look atrocious, but it is so tacky and so completely not Mary Richards, that she looks ridiculous. Ted and Georgette happen to show up at the same time Mary is wearing this dress and Ted can’t keep it together. His reaction is the funniest part of the episode.
6. The Last Show (Season 7, Ep. 24)
All good things must come to an end and The Mary Tyler Moore Show unfortunately reached that point in 1977. I personally think they could have continued a couple more years, but it’s good that the show ended before the episodes started diminishing in quality. In what is perhaps one of the best (if not the best) series finales of all time, the WJM crew (with the exception of Ted) learn that they are going to be fired. Though they’re trying to repress their emotions, they finally let it all out after the end of their last newscast. It’s hard to watch this scene without getting at least a little teary-eyed. Lou and Mary emotionally give speeches to everyone. This culminates with the group sobbing in a large group hug. Ted (or maybe Lou?) says he needs Kleenex and they move in one big glob toward the Kleenex box. To lighten the mood, they sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and leave the room. Mary is left to turn off the lights. Thus ending The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
7. Sue Ann’s Sister (Season 7, Ep. 3)
Sue Ann’s sister Lila is in town. Sue Ann is deeply jealous of Lila as it seems that every time Sue Ann gets something, Lila comes around and steals it from her. Upon arrival, Lila and Lou immediately become chummy, which infuriates Sue Ann. Lila then announces that she is interviewing for a “Happy Homemaker” type show on a rival network. This latest news is just too much for Sue Ann and she retreats to her bedroom. The scene in Sue Ann’s bedroom is the funniest part of the entire episode. Her bedroom is frilly gaudy. She sleeps in a round bed, which we learn also vibrates. She’s also got Tchaikovsky’s “Love Theme” from “Romeo and Juliet” queued up to play whenever I imagine she’s got something hot and heavy going on. The best scene is when Ted walks in, looks up, and straightens his hat and tie–telling the audience about Sue Ann’s mirrored ceiling.
8. I Was a Single for WJM (Season 4, Ep. 24)
Inspired by the popularity of a local singles bar, WJM News decides to do a feature on the singles scene in Minneapolis. The crew spends time at the bar each evening looking to find an “angle” for their story. By Friday, Mary has become acquainted with many of the regulars and hopes to use them in WJM’s story. When the singles become aware of the plan for cameras to enter their hangout and interview them, they become camera shy and leave in droves. By the time the news starts, the bar is empty and Mary and co. are forced to improvise.
9. Edie Gets Married (Season 6, Ep. 1)
In this very emotional episode, Lou finds out that ex-wife Edie is planning on remarrying. While he knows there isn’t a chance of them getting back together, Lou is still having trouble admitting that that aspect of his life (he & Edie) is over. In a goodwill gesture, Edie invites Lou to her wedding. Lou doesn’t know if he wants to attend, but ultimately does. With Mary as his date, Lou very graciously and stoically watches his ex-wife tie the knot with someone else. Originally Mary was supposed to provide moral support, but by the end of the ceremony, she’s a blubbery mess. Lou then wishes Edie the best of luck in her marriage and Mary loses it completely. Lou ends up taking her to the bar to console her.
10. The Square-Shaped Room (Season 2, Ep. 13)
Lou wants to surprise wife Edie with a makeover of their living room. He plans to hire an old “designer” friend who currently decorates bus stations. Mary suggests Rhoda, whose vocation is window decorator. Lou hires Rhoda. Rhoda agonizes over the right details for the room and finally settles for an all white motif with modern design. The bookshelves appear to be made of white PVC piping. There’s lots of white, shag, PVC and glass and a big number “5” on the wall. This room is not Lou’s style at all and Rhoda has to return the room to its original state–however, there’s one change that Lou and Edie liked–the white walls.
The great thing about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was that despite the show being named after its star, it was truly an ensemble show. While Mary was in every episode, not every episode centered around Mary. Every character had their own story lines and chances in the spotlight. This is one of the few shows where the main characters were fleshed out. We knew each character’s backstory, frustrations, successes, etc. What I also loved about this show is how effortlessly they blended drama with comedy. Lou had many very emotional moments (especially when dealing with Edie) and the show was able to easily add levity to a situation without undermining the scene.
In the famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode, Chuckles the Clown dies. Not funny stuff. Chuckles was dressed as a peanut and a rogue elephant tried to shell him. His death is absurd and tragic. Lou, Murray and Sue Ann get all the jokes out of the way in the first half of the episode. Mary is mortified at her co-workers’ lack of sensitivity. At the funeral, the co-workers are able to provide the somberness required for the occasion. Mary, on the other hand, finally realizes the absurdity of the situation and can’t stop laughing during the pastor’s eulogy. However, laughing at a funeral would be a very un-Mary Richards like thing to do–her laughter quickly turns to loud sobs. It is a testament to Mary Tyler Moore’s talent that she was able to switch from laughter to crying so quickly and realistically.
Goodbye Mary. You had spunk!