Great Promise in Memorable Mary Tyler Moore Season One
by Kristin Battestella
Everybody toss your tam o' shanter!
The 1970-71 twenty-four episode debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show introduces viewers to the idealistic Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) as she moves to Minneapolis after a broken engagement, rents an apartment above Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), and becomes best friends with Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Mary accepts a job as associate producer at the perpetually low rated WJM-TV News under boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) alongside writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) and incompetent news anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) in the “Love is All Around” premiere, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show keeps the situation refreshingly simple without any drawn out crass jokes about being ditched. This move is an opportunity to get on with life complete with at home misunderstandings, newsroom bustle, and borrowed flowers from the formerly intended doctor. Bemusing interruptions and subtle winks accent the likable start – although the ratings demographics age twenty-nine cut off means Mary isn't a young person anymore in “Today I am a Ma'am.” She's shocked to be called ma'am by a younger mail boy, adding to the debate about why older single women can't live perfectly happy lives. Of course, Mary and Rhoda resort to some desperate dates in this the first of many romantic snafus and party mix ups with awkward asides in Mary's tiny kitchen. The Mary Tyler Moore Show addresses ageism, looks, settling for a stinky guy, and the embarrassment of it all with early episodes spending time establishing the domestic because it was more common to see the women's dilemmas there than in the witty office bookends. In “Divorce Isn't Everything” The Better Luck Next Time Club for Divorced People has a meeting with all the expected come ons as everyone seeks something from somebody by both oversharing or under false pretenses, and it's just like social media! The humorous turnabouts highlight the typical talk of a woman sprucing herself up after a divorce for a new man and why aren't you married yet or how is a girl like you single intrusions. The Mary Tyler Moore Show goes beyond its titular star with more scenes featuring the ensemble as the season progresses, balancing on the job happenings with the old school snow footage, local election coverage, and retro telethon style of “The Snow Must Go On.” WJM vows to stay on the air until a winner is declared despite short staff, power outages, and down phones. They have no way to know the numbers and hours of air time to fill in this well-edited bottle show with onscreen ad libs and behind the scenes mayhem. The Second Annual Television Editor Awards also puts the office a flutter for “Bob and Rhoda and Teddy and Mary” while Rhoda's steady seems to be “group dating” both her and Mary, combining the jealousy and awards gags as the delightful discomfort ensues.
Not only does Mr. Grant's cameraman nephew film existential ants at the scene of a fire, but he's a little too handsy in “He's All Yours” and brags about it in the newsroom. Although her colleagues defend Mary's good reputation, they also want the juicy details and refuse to believe that nothing happened. Phyllis' Freudian psychology likewise backfires in another charmer rebuffing ageism and sexism as the older ladies refuse a younger jerk. The holiday classic “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II” captures everything this Mary Tyler Moore Show debut is about with our single gal alone at the station on Christmas – guilt tripped into working by veteran family men because what's the holiday to one who has nobody? From the nativity scene said to be in Mary's desk drawer and the two inch tree she leaves on Mr. Grant's desk to the White Christmas and adults snooping in the presents, a wonderful nostalgia accents the sadness of the season amid radio chatter, scary night shift noises, and charming Nutcracker dances. When offered more money as a ladies talk show producer at a rival network in “Party Is Such Sweet Sorrow,” Mary can't afford not to take the job. Although she respects how Mr. Grant took a chance on her and it's a little early for The Mary Tyler Moore Show to have a quit/not quit plot, it's important for her to make a resounding career choice alongside the touching goodbye party moments and coworker repartee. Hey, I'd like to go ice skating with Mary and Murray on their lunch hour for “Just a Lunch!” Unfortunately, a rugged ace war reporter who's married but says he is separated wants more from the uncomfortable Mary after their business lunch. What happens to the other gal when a separated man goes back to his wife? Mr. Grant knows a charming man's man is dangerous to a lady, but Mary insists on defeating this taboo flirtation herself before “Second Story Story” addresses our lady living alone fears when her apartment is robbed. She's upset that a stranger has been in her home – and stolen her new cape – but Mary shouldn't have to apologize for being emotional after a burglary. While the crusty cop versus the officer interested in Mary aspect is thin, character moments that would become one of the series' hallmarks shine as Mary fumbles through the giant phone book looking for the police number and Rhoda screams for help to make them arrive faster. Pat Finley (The Bob Newhart Show) guest stars as overbearingly perky receptionist Twinks in “A Friend in Deed.” She thinks one week of camp with Mary in 1950 means they are BFFs and makes Mary her maid of honor in another somewhat typical plot, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show gets the always the bridesmaid never the bride ugly dress out of the way before the “The 45-Year-Old Man” Season One finale. The headhunting new station manager has Mr. Grant's penciled in next, causing resistance with talk of unions, strikes, and protests. The cowboy stuff is a little silly, but guest Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles) as WJM owner Wild Jack Monroe is won over by Mary in what is clearly her apartment redressed as his rodeo penthouse. Although perhaps a letdown as a finale, this half hour ironically mirrors the famous series finale with threats of the ax, tissues, and hugs.
In addition to some stereotypical storylines, The Mary Tyler Moore Show also has the occasional off color term with Oriental and native throwaway lines alongside convenient who speaks Spanish or French references and other inconsistencies or changes. Casually mentioned relatives are also never heard of again, and the balance between humor and seriousness is off for “Keep Your Guard Up.” This first mostly office plot has a former second string football player turned insurance salesman hoping to be a twenty grand a year sportscaster, and it's frustrating when Mary can't help everyone who inevitably preys on her kindness. Early on The Mary Tyler Moore Show there isn't a lot of the character development to come, but rather a more traditional situational focus with Mary amid the usual sitcom plots. Although this makes the series a little typical before it finds its own progressive footing, it's probably smart to endear the audience with familiar tales coming from the gal they loved on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Associate Producer Mary, however, is really still little more than a then more socially acceptable secretary making coffee, filing papers, doing mailers, and answering the phones. It's also somewhat silly how everyone acts like they can't hear the tete-a-tetes in Mary's kitchen or Lou's office when there are only mere partitions between them. John Amos (Good Times) as weatherman Gordy is also mentioned several times before appearing in a mere four episodes – usually for a sarcastic comment about erroneous weather predictions or people mistaking him as the sportscaster. We're told he's married with a daughter and expecting another, yet there was no reason for Gordy not to be featured more. Valerie Harper's then husband Richard Schaal (Slaughterhouse-Five) is also repeatedly stuck as both the obsessive Howard and his dull screenwriter brother Paul in the clunky “Howard's Girl.” Though originally aired in January 1971, when viewing back to back now after the stellar Christmas charmer, this half hour is even more of a let down with supposedly cute bungling made too awkward and an embarrassing visit to meet Paul's parents – who of course, praise Howard to the point of it being asinine. Even the View-Master nostalgia can't save this one.
Late Golden Globe winner Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards made the decision to leave her two year engagement to a doctor who couldn't say I love you and objects to being asked personal questions that have nothing to do with her qualifications in a job interview – before admitting she is a non-smoking thirty year old Presbyterian. She may have left college early for this broken proposal but won't settle, and the blasé doctor and over the top Howard back to back provide Mary a chance to turn down the wrong men early even if she has trouble being forceful in awkward situations. Subtle dialogue also suggests she can relate to being the only virgin in college, and there are winks about what a man wants from a girl like her or what she is missing by being unmarried. Mary is known to keep brandy stashed in her upper cabinet, too, however, the innuendo doesn't get nasty, and Mary remains ridiculously neat and unable to call Mrs. Morgenstern or Mr. Grant by their first names. She sews for Rhoda and paints furniture but says her popular cheerleader days maybe weren't that happy, for she drove a used brown Hudson and sneezed while playing the dead Juliet. Mary admits she isn't good at exerting authority and knows people think they can take advantage of her long fuse, but by the end of the season, her hair is pulled back and she wears more pants, already having grown up in this debut. Unfortunately, Mary takes off her heels and slouches, worrying she is a self-conscious height bigot in “Toulouse-Lautrec Is One of My Favorite Artists” after hitting it off with an author shorter than she is. Wonderful sight gags, Freudian slips, and witty opposites accent the Emmy winning direction as Mary's short versus tall dating and newsroom action collide. Mary's audited in “1040 or Fight,” too, thanks to her eighteen cents postage due and deductions on $15 worth of shoes under “office supplies.” Of course, when the accountant falls for her charms, the water cooler implication is that the pillow talk helped in her audit. Again rather than saucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show keeps the superior banter adorable with grazing kisses and mixing business with pleasure politeness. Now if only we all owed $16.73 on our taxes! Although the crabby can get tiring with repeat viewings, there are some gems in “Hi!” when Mary has her grown back tonsil (yes just one) taken out and grates with her hospital roommate Pat Carroll (Cinderella). The too small nightgown, arguments over the black and white hospital television and its giant remote clicker at $7.50 a day, too much ice cream, and Mary's embarrassment over it all become a sort of goodbye to girly childhood, and who knew that the WJM News is actually a great show if you view it as comedy.
Here before her own eponymous spin-off, Emmy winner Valerie Harper's sassy New Yorker Rhoda Morgenstern says Mary's life is a Walt Disney movie compared to hers. She makes lists of single men, listens to the downstairs apartment through the heater vent, and is often in a battle of insults with Phyllis when not getting stuck in the lotus position. Store window dresser Rhoda makes more money than Mary but resents how Mary resolves everything with a smile. Not to mention she has the better apartment and doesn't know how to decorate it, unlike Rhoda's attic study in hot pink, beaded curtains, bean bags, and fur. She was overweight when in her school marching band, still wishes she could have surgery to remove exactly eleven pounds of fat, and insists chocolate goes straight to her hips. Initially, we don't know much else about Rhoda beyond the fat jokes – she's dressed down in frumpy tent dresses or baggy sweatsuits just to visually contrast Mary. Even her eating bacon or steak isn't so much about not keeping kosher as it is splurging on a diet, and Rhoda thinks a magnifying mirror makes her face looks like moon craters. Fortunately, rather than being just crude jabs, such zingers and flaws make the character human. Rhoda does catch a wealthy boyfriend for “Smokey the Bear Wants You.” She's aware a guy doesn't choose her over Mary often and thus is willing to overlook their suspicions that he's in organized crime – until he wants to leave his then cushy thirty thousand a year VP position to be a forest ranger making a mere ten. City girl Rhoda doesn't do the outdoors, over-packing for a hike to win this opposites attract romance in a singular performance from Harper. Although Rhoda doesn't write as often as her overbearing mother would like, we understand the need for her to breakaway, for when she sends money home, her mother uses it to buy gifts and guilt trip Rhoda with sentimental cards. Nancy Walker's (McMillan & Wife) first visit as Ida Morgenstern in the award winning “Support Your Local Mother” leaves Mary caught as the go between as Ida tries sticking money in her pocket while they chase each other around the pullout over Ida's feigning to leave for a five buck a night motel.
She's self-absorbed and thinks it is the worst thing that Mary's not getting married, but Oscar winner Cloris Leachman's (The Last Picture Show) Phyllis Lindstrom confesses it sucks surrendering her ego to her boring and perpetually unseen dermatologist husband Lars. Phyllis has a degree, sculpts, learns Esperanto, and follows all the latest fads – from a dance to end capital punishment and being frozen after death to beating a table with a chain to age it while working off her inner hostility. Mary reluctantly hires Phyllis for $82.57 a week in “Assistant Wanted, Female.” However, Phyllis refuses to let the schedule tie her down and objects to the term assistant because it is inferior to coworker. Lou, on the other hand, wants to fire “Princess Margaret Rose” immediately. Billed as a Special Guest, Leachman appears in half the Season One episodes, mostly early in the season before Phyllis is mentioned or spoken to on the phone. Lisa Gerritsen (also of the spin-off Phyllis) as Phyllis and Lars' daughter Bess also appears in two early episodes. In “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now,” she dons her mother's make up and wig before acting out and locking herself in the bathroom. Bess calls her mother by name, and Phyllis lends Mary all the in vogue child rearing books when Bess stays with her while Lars has chicken pox. Mary's caught between being a responsible grown up and a caring friend letting a kid be a kid – but it's all fun complete with a delightfully seventies feel good shopping montage. Unfortunately, thanks to superb writing with great, cranky punchlines, Ed Asner's (of the post-Mary drama Lou Grant, too) often knackered and gruff but lovable boss Lou Grant gets upset when he can't curse around kids or guests in the newsroom. He respects Mary's moxi even if he hates her spunk and gets tough if her work is rotten because he likes giving her difficult jobs in which she learns to be more assertive. Lou has no compassion or patience for Ted's stupidity, yet he buys a knock off trophy as an award for the newsroom, protects Mary as if she were one of his own daughters, and says he's happiest at WJM. Sure their news show is unsuccessful, but Mr. Grant delegates blame and knows how to play upon Mary's guilt. Lou turns down Mary's invitations in “The Boss Isn't Coming to Dinner” because he and his unseen wife Edie have separated. While he's happy to be empty nesters, she goes back to college at forty-three in this sympathetic battle of the sexes. Why would a middle-aged housewife want a PhD in home economics? Lou acts like the prospect of “Doctor and Mr. Grant” doesn't bother him and protests Mary's advice, however, he eventually comes around and invites Mary over to eat the leftovers from Edie's Home Ec test.
Gavin MacLeod's (The Love Boat) sarcastic news writer Murray L. Slaughter has all the insults for Ted but becomes a nosy pal for Mary. Murray says Ted can't say anything intelligible unless he writes it, yet when donning a gray wig to fill in for the sick Ted, Murray begins acting just like him. While Murray would sail to Tahiti if he could, he loves his family and settles for wallpapering his rec room. Joyce Bulifant (Match Game) as Murray's pregnant wife Marie appears in two episodes, and scenes featuring Murray and Ted's banter increase as the season progresses with “We Closed in Minneapolis” as a late season spotlight. Murray's been writing a play for three years, and after several rejections, Ted submits it to the local theater just so he can play the lead. Everyone says it is very good play, but the life imitating art plot is too much thanks to a drama critic's scathing review. Lou thinks Murray is a terrific news writer and wonders why that isn't achievement enough, and in retrospect, this is an interesting episode with Mary saying her life ambition is to be a wife and mother – which doesn't happen – while Ted wants to do a show called The Ted Baxter Show – which kind of does. Ted Knight's (Too Close for Comfort) vain anchorman Ted Baxter is completely unaware he is a buffoon and not the star he thinks he is. He can't pronounce big words like “Chicago,” thinks Albania is the capital of New York, and forgets to remove his make up bib before going on the air. Lou calls his giant cue cards “Idiot Cards,” and Ted reads the stage directions on them such as “take off glasses” and “look concerned” out loud. Ted goes to bed early so he can be up to read reviews on his news the night prior and thinks he deserves to win a Teddy award because his name is Ted. His acceptance speech about his humble start at a 5,000 watt radio station in Fresno is also always at the ready. Cheap and upset that Chuckles the Clown gets more fan mail, Ted regularly asks for a raise even if he's afraid of Lou – who says waiting for Ted to get to his point is like expecting a sneeze. Ted gifts everyone autographed records of The Year in Review as Told by Ted Baxter but when drinking admits he is merely a shallow newsman resembling Cary Grant. At least the ratings go up when audiences watch WJM News to laugh at him. In “Anchorman Overboard,” Ted steps in as guest speaker for Phyllis' women's club. Unfortunately, he isn't good at public speaking without written answers from Murray but nonetheless wants their first hand applause.
Creators James L. Brooks (Taxi) and Allan Burns (The Munsters), most frequent director Jay Sandrich (Soap), and writers David Davis (Rhoda) and Lorenzo Music (The Bob Newhart Show) craft a cohesive format, but of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening titles and “Love is All Around” theme song here in Season One aren't the most famous versions. Mary's bon voyage party and drive to Minneapolis fittingly match the doubtful lyrics before that soon to be iconic hat toss. The closing instrumental music will also change, yet I like this brassy, swanky rendition. Today no entry level single gal could afford Mary's then $130 a month bachelorette pad, but it too changes slightly with the brown pullout couch's position varying per episode along with that vintage turntable and teeny television set. It's also fun to see the play acting phone etiquette and hefty old flash bulb cameras with unraveling film. Mary always has a pumpkin cookie jar on her kitchen counter amid more mod yellow chairs, stained glass windows, and shag carpets contrasting the retro workplace hubbub with pencil sharpeners, file folders, big calculators, horseshoe phones, and clickety clacking typewriters. And look, it's the old school long way to make coffee! The office desks also change their fourth wall angle, and the newsroom has big television sets, huge cameras, giant headsets, and those fancy clocks with all the times around the world. They need to borrow a dime for the payphone, call in for the weather report, and collect trading stamps instead of coupons, yet the quintessentially seventies Mary Tyler Moore Show is surprisingly still very sixties here in Season One. Miniskirts, flip hair blowouts, tall boots, and fur coats feel innocent and girly, but there's a touch of the maturing seventies to come with plaid pants, pantsuits, vests, longer quilted skirts, paisley patterns, wide collars, and big belts in Mary's realistically repeating wardrobe. Even if the print on The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season One DVD is somewhat flat and some episodes appear to be slightly edited syndication versions, the on location Minnesota establishing shots are time capsule treats. There's no play all and the sound is sometimes uneven per episode or even from scene to scene, but the three discs with eight episodes each contain several commentaries. A fourth disc also includes vintage promos, Emmy clips, and fluff such as a photo gallery and trivia, but it's the superb The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show behind the scenes documentary that's worthy of a review in itself. Produced by Ed Asner, this hour and a half features interviews in by chapter options as cast and crew discuss everything from the follow up concepts born post The Dick Van Dyke Show and the turn of the seventies to timely feminism and early ideas on Mary Richards as a divorcee. Female writers Treva Silverman (The Monkees) and Susan Silver (Square Pegs) pushed the envelope as the unique Minneapolis setting, visual styling, and casting process came together despite early network interference from CBS not wanting a Jewish character. The Mary Tyler Moore Show struggled to get off the ground with an initially terribly received pilot and bad time slots before character chemistry and great scripts brought debut success.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the kind of series where you don't want the happy little half hours to end. It's easy to marathon this must see television with several video, over the air reruns, and streaming options available, and as I said in my Top Ten Favorite Shows List, I can't go a few weeks without a Mary Tyler Moore Show viewing cleanse. This debut remains intelligent and positive for nostalgic elders, millennials seeking mature comedy, or families wanting to watch a safe laugh with the kids. Truly any audience can and should begin the love with The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season One.