“Who can turn the world on with her smile?” So says the opening lyrics of one of the most famous theme songs to any television show. Why it’s Mary of course. You can go by her character name Mary Richards, a 30ish single woman living in Minneapolis working in a small, humble newsroom, or you could go by the woman who played her Mary Tyler Moore, who is one of the great icons of the world of television. But Mary was sure to wave that huge million dollar smile at the world every week in her humble yet groundbreaking sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, and people loved her for it, and we still do.
There was nothing ever very big about “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, it began sort of as a quiet revolution. When it was first produced, the creators were tasked to make a big starring vehicle for Moore, who made a name for herself as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” ( another ground breaker in its own right). Moore had pedigree and star appeal, something that the heads at CBS thought would be a safe bet for a hit show, what they got was an ensemble comedy that revolutionized sitcoms.
The show centered on Mary Richards a single woman in her thirties who leaves her home for the big city of Minneapolis after her boyfriend leaves her. (Mary first started as a divorcee but was changed to just single after fears of “Dick Van Dyke Show” fans being confused she could have divorced Dick Van Dyke and that would be horrible since they were the perfect couple). She begins a job as a news assistant for WJM, a small local news show with never enough budget to compete with the big boys. At the helm is Mary’s boss/producer/closest confidant Lou Grant (Ed Asner), a man who can be tough and hard drinking in one minute, but sweet and sincere the in the next. There is also Murray Slaughter (Gavin McCleod), head-writer for the news who shares a desk with Mary, and becomes her best friend at the office. Then there is anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), a dull headed nincompoop who can’t get through one newscast without following it up in one way. Ted could be cheap, insensitive, naive, and childlike, and the butt of people’s jokes, but despite all his flaws, everyone would later love him.
At the beginning of the series, Mary’s life in the newsroom, was often balanced out by her life as a single girl. Many story lines would revolve around the men that Mary would date, and she would often have many adventures in the single life with her best friend/sidekick Rhoda (Valerie Harper). Mary and Rhoda’s friendship created a powerful dynamic that was usually at the heart of many of the early episodes, and the chemistry between Moore and Harper was impeccable, you could really believe they were best friends sharing everything together. But this wasn’t really seen in television before, it was a relationship between two women who were allowed to be women. Earlier you could say this was done as far back as “I Love Lucy” with Lucy and Ethel, but that sitcom dealt more with outrageous situations for those two friends, they never really talked about real world every day problems.
That was the secret behind “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, it never looked at their stories as if they were changing the cultural landscape, yet by showing two single women talking about their lives, they were able to accomplish just that. There were other times too, for instance when WJM had on its payroll Gordy the weatherman who just happened to be black, it was never really commented on, yet if you tuned in that same night to a show like “All in the Family”, the idea of a black man working in a white dominated workplace would be the topic of an entire show. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” never really went in for social commentary, and when it did, such as in an episode that focused on a new friend of Mary’s who is revealed to be anti-semitic when she doesn’t want Rhoda, who is Jewish to join her country club, it didn’t really gel with the rest of the show.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” never needed to be hard-edged, that’s not what it was striving for. It was strongest when it was focused on character development, the stories didn’t have to be important culturally, but they were important for the world of the show. There would be episodes that could feel mundane to the naked eye, such as Lou asking Rhoda to redecorate his apartment, or Mary throwing one of her parties that ended up being awful, but the writing was sharp, and the performances were so well honed, it was a pleasure just to tune in.
By the end of season four, Rhoda left Minneapolis to New York (And a spin-off), leaving Mary more alone than ever, and the series gained momentum by turning into a full forced workplace comedy focusing mostly on the newsroom. The story lines turned a bit more serious such as a long arc involving Lou getting a divorced from his wife and entering the dating world for the first time in a long time. Murray would later have a serious discussion with his wife about her wanting another baby, then having the two of them adopt a young boy from China. Even Ted would grow into a more thoughtful lunkhead with the introduction to his girlfriend/wife Georgette (Georgia Engel). The show entered its next phase with Mary even leaving her old apartment, which is where she would share quality time with Rhoda, and move into a more upscale living quarters. For some shows, these changes would look desperate, but for these folks, it all seemed so natural, never straying from the tapestry it created. In fact with these changes from season 5-7 became the show’s highest creative, and acclaimed peak winning Emmys for Best Comedy Program three years in a row, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was firing on all cylinders.
Ironically it was when the show was at its peak it also dropped in the ratings in its final season which caused CBS to cancel it. Knowing in advance it was being cancelled, the producers decided to write a finale for the show, and one that is still seen as one of the greatest emotional curtain calls of any sitcom. After the newsroom acquires their newest in a long line of station managers, Mary, Lou, and Murray are all fired with the incompetent Ted being the only one who keeps his job. On their last day together in the office, Mary gives a speech that basically sums up what the whole show was about, and what it meant to viewers of the show… “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.” Watch this episode and try to hold the tears in.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended in a way it was meant to end which is what some shows don’t get the chance to do. Sometimes shows lose cast members, or show runners, or just run out of steam by the time the lights fade on them, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” left still on top and game to play on and on, that’s what makes it such a perfect sitcom. The show is one of the most lighthearted, and sweet shows ever put on television, yet it wasn’t afraid to put a twist of cynicism in the works, particularly when it came to the world of television news. In one episode Mary decides to shine a light on a politician who she finds incorruptible only to find that no one wants to watch something like that, also that thought of the uneducated Ted Baxter keeping his job while the other smart, hard-working people are fired is a bitter pill to take when you think about it.
But “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” wasn’t bitter, and if it ever was, it didn’t wallow in it for very long before someone made a joke. In the show’s most famous episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust” the show rides the line of comedy and pathos by dealing with death but finding humor in it when WJN’s beloved children’s entertainer, Chuckles the Clown dies when he goes to a parade dressed as a peanut but is crushed when an elephant steps on him. The writers give the best defense on how humor can be used to cleanse us from grief, and how it can show how ridiculous life can be even in the face of death.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” came at a time when television wasn’t really thought of as artistic or important. It’s only now in our “Post-Sopranos” mindset that we see television as a true art form. But the shows we have today didn’t just appear out of thin air, their influences are there; there would be no Liz Lemon or Leslie Knope without a Mary Richards. There were smart people behind these older shows, and if they look tired with old tropes on the outside, then it’s best to revisit them, you might just be a bit surprised at the substance that is there. For the record, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was developed in part by James L. Brooks who would go on to co-create “The Simpsons” as well as become a famous writer director for movies such as “Terms of Endearment” and another story of a single girl in a newsroom “Broadcast News”, so it’s safe to say this show was in some good smart hands.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” has already been remembered in the pantheon of classic shows, it represents a cultural shift from housewives to working girls, comedy hijinks to real people with real situations, it was smart, clever, heartwarming, and always went for the laugh, a true classic if there ever was one.