The Mary Tyler Moore Show
USA, CBS (MTM Enterprises), Sitcom, colour, 1977
Starring: Mary Tyler Moore, Edward Asner, Ted Knight
A landmark US sitcom that returned Dick Van Dyke Showstar Mary Tyler Moore triumphantly to the small-screen and gave a generation of single American women a TV character in whom they could finally believe. It is virtually impossible to describe to British readers the place that The Mary Tyler Moore Show occupies in the hearts of a certain generation of Americans, but even without a knowledge of the social revolution in the US, and the ripples that the women's movement was causing at the time, it is not difficult to understand why the show was such a huge success: it had 'class' written all over it. Tight writing, spot-on characterisations and fast-paced plots lifted the show piece out of the norm and into the rarefied heights of sitcom heaven. The production evidently functioned as a hothouse, nurturing, developing and honing talent to the extent that virtually all of the creative crew went on to further triumphs with such shows as Taxi The Bob Newhart Showand Cheers
The format was straightforward enough: Mary Richards was the lead character, a single woman (she was to have been a divorcee, but the writers then decided to depict her as unmarried) who leaves New York following the break-up of a relationship and arrives in Minneapolis, with its freezing temperatures and biting winds. Here she gets a job in the newsroom at a local TV station, WJM, reporting to the news producer Lou Grant, a man who, at first, seems frostier than the weather but soon thaws to become a close friend - albeit a hard-edged and deeply cynical one. Mary's newsroom colleagues include the nervy but delightfully witty Murray Slaughter, the station's sole news writer; and the TV newsreader/anchorman Ted Baxter whose colossal stupidity is perfectly balanced by his colossal ego; among the other staff at WJM is Sue Ann Nivens, the catty presenter of The Happy Homemaker Show. Away from the office, Mary rents an apartment from the awful snob Phyllis Lindstrom (mother of Bess and wife of the never-seen Lars) but finds true female friendship - following a rocky start - with her upstairs neighbour Rhoda Morgenstern. Episodes concerned Mary's attempts to do well at work and remain loyal to her friends and colleagues even though she often seemed to be used by others.
While all of this added up to a robust premise, it wasn't the situation that made the show a hit so much as the marvellous ensemble playing that brought the characters to life. Mary Tyler Moore was especially good in a difficult role that could have so easily become bland in less adept hands, and she had generous support, most notably from Ed Asner as the irascible Lou, and Valerie Harper as the fiery Rhoda. The relationships between all the key characters seemed more real than was the norm for such fare, credit for which must go to Moore herself.
Following the demise of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore had struggled to maintain her position as a major player, being particularly disappointed with the reaction to the feature film Thoroughly Modern Millie, which she had hoped would pave the wave to movie stardom. Impressed by another TV appearance with Dick Van Dyke in 1969 (Dick Van Dyke And The Other Woman, CBS decided that Moore might be just the star they needed to front a sitcom of appeal to a sophisticated audience. Moore was unsure and unwilling to commit, fearing any new role might suffer in comparison with her Laura character in The Dick Van Dyke Show, already cemented as one of the most popular parts in US TV history. However, when she talked the idea over with her husband, 20th Century-Fox executive Grant Tinker, they came up with a deal to offer CBS: she would do the show only on the condition that she and Tinker were given total control over the creation, casting and production, arguing that in a climate free from network interference they would have a better chance of coming up with a true original. CBS agreed, a wise decision as it turned out. To create the format, Tinker brought in James L Brooks and Allan Burns, with whom he had worked previously on the US schoolroom drama Room 222 (1969-74), and they all set about the task of gathering together a group of keen young writers. Next, they took another bold step, casting a group of relatively unknown actors to play the main cast, rather than choosing more recognisable faces from the usually incestuous world of TV comedy. This ploy proved successful and became the norm later when casting for such ensemble shows as Taxi and Cheers. With the full team in harness and artistic control in their hands, they put The Mary Tyler Moore Show into production.
While not an instant success, the show did well enough in its early days to ensure its survival and then benefited from being scheduled as part of CBS's Saturday comedy night, guaranteed good viewing figures by the presence of ratings phenomenon All In The Family which kick-started the quintet of shows that comprised most of that evening's schedule. In the 1973-74 season it became part of what is arguably the strongest line-up of comedy ever aired in the US: All In The Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. After 168 episodes, Moore and Tinker decided that the time had come to pull the plug, rightly figuring the wisdom of quitting while they were still ahead; The Mary Tyler Moore Show won 29 Emmy Awards.
Although the show was consistently funny one episode stands out in sitcom lore, 'Chuckles Bites The Dust', in which Chuckles, a clown known by everyone at WJM, is killed (in costume as Peter Peanut, he is crushed when an elephant attempts to shell him). Mary is distraught, and angry that her colleagues - laughing hysterically about some of the funny incidents and accidents in Chuckles' life, and the manner of his death - seem disrespectful at his passing. Mary embarrasses them all into paying proper respect, but at the funeral service memories of Chuckles flood into her mind and, despite desperate attempts to stifle her giggling, she finally explodes into laughter. The episode is a gem and features many of the attributes that graced the whole run.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show spawned two spin-offs during its long run Rhoda and Phyllis, and also gave belated birth to three more, the comedies The Ted Knight Show (CBS, 1978) and The Betty White Show and the drama Lou Grant (CBS, 1977-82). (Additionally, comedy actor Paul Sand was given a show, Paul Sand In Friends And Lovers, on the strength of a single appearance as an income tax auditor in The Mary Tyler Moore Show; and there was another pilot - screened by CBS on 4 March 1972 - for a sitcom that failed to develop: titled The Councilman it featured two non-MTM characters, but Mary, in the role of Mary Richards, and Ted Knight, as Ted Baxter, both appeared to give it a helpful shove.) More importantly, however, The Mary Tyler Moore Show resulted in the founding of MTM Enterprises, which quickly went on to become one of the most creative and innovative independent production companies in the USA and gave rise to, among other shows, WKRP In Cincinnati and dramas Remington Steele, St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues.
Notes. On 18 February 1991, CBS aired Mary Tyler Moore: The 20th Anniversary Show, a 90-minute special that reunited the principal cast for a nostalgic look back, and on 13 May 2002 CBS broadcast a new but similar hour-long endeavour, The Mary Tyler Moore Reunion, to mark 25th anniversary of the show's finale. In between times, on 7 February 2000, ABC screened a reunion TV-movie, Mary And Rhoda, that starred Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper. (This turned up in the UK on ITV1 on 10 July 2002.)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was first seen in Britain on BBC1, which showed 34 episodes concurrent with the US run. A decade later, between 30 January 1984 and 23 August 1985, C4 screened 39 episodes, commencing again with the pilot. The vast majority of the episodes, therefore, have never been seen on British TV, an oversight that requires remedy. (If you're a TV scheduler looking for a smart move, take note.)
Number of episodes: 168
Length: 30 mins