OK … the last post was quite sad, and there is more I will try to say later on the tragedy with former Oklahoma player Rosalind Ross. But here, I offer something upbeat that has no hoops connection and is probably of interest only to those who happen to be fans of classic sitcoms.
My all-time favorite sitcom debuted 40 years ago this weekend. Sheesh. Hard to believe it’s been four decades since TV viewers first heard Rhoda Morgenstern say to Mary Richards, “Hello … get out of my apartment!”
The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” premiered on Sept. 19, 1970, with an episode titled, “Love Is All Around.” We were introduced to Mary Richards, a 30-year-old career woman who was unmarried … by choice.
It was a novel idea, still, in 1970 that a woman would make that decision. It’s not that Mary didn’t want to get married, just that she wasn’t going to “settle” for a husband. She needed to be sure it was the right relationship.
Viewers had to know they were seeing something different when, in the premiere, they watched her break things off for good with her handsome, well-established but jerky (he really WAS a self-absorbed jerk) doctor fiance. As he walks out the door, he tells her with surprised reproach, “Take care of yourself.”
You want to cheer out loud when she answers, “I think I just did.”
Actually, I wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate “TMTMS” in its first go-round. It was something that was always on Saturday nights before “The Carol Burnett Show,” but I really didn’t get the nuances of its humor. I was only 5 when it began, and my main memory of the early years of the show, of course, was the kitten at the closing credits that meowed, a gentle takeoff of MGM’s roaring lion before opening credits of the studio’s movies.
When “TMTMS” finished its run in 1977, I still didn’t quite get the magnitude of what the show had meant to American television. But when “Nick at Nite” began re-running “TMTMS” in September 1992 – launching it with a seven-day “Marython” – the adult-me fell head-over-heels for the show.
I started taping it every night and would watch it as soon as I got home from work at my newspaper. I still have all the tapes … even though I’ve now got the first three seasons on DVD, too.
And it’s funny how you go through different periods of nostalgia in your life. When I watched “TMTMS” in 1992, it made me nostalgic about being a child of the 1970s. When I watch it now, it makes me nostalgic about being a 20-something still early in my career in the 1990s. In both cases, the show is like a valentine from the past, where you don’t think so much of the bad or sad parts of your life, just the things that make you smile.
When I was a kid, I loved Rhoda. When I was an adult, I loved her more. She was always so hilarious and adorable to me that I was surprised to find out – although I shouldn’t have been – that there was debate when the show debuted about the “like-ability” of her character. Some CBS execs thought viewers would hate her … and that actually proved to be the case among test audiences.
But like everything else with this show, talent and good judgment prevailed. It’s impossible to imagine now what the show would have been like without Rhoda … or Mr. Grant … or Ted … or Murray … or Phyllis … or Sue Ann.
With Betty White still so much in the entertainment spotlight at age 88, I hope fans who haven’t seen much or any of her as Sue Ann Nivens on “TMTMS” make a point to seek it out. She was introduced in the fourth season, which was also Rhoda’s last. I admit I don’t have quite the same fondness for the last three seasons that I do for the first four because Rhoda left, with Valerie Harper being spun off to her own series.
There are a few things about “TMTMS” that don’t necessarily hold up well. Rhoda’s lamenting about not being married grates a bit, because you want her to be more self-confident. Mr. Grant’s issues with alcohol are treated only comedically, not seriously. And there’s one particular episode I really don’t like, when Mary hires a woman sportscaster for WJM. She is a former Olympic swimmer who isn’t interested in covering any sport except swimming. It’s just insulting to the idea of women in sports journalism, as if they were incapable of understanding what is newsworthy in whatever market they are in. But, hey, that was 1976.
Anyway, those are very small flaws in what is, overall, a truly wonderful series, and one that I don’t ever tire of watching, like chatting with a longtime friend you immediately click with, no matter how long you’ve been apart.
A few years ago, my buddy and favorite sports writer Joe Posnanski was compiling a series of “top-10 lists” on a variety of topics, and for him I did my top-10 episodes of “TMTMS.” My list is different than many others, I’d bet, because my favorite part of the show was Mary’s and Rhoda’s friendship, more than the humorous shenanigans with Ted and the gang down at WJM.
With a grateful nod of acknowledgment to Vince Waldron’s information-loaded 1987 book, “Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best in Prime-Time Comedy,” here are my top 10 faves for “TMTMS.” And happy 40th anniversary to a great television show.
1. “Best of Enemies”
This is from Season 4. It centers on Mary and Rhoda having their only serious fight, after which they are completely miserable without each other to talk to, but aren’t sure how to make up. Luckily, Georgette helps. You will relate so well if you’ve ever had that terrible feeling in your stomach after a big argument with your best friend _ except this is a lot funnier. Not surprisingly, it was one of the “TMTMS” episodes that was written by women.
The fact that Valerie Harper really was leaving the show soon for her own spinoff adds more poignancy … there are moments in the episode where I swear it looks like both actresses really had been crying during filming. Even so, it is hilarious throughout.
The fight started because Rhoda let slip something only she knew among Mary’s circle of friends/co-workers: That Mary had not gotten a college degree. But Mr. Grant tells Mary it never mattered. He explains part of the reason he hired her was that when she first came into the WJM newsroom, she said, “Excuse me,” after bumping into a desk. Mr. Grant, wrapping up the essence of Mary: “I thought, ‘There’s something special about someone who’s nice to an inanimate object.’ ”
2. “Chuckles Bites the Dust”
This often gets the nod as the show’s “best-ever” episode; it’s from Season 6. What makes it the funniest funeral in TV history is just how furious Mary was about the gallows humor going around the newsroom after the bizarre death of Chuckles the Clown; dressed as Peter Peanut, he was “shelled by a rogue elephant.” The buildup to when she finally cracks up is brilliant.
What ultimately gets to Mary, at last, is the recitation by the pastor of the names of Chuckles’ characters: the ill-fated Peter Peanut, plus Billy Banana, Aunt Yuku and Mr. Fe Fi Fo.
This was a Mary Tyler Moore tour de force in comedic expressions and timing. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, when Mary reluctantly starts laughing, I do, too.
3. “Love is All Around”
The first episode made you instantly fall for the show. Mary’s job interview with Mr. Grant _ “You got spunk … I hate spunk!” _ is the series’ signature scene.
The theme song that first season didn’t have the unforgettable, “Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?” lead-in. Instead, it was, “How will you make it on your own? This world is awfully big, and, girl, this time you’re all alone.”
Except, we soon found out that Mary woudn’t be alone. She would have some really good pals.
4. “Support Your Local Mother”
A Season 1 classic: Rhoda refuses to see her meddling mother when she visits from New York, so Mrs. Morgenstern pesters Mary instead. Among Rhoda’s one-liners: While Mary begs her to talk to her mother, Rhoda just continues dressing the mannequins in the store-window display of a wedding. “I’ve got to hurry, Mary,” she says, touching the female dummy’s stomach. “I think the bride’s in trouble.”
The back story according to Waldron was that CBS initially vetoed the episode, saying audiences would find it upsetting, and not at all humorous, to see a daughter reject her mom, even for just a couple of days. Producer Grant Tinker, MTM’s husband, convinced CBS to do it, and it’s one of the truest, funniest depictions of how adult children can be driven crazy by parents they love immensely.
5. “My Brother’s Keeper”
Phyllis is horrified when her visiting brother seems smitten with her nemesis Rhoda _ and then has a total breakdown to ruin yet another of Mary’s infamous parties.
After tormenting Phyllis for days, Rhoda pities her and lets her in on the truth: She and Phyllis’ brother are just good buddies. Then, Phyllis_ being Phyllis _ demands to know why … and the reason was a surprising and noteworthy twist in 1973 (during Season 3). Waldron’s book says it was a hasty rewrite, actually, because other proposed endings didn’t go over well in rehearsal.
6. “Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcaster’s School”
Ted somehow ropes Mr. Grant, Murray and Mary into lecturing for him – then only a single student enrolls. Nothing’s funnier than when sweet Mary is sardonic, which she is as the WJM crew endures the embarrassment of looking out on their “class” of one.
And when the snotty kid asks how they’ll grade, Mr. Grant replies: “On the curve.”
7. “Not a Christmas Story”
From Season 5: The WJM gang, after having a ridiculous fight about the arrangement of words in Ted’s intro, is snowbound at work and must spend the evening on the set of Sue Ann’s Christmas special. Worse, it’s only November.
Incidentally, the debate was over whether it should be, “News from around the world and around the corner” or vice versa. I’ve seen fights over dumber things, actually, at newspapers I’ve worked for. Heck, I was involved in some of them.
8. “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid”
The show’s first Christmas-themed episode, from Season 1. Alone and working on Christmas Eve because she’s the newcomer, Mary watches “The Nutcracker” on TV and dances along to the “Dance of the Reed Flutes.” Of all of Mary’s countless adorable moments, this might be the most adorable.
Mary Tyler Moore actually began her show-business career as a dancer, including as the “Happy Hotpoint Elf” in 1950s commercials for Hotpoint appliances.
9. “Mary’s Insomnia”
This final-season episode has kind of an “edge” to it … is Mary getting hooked on sleeping pills? Somehow, several co-workers _ including a hilariously lecherous Ted _ end up in Mary’s bathroom with her in the tub.
MTM had been in the suds before on camera. “Dick Van Dyke Show” fans surely recall the episode where Laura Petrie got her toe stuck in a hotel tub’s faucet.
10. “Rhoda the Beautiful”
Near the start of Season 3, the show highlights Rhoda’s metamorphosis. She is shocked when she’s picked to enter her store’s “beauty pageant,” and she still has a very hard time believing she’s attractive. I’d like to think there is a nod in this episode, though, to those viewers who had thought she was beautiful all along.
Oh, and I also have to mention, of course, one more episode.
“The Last Show”
This was one of the first great “farewell” episodes on television. And it introduced us to the concept of the group hug. I don’t necessarily think of it as a favorite, though, because it still makes me cry to watch the show end. “It’s a long way, to Tipperary, it’s a long way, to go …”
In her final words to her pals, it seems Mary Richards, the character, and Mary Tyler Moore, the real person, could both be speaking:
“Sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. And I worry my job is too important. I tell myself the people I work with are just the people I work with, and not my family. But then I was thinking, `What is a family anyway?’ They’re just people who make you feel less alone … and really loved. That’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family.”