Mary Tyler Moore, a.k.a The Mary Tyler Moore Show is considered to be such a seminal work of television that I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I had never seen it before. In my defense, I wasn’t born yet when it came on the air. But, it turns out, the show is so relevant and, for lack of a better word, timeless, that it is thoroughly worth watching in 2011. Apart from the landline phones and typewriters dotting the set, it could be a show currently on the air. Even the clothes don’t look dated.
The show opens with the theme song–no cold open–and that sequence lays the basis; our protagonist is moving to a new city to make a new start, on her own. We meet the thin and stylish Mary Richards as she arrives to look at an apartment. Showing her the real estate is friend Phyllis (Cloris Leachman–OMG, that’s Maw-Maw!), with grade school-aged daughter Bess in tow. We learn that Phyllis lives downstairs while a woman named Rhoda, who Bess calls Aunt Rhoda, lives upstairs. Rhoda herself (Valerie Harper) is revealed a moment later, positioned from the start as a foil to Mary.
Phyllis is charged with the task of telling the audience Mary’s story, by telling it to Rhoda. For two years, Mary supported a doctor named Bill through his medical residency, only to find him unwilling to get married. A lot is implied with this story, both about women’s expectations of marriage in general, and about Mary as an individual. Even today some women might expect a marriage proposal as a given after two years of dating, in one’s late 20s. (It hasn’t yet been mentioned at this point in the episode, but Mary is 30.)
Mary’s decision to walk away rather than wait around could be given a great deal of discussion–about how it’s brave, liberated, self-respecting, or whatever. But they don’t waste time on that. And it although it may have been an unusual move in 1970, it’s been considered a worthy premise for introducing a strong female character ever since. (Rachel on Friends, Grace on Will and Grace, and Penny on The Big Bang Theory are positive examples. In the pilot of the more recent Happy Endings, the runaway bride character is treated more like a foolish bitch, while we side with the groom.) We could also look at Mary’s actions as petulant; if she can’t have a diamond ring she doesn’t want anything. However, any doubts about Bill’s worth as a partner are put to rest when we meet him later in the episode. He brings Mary stolen flowers and is generally oblivious to her feelings. The breakthrough was that this single female protagonist was a first. Now that it’s more common, it’s no less interesting.
Mary’s home life forms one half of the show’s world, while her new workplace forms the other. She arrives at a the studio of WJM-TV News to interview as a secretary, a job that has already been filled. The boss, curmudgeonly Lou Grant (Ed Asner) whisks her into his office to conduct an interview anyway. His inappropriate line of questions–How old are you? What’s your religion? Would you like a drink?–at first seem to be a sign of the times, ala Mad Men, but then Mary points out that his questions are illegal.
The character of Lou could have come off kind of skeevy, even intimidating, but instead he seems like kind of a teddy bear with a gruff exterior. He shows up at Mary’s house drunk and even though Mary suspects he’s hitting on her, it doesn’t really look that way to the audience–today’s audience, at least.
Mary gets the job of Associate Producer which, Lou tells her, pays $10 less a week than the secretarial job she came for. “If you can get by on $15 less a week, I’ll make you Producer,” he says.” “No, no,” she says, “I think all I can afford is Associate Producer.” The humor flows naturally from the conversation this way. On my first viewing I didn’t even notice the laugh tracks — a sign that the jokes are genuinely funny. This one example of dialogue also illustrates Mary’s cheery outlook and, as Lou puts it, “spunk.”
There is no clear set-up for a love interest here, a staple of the modern sit-com. If this were done today Mary would no doubt have a gorgeous buy exasperating neighbor who she instantly hates. Instead, the Mary-Rhoda relationship fills this need, a much more interesting choice that allows much room for exploring the lives of single women in the city. They continue to fight over the apartment throughout the episode, but the groundwork is there for a true friendship. “You’re really a hard person to dislike,” Mary tells Rhoda, who comes back with, “I’m having a hard time hating you, too.”
Clearly audiences found the whole cast lovable. Lou, Rhoda and Phyllis all got their own spin-offs. You can see why right from the start.