Mary Tyler Moore

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.

Reboot!

It seems like you can’t go a day without hearing about another upcoming reboot of an old movie or TV show. Currently, viewers of the small screen are speculating about new takes on Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, Beavis and Butthead, Dallas, Miami Vice, Teen Wolf… there’s even been the threat of a Bryan Fuller-helmed Munsters remake.*

A pilot for a reboot has a unique task. There is the assumption that most viewers are already familiar with the property, and there is going to be a niche audience that is much more than familiar. The diehard fans are poised to critique every detail.  So what makes a pilot for a reboot successful?

There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to approach. At one end, the pilot could say to the viewer, “Forget everything you knew about previous incarnations of this property.” The story basically starts over, in the present day. V is an example. Viewers need not have a clue about the 1980s mini-series and following TV series. In fact, they might be better not having seen the original and having the whole lizard reveal spoiled for them.

At the other end, a pilot can dive in to a storyline already in progress. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles does this really well. We last saw Sarah and son John in 1991, when John was about 12 years old, so the show now has to bring us up to 2008, when it debuted. The pilot opens in 1999 and, staying faithful to the timeline set forth by the movies, John is introduced as a teenager. We learn in the opening scene Sarah is haunted by the same nightmares of worldwide destruction that we remember. In order to get us to the right year, the writers have the new Terminator, played by Summer Glau, bring the characters forward in time to 2008. If you’re actually new to this, it’s likely you just won’t care about these characters. It’s also likely you’ve been living under a rock.

On the lighter side, 90210 stuck with the timeline set forth by its predecessor, Beverly Hills 90210. The newer show had some fun updating viewers on the lives of characters we once knew, even bringing some of them back so we wouldn’t always be stuck remembering them with hideous hairstyles.

According to Ramon Rodriguez, who has been cast as Bosley, the new Charlie’s Angels is set to go in a new direction. However, the movies already took a big step away from the camp of the original series. So what, exactly, are they moving away from? And do we care? Does a show’s pedigree matter, or only that it’s good?

There’s still a long way to go with all of the aforementioned reboots, and no telling how much restructuring they will go through on their way to the airwaves—if they even make it that far. Then will each one be a 90210? Or a Melrose Place? Once they debut, fans will no doubt have their expectations well in place.

*Here’s an update on the Bryan Fuller Munsters remake, 8/11/11

Charlie’s Angels

Image borrowed from Charlie’s Angels Forever

With the announcement that ABC is going to launch a reboot of Charlie’s Angels, I just had to revisit this show that I loved as a kid. (I had all the dolls and their van.) It kicked off with a movie-of-the-week (MOW) in September of 1976.

Other than the slightly longer-than-normal length, there is nothing to give away that this isn’t just a random episode; this is a pilot with virtually no exposition. The premise is laid out for us right in the opening credits, as in every episode. Three female cops, frustrated by menial assignments, left the force to go work as private investigators for a man named Charlie.

As in most episodic police dramas, we open not with the main characters, but with the scene of a crime. At a dusty racetrack populated by female drivers, a car explodes in a glorious fireball; we know we’re in for action.

Our introduction to the trio of protagonists comes as they learn of the tragedy in their office. These three impossibly skinny women with blinding white smiles sit languidly around the posh room, while a cheery-looking man, Bosley (David Doyle) sits at the desk showing slides of the crime scene. Charlie, whose voice we know from the opening sequence, speaks to them by phone, explaining what is known about the case. The head mechanic from the track, Jerry, has hired them to investigate the crash on suspicion of murder.

Each of the women, in turn, asks an intelligent question so we get a good look at each one. They’re gorgeous and well-dressed. Each of their names is worked into the dialogue; Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), Jill (Farah Fawcett-Majors) and Sabrina (Kate Jackson). As if the show’s creators feared we might forget Sabrina’s name, it’s emblazoned as a gold necklace across her tanned neck, and later on a fitted T-shirt.

The gag with Charlie is that he seems to be off living the high life, in perhaps less than well-kept secret, while conducting his business long distance. There is a pretty shockingly suggestive joke, for the era. Charlie is moaning in apparent pain about his lower back, but the audience sees that he is in the midst of a massage administered by a bikini-clad woman standing between his shoulder blades. “It will just be the matter of some deft manipulation before I’m standing as erect as ever,” he declares.

As the case unfolds, we are introduced to the angels’ and Bosley’s under cover talents. Sabrina coincidentally has marginal experience as a racecar driver, so she rolls in as the new girl on the track. Bosley shows up in a battered camper as an evangelical preacher with Jill as his Bible-peddling daughter whose legs inspire anything but piety. Kelly plays the damsel in distress, fiddling with her VW Bug’s engine to attract the attention of a suspicious mechanic.

Possibly one of the most memorable scenes takes place when Jill joins in a poker game to milk information from the pit crew. The blonde bimbo routine, we can predict, will come in handy for her on a regular basis. As she feigns ignorance only to reveal herself as a shark, the audience gets a look at her arsenal of talents, as well as a few laughs. But if she is just there to get information out of the mechanic why does she need to clean house in the game? Oh well…

Variations on the show’s now well-known theme music are used throughout to build suspense. The women find themselves in danger as the culprits grow suspicious of them. There are a couple of intense moments, and we really don’t know what the angels are capable of physically. The toughest thing we see is Kelly weakly waving a handgun toward the end. Personally I think Sarah Walker could kick all their asses. They prevail, of course, over the murderer and his accomplices. We go out on some good-natured ribbing and a shot of Charlie in a hot tub, surrounded by babes.

NOTE: The pilot described above kicked off the first full season of Charlie’s Angels in the fall of 1976. I’ve since discovered, via Ultimate Charlie’s Angels, that a different MOW aired the previous spring, having to do with the angels solving the mystery of a missing vintner. I’ll have to blog about that one of these days.

One Day at a Time

Since I recently wrote about Hot in Cleveland, I thought it would be fun to look back at an earlier Valerie Bertinelli vehicle, One Day at a Time. She was just 15 when she started playing Barbara Cooper in 1975.

The pilot gives a slice-of-life picture of the Romano/Cooper family of Indianapolis. It’s not their first day in town, it’s no one’s first day on the job, and no characters are meeting for the first time. The writers could have chosen to start the story with Ann leaving her husband, or with her breaking the news to the girls that they were moving, or with their first day in the apartment. But since that transitional period is behind us, we have more opportunity to see the relationships among the characters as they function on a relatively normal day.

We open with a typical family discussion, in which older daughter Julie (Mackenzie Phillips), tries to manipulate her mother into letting her go on a co-ed camping trip. Like most teenage girls, she considers her social engagements the highest household priority and can storm out of a room as well as any modern day reality “star.”

While Julie is stomping around in self-pity, younger sister Barbara has just become the first girl on the school basketball team. Her tomboyish attitude stands in stark contrast to Julie’s girlishness, setting up for plenty of future conflicts. Valerie doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but her snarky strength here is little like what she displays in Hot in Cleveland.

The show finds its edge in exploring the age of the liberated woman. Ann jokes about—and struggles with—wearing the mantle of both mother and father to two headstrong teenage girls. She’s a strong woman and lets her daughters be strong women, too. Independent though she may be, Ann is pursued by two men; her younger, charming divorce lawyer, David (Richard Masur), and the smarmy, married building superintendent, Schneider (Pat Harrington, Jr.).

The show was taped in front of a live audience, so we get our cues when to laugh and how hard. However, the jokes arise naturalistically out of the dialogue. The only time the jokes get ham-handed is in the banter between the two sisters. Barbara calls Julie “the pits,” like that’s the worst insult ever. Was that a thing in the 70s?

Importantly, in addition to laughs, the show has heart. At the mid-point we finally learn what is the “first” that makes this day pilot-worthy. Ann makes her first crucial solo parenting decision , calling Julie’s bluff on a threat to move out. As Julie disappears down the hall, Ann makes the speech on which the pilot rests: “For the first 17 years of my life, my father made the decisions. For the next 17, my husband the decisions. The first time in my life I make a decision on my own, I blew it.” Bonnie Franklin gives an versatile performance, moving easily from glib to passionate, from funny to moving. Her face when Julie returns speaks volumes.

Other feminist ideas are woven in, like when Ann ponders whether God is a woman, and when she mentions that she has returned to using her maiden name. Though they were probably uncommon at the time, such ideas are treated as matter-of-fact. Today, in contrast, “feminism” is often treated as a dirty word and such ideas are lampooned—my, how far we’ve come. Unfortunately the Julies on television seem to have outnumbered the Barbaras; just look at the women on Hot in Cleveland.

WKRP in Cincinnati

You might remember this sitcom from 1978. If you’ve ever lived in Cincinnati, you probably remember it better than most. The pilot launches straight into an opening sequence, with a person’s hand adjusting a car radio, searching around before landing on what will be the show’s theme. We’re led to understand that the city itself will play a part. There are lots of shots of iconic Cincinnati landmarks: Fountain Square, skywalks, the Suspension Bridge, Riverfront Coliseum, Riverfront Stadium… there’s even a billboard for Frisch’s Big Boy in the background of one shot. Interestingly, only two actors’ names are given during this sequence (Gary Sandy and Gordon Jump).

The story is motivated by the introduction of Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), the new program manager at a lagging, independent radio station. Starting with what we can surmise is a typical morning, we see the buxom receptionist (Loni Anderson) water the plants as sleazy salesman Herb (Frank Bonner) hits on her. Andy arrives, with a hint of a southwest accent, wearing a cowboy hat, and we know he’s different. We soon discover that he’s smart and articulate, traits which further separate him from the Midwestern hodgepodge.

The characters go on entering, one by one, each full of warnings for Andy about the high turnover of program managers at WKRP. Les Nesman (Richard Sanders) is the uber-dorky newsman. Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), the boss, cares more for fishing—in his office, no less—than actually working. Johnny (Howard Hesseman) makes the grandest entrance as a confused, sleep-deprived, cool guy (today we’d call him a hipster) who has gone by a different moniker in every city where he’s worked. Drug use is implied though not spelled out. Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) is the mousy office assistant, who may have potential to do bigger things. If anyone is going to hook up, it’s going to be Bailey and Andy.

The station desperately needs an update in format to survive, despite the wishes of its owner, Carlson’s conservative mother. Andy boldly changes the format, in an exciting and funny scene with Johnny. The chronically tired DJ comes alive with the switch over from elevator music to contemporary rock-and-roll. We enjoy his triumph as he rocks out, rechristening himself Johnny Fever.

As in many shows of this era, the laugh track is used to exhaustion. The thing is, the show’s a riot on its own. The jokes are pretty lowbrow, ranging from sight gags like Carlson’s casting a fishing line over his desk, to funny song titles (How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away?), to plain old stupidity.

Today, there’s the added humor of, well, the 70s. Records! Eight-tracks! And scarily, the clothes don’t look that out of style. The real humor, though, comes from the characters. In some ways, WKRP is a predecessor to The Office, following people who manage to get through their workday by doing next to nothing. If computer solitaire had been invented in 1978, you can bet these guys would be playing it. Andy is Jim. Carlson in Michael. Bailey is Pam. Johnny is a male Meredith. Les is Dwight. No such comparison exists for Venus Flytrap, the charismatic DJ, who looks for all the world like a pimp, introduced at the very end as the episode’s final button. Les calls him a Negro – can you still say that on TV?