LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #13: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

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Imagine a fairly ordinary young adolescent boy of 14 – 15 years of age, growing up with his older brother and parents in an Air Force family. They are transferred to a dream-come-true tour at Hickam AFB in Oahu, Hawaii, where the boy goes through junior high school, then his first year of high school, between the years covering autumn of 1973 to the late summer of 1976.

In this glorious time, the boy experiences virtually limitless freedom to hang with his friends throughout the summer and on weekends; they’re free to take public transportation to every corner of this island paradise (when his older brother isn’t giving them a ride); skateboarding and running as if through their own playground all over downtown Honolulu; checking out the endless parade of beautiful bikini-clad women strolling along Waikiki Beach; going to the North Shore to watch surfing competitions; and snorkeling in the crystal blue waters of Hanauma Bay, among others – essentially this kid is just having the time of his young life.

But every Saturday night, when all the other kids are out blasting their portable radios and cassette players, drinking copious amounts of ill-gotten beer and wine supplied throughout careful cajoling and in exchange for lawn-mowing and washing some enlisted men’s cars; going through the time-honored adolescent rituals of socializing with the girls to ‘make out’ and ‘go steady’ with (failing more often than not) – this 14-15 year old boy is quietly slipping away from the action, getting back to his house for roughly an hour or so, where he and his mother sit in the living room for their weekly appointment to watch and laugh together as they sit in rapt attention to their favorite TV program: The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

My mother and I shared a ritual that adolescent angst, intense peer pressure and the usual parent/child conflicts couldn’t touch in those days – we both shared a common sense of humor, and had come to realize that The Mary Tyler-Moore Show was our ‘do-not-miss’, ultimate sitcom for the most intelligent and achingly funny writing that television had to offer. All In the Family, a radical and much more topical, ground-breaking sitcom, was getting the lion’s share of the attention when it debuted on CBS at virtually the same time, and was the prime time lead-in show to MTM for a number of seasons. Family‘s humor wasn’t lost on us; Archie Bunker could make us both laugh hysterically at his outrageous ignorance and clueless bigotry, with supreme assistance from his wife Edith, ‘meathead’ son-in-law Mike, and neighbors like the Jeffersons – but mainly to remind us that they were more part of the joke in reacting to the main character than an ‘equal’ cast member, just as shocked and amazed at Archie’s behavior as we the television audience were. All In the Family was indeed ground-breaking, but it was also loud, and sometimes overwrought. It also went on too long, diluting quickly in quality; it hasn’t aged very well, and perhaps it wasn’t meant to.

But while All In The Family had America talking, protesting, debating and publishing articles describing its subversive nature and ‘hot-button’ issues, The Mary Tyler Moore Show could always be counted on to just consistently make us laugh harder with, and genuinely care for, its perfect ensemble cast of lovable and original characters, week in and week out. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s ‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ is one author’s celebration of this timeless and innovative television series, restoring its proper place as the best-written and acted situation comedy up to that time, perhaps of all time, setting a new standard of excellence that hundreds of other sitcoms simply could not (and still cannot) match, for decades to follow.

MTM was by no means an instant hit, and its transition from a few sketchy ideas about a single, steady-working lady in her 30’s trying to establish a career at a small TV news station in Minneapolis, to the unique format of inviting us into both Mary Richards’ private and work lives in equal measure, was not met with overwhelming support from the CBS network brass, who only reluctantly gave it a 13-episode commitment and generally thought the show was going to be an unqualified failure. It was also nearly rejected outright when it was originally proposed that the Mary Richards character was divorced, a radical concept only for the medium that basically ‘sat out’ the sixties as far as trying to accurately reflect the changing times.

‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ gives a somewhat insightful history of MTM‘s journey from writing room to primetime network series, focusing on then newly-accepted female writing talent such as Treva Silverman and Susan Silver, who lent real-life stories to their TV scripts, and Ethel Winant, the female executive producer who cast the all-important roles with the disparate cast of struggling actors who gave the scripts life, a brilliant ensemble that made it look so easy, along with the wonderfully crafted confluence of brilliant material and situations that never betrayed their essential characteristics at the expense of quality humor.

This seems like a fairly obvious approach, given the time of the early seventies when more women were seeking fulfillment in careers outside of the traditional female roles of wife and mother, and the women’s liberation movement was in full gear, despite television’s seeming ignorance of such. MTM was itself considered radical in that it featured a single woman in her thirties who made no excuses or apologies for wanting to work in the ‘big city’, independently succeeding in a challenging career without the familiar goal of finding and marrying a man being her priority (a virtual requirement for a female lead such As Marlo Thomas in That Girl).

Writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns had created one other television show, Room 222, a rather mundane yet thoughtfully-written series about a high school that received high critical praise yet not so large a viewing audience. Brooks in particular would go on to an amazing film career, writing ‘Terms of Endearment’ and ‘Broadcast News’, but would first set a new standard in quality comedy writing with shows such as Taxi, Cheers and Frazier. But in 1970, Brooks was a wannabe screenwriter with very little television experience before Grant Tinker, Mary Tyler Moore’s husband and the show’s owner/producer, put the development of this series squarely in his hands.

There are some great stories in ‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ about the making and molding of what would become a benchmark example of classic ‘coming of age’ television, where the plots didn’t revolve around gag situations and broad comedy as I Love Lucy had become famous for, or clever yet innocent housewives such as Donna Reed, or Samantha Stevens on Bewitched. There are interesting side stories, such as Cloris Leachman’s initial contempt for fellow actor Gavin MacLeod during the show’s first few seasons, and the almost laughable competitive nature between Ted Knight and Ed Asner, each aware that they were fighting for their own spotlight as the outstanding comic actor in each episode.

Sadly, the book fails to make this story as readable or engrossing as it might have been if more attention had been paid to the dozens of outstanding episodes that are still as fresh to watch today as they were nearly 40 years ago. Aside from the mention of just a few classics, such as the episode about the unconventional death and subsequent funeral for WJM’s Chuckles the Clown, where Mary Richards bursts out laughing at exactly the wrong time after berating her coworkers for doing the same, albeit not at the actual funeral; or an episode in the series seventh and final season that I remember watching as if it were yesterday: a brilliantly executed story about one of Mary’s disastrous dinner parties, where it’s being kept a big secret that none other than Johnny Carson himself is going to appear, only for there to be a power outage at the penultimate moment of his arrival, when we hear Carson toss off a few hilarious lines but is never actually seen in the show.

Despite these bright moments, ‘Mary and Lou and Ted and Rhoda’ does not succeed in doing justice to the overall body of work that MTM represents, considering that by its second season it was improving by leaps and bounds, becoming better and about as perfect a sitcom imaginable, and was still in the Top 20 when it left the airwaves.

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The author presents an uneven and ultimately bland history that serves neither the show or its main focus on the women ‘pioneers’ in the writing stable, who in actuality were only responsible for a handful of episodes as writer or director. While their contributions to The Mary Tyler Moore Show are substantial, they were not nearly the foundation of the show’s success, and, consequently, writers like Ed. Weinberger, Larry David, Glen Daniels, and one of the finest comedy writers of TV in the 20th century, David Lloyd, end up getting far less credit than they deserve. (As a matter of fact, David Lloyd is the first sitcom writer I remember seeking out in the credits at the start of each show – if his name popped up, I knew it was going to be an exceptional half hour)

There is also too little exploration into the character portrayals themselves, some of the most original, and complete, ever seen on television. Each actor brought something integral and essential to the unique ensemble, be it Betty White’s overly-amorous TV Chef Sue Ann Nivens, or Ted Knight’s amazing range as the bombastic, yet deeply insecure anchorman Ted Baxter. It glosses over the Lou Grant character’s divorce from his wife Edie, wanting to ‘find herself’, which gave an extra layer to Asner’s already solid portrayal; Gavin MacLeod’s character, Murray-the-wisecracking-jokester, was given his own fully-developed history as a loving husband, recovering gambler, and empathetic coworker to Mary’s character, even once believing he had actually fallen in love with her – this story alone is resolved so beautifully, so believably, that it can be as moving to watch now as it did when Mom and I first watched it nearly 40 years ago. Ted Baxter’s character, while always maintaining a unique form of buffoonery, is given some of the most extraordinary and revealing glimpses into what a loving, sensitive person he is through the episodes featuring his guileless, soon-to-be pregnant wife Georgette, just one of the excellent casting choices of later characters after the departures of Valerie Harper (Rhoda) and Cloris Leachman (Phyllis).

It’s good that this book exists, although a classic television series like The Mary Tyler-Moore Show deserves a much more in-depth appreciation than this one provides. It’s a passionless narrative which too rarely evokes the recognition of just what an enjoyable experience it was to see this show as it developed and matured through the seasons. It’s fine that the author highlights the women behind the series’ history, but the story of the show itself is sometimes seen as an afterthought, and this book as a whole really suffers as a result.

For the more devoted fans, I would recommend ‘Love Is All Around’, in which all episodes are described, giving date shown, guest stars, writer and director, as well as a story synopsis and insider’s comments on the making of it. There are also painstaking details and incidents surrounding the creation of the show that Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book does not add to or provide with fresh insight.

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