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.

pyrajane’s review #21: The Walking Dead, Compendium 1 (The Walking Dead #1-48) by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, Tony Moore

Walking Dead CompendiumI hate horror.

I hate horror movies.  I can’t stand the trailers for new ones.  Horror music?  Knock it the fuck off.

I hate scary TV shows.  Don’t want anything to do with them.

I can’t stand haunted houses and the few times I let myself be talked into going into one, I’d either bail after a few steps in and walk back out the front door or I’d grab the shirt of the person in front of me, close my eyes, press my face into their back and let them lead me.   Fuck haunted houses.

Zombies?  No.  One of the worst horror creations because they eat you alive and it could be someone you know.  The smell… I can’t even.  It might be a brand new zombie or one that’s been wandering around for who knows how long.  Fuck everything about that.

Walking Dead Season 4

I love The Walking Dead.

My husband had read the comics and when he heard AMC was creating the show, he was wicked excited.  Me?  Nope.  More than nope.  More like “Why?  Why would anyone DO that?”

He’d be watching in the other room while I was on the computer trying really hard not to listen to any sounds.

But then it got interesting.  The characters seemed cool and every single scene wasn’t a zombie biting off someone’s face.  I started wandering into the room, standing in the doorway, watching for a few minutes.  By episode four, I was very curious, but still not convinced.  Then season two started, Sophia disappeared, and I was in.

I didn’t want to read the comic because I liked being surprised and getting to know the characters through the show.  I knew the show had gone in a very different direction with the characters and the story, but I didn’t care.  I liked these people and didn’t want to know what could happen next.  My husband would point out from time to time if the book had a plot line that was more violent than what they did on the show and also that they changed the characters a lot and he liked what they did.

I got so into the show that I would watch in real time, complete with commercials because I didn’t want to wait for the DVR.  When season two ended, I was tempted to read the comic, but still didn’t want to.  Then season three ended and I waited a few months and here we are.

People might hate me for this, but I do not care: I like the show more than the comic.

Read more of my thoughts over on my blog.  

Spoilers.  Spoilers from the show.  Spoilers from the comic.

I’m not even going to try to make this anything but a huge pile of spoilers.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #47: Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV by Warren Littlefield

top of the rockSo I’ve been having this fifteen year affair that just came to an end last Thursday night. Maybe you’ve heard of my paramour, Must See TV. I didn’t discover my love obsession hobby of watching TV like it was my job until I discovered Must See TV in the spring of 1998, when I accidentally caught a Friends episode while I was doing my math homework. Pre-algebra, I believe. (Ugh, yuck, horrible.) I’d had television obsessions before, but only with a couple of shows I watched religiously, namely Lois & Clark and Days of Our Lives. Yes, Days of Our Lives. I blame my mother for that one. (P.S. Did you guys know that Stefano is still alive?!) And then as one did back in the days before DVRs, because I stayed on NBC the rest of the night, I also discovered ER, and then I was pretty much done for life.

ER blew my awkward teenage mind completely to pieces, and my level of obsession quickly escalated, setting the patterns for obsessive fan behavior to come, when I would discover The X-Files later that summer. I was an extremely shy, awkward, and bookish teenager, and it might be something of an understatement to say that all of the energy ‘normal’ teenagers channeled into dating and socializing, I channeled into becoming an expert on everything ER and X-Files related. They were the only two boyfriends I had in high school, so to say that Must See TV had more of an influence on my life than it might your average person might also be something of an understatement. Patterns of behavior and story consumption I still hold today are a direct result of those early years caring more about Ross & Rachel and Chandler & Monica and Mark Greene, John Carter, Carol Hathaway and Doug Ross than I did about bothering to learn how to flirt with boys.

The rest of the story of my love affair with everything television is irrelevant for the purposes of this review. The beginning is the important thing. I watched Thursday nights on NBC for fifteen years, and I would have found this book interesting even without that personal connection, but it made it all the better.

In Top of the Rock, Warren Littlefield, a former top exec at NBC and president of entertainment, chronicles his years at NBC and the rise and fall of Must See TV. He dates the death of Must See TV somewhere around 1998, the year he was fired. As I stated at the beginning of this review, for me, the end really happened last week with the death of The Office, the last real Must See TV show on NBC, although it’s been years since it’s deserved that title. As a result, this book isn’t really the full story of Must See TV — more like what occurred during Littlefield’s time there from the 1970s until he was fired in 1998 — but it’s a fascinating insider’s look into the creative processes, executive decisions, and behind the scenes drama of what was once the highest rated network on TV. The book is told in a series of oral interviews organized around each show on the Must See TV lineup, from Cheers to The West Wing. It’s great to hear behind the scenes stories not only from Littlefield, but also from the actors, producers, and writers who experienced the shows firsthand.

Littlefield, like me, clearly loves television. It was his philosophy at NBC to find creative, smart, and talented people and let them do their thing, and he laments the state of network TV today (particularly at NBC), which he cites as a toxic space full of micromanagement, hostile to artistic integrity. Although he’s almost certainly painting the picture in his own favor, I tend to agree with him. Most of the shows that provided such success for NBC in its heyday would probably never even make it to air today, and if they did, would probably have faced imminent cancellation anyway.

This was a fascinating book, and I sort of wish it had been longer.