It’s hard to believe now, but there once was a time – back in the 1970s – when the best TV shows appeared on Saturday night. Saturday is now the Bermuda Triangle of network programming but in 1973 the CBS line-up consisted of one classic series after another: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H*,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and, at 9 p.m., the pivot for the entire night and my favorite TV show of all time: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
I mention this now because I just finished reading “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s history of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The book is a warm, nostalgic look back at one of the pivotal programs in American broadcasting history, and a reminder that for all the current braggadocio about this being the Golden Age of Television, TV was never as good as it was on those Saturday nights in the early ‘70s.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” revolved around a 30-something single woman who moved to the big city of Minneapolis and carved out a professional career for herself in the male-dominated profession of television journalism. When the show debuted in 1970, there had been nothing quite like it on television. The concept of a single woman navigating her way through office politics while happily pursuing a personal life was a novel concept at a time when most of the women on TV were mothers, wives, foreign spies or desert island castaways.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” generates a lot of historical appreciation – justifiably so – for its role in advancing feminist themes and for creating role models for the millions of women, single or not, who were entering the workplace in the late 1960s. But the show’s impact is greater than that. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was the first truly sophisticated sitcom: a show where the humor flowed out of personality rather than shtick, where the jokes were actually intelligent, and where viewers could empathize with the characters’ humanity.
“Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted” shows that none of this was preordained. It’s downright alarming how close the show came to being straggled in its crib. The studio audience for the pilot’s first filming watched stone-faced, unamused and unimpressed. CBS itself didn’t “get” the show either, originally scheduling it to run on Tuesday night between “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Hee Haw.” But then, in a last-minute deus ex machina worthy of a Dudley Do-Right cartoon, CBS eased out the executive in charge of programming and replaced him with the TV genius Fred Silverman, who understood the network imperative to attract the young, urban, affluent viewers then prized by advertisers. And just like that, MTM went from being the network’s ugly duckling to the centerpiece of its resurgence.
Armstrong’s book demonstrates once again that television is the most collaborative of all art forms. Midwifed by Moore’s husband Grant Tinker, created by show runners James L Brooks and Alan Burns, directed by Jay Sandrich, and written by a handful of talented writers (many of whom were women with little experience writing for television), the show only worked because so many different people made serious contributions. And remarkably for the entertainment business, the producers showed you could make a TV show while maintaining a humane, respectful atmosphere. Brooks and Burns were just plain nice – so was Moore herself – and that essential goodness radiated onto the screen.
The core of the show’s humor was that scourge of the middle class: embarrassment. The disconnect between the way a bourgeois life is supposed to be lived and the continued absurdity of the modern world kept Mary Richards on her toes. Always trying to avoid “scenes,” she invariably became embroiled in cringe-worthy situations – most famously after the death of Chuckles the Clown, when she just couldn’t stop giggling at his funeral (considered by many to be one of the greatest TV episodes of all time).
And there was a lot to be embarrassed about in the 1970s, even beyond the sideburns, Nehru jackets, head scarves and other fashion atrocities. Social conventions were changing so fast that no one could really keep up. Watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” today is like opening a time capsule of a time when divorce, sex, gender politics, and even homosexuality were just beginning to be discussed on TV. Social mores accelerated so rapidly that MTM, which had seemed so daring in 1970, actually appeared retrograde just five years later. Amazingly, it became the target of feminists like Gloria Steinem, who criticized the show for its lack of militancy and the fact that Mary still called her boss “Mr. Grant” instead of “Lou,” thereby perpetuating the patriarchy – or whatever.
Well, that was then, and now it seems ridiculous to criticize “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on feminist grounds. Great art is about what people are really like, not what we wish they could be, and there was a lot of humanity on display in that series. It influenced dozens of future shows with female protagonists (“Girls” and “30 Rock” would have been impossible without it) and spawned dozens more workplace comedies (“Cheers,” “Taxi” and “The Office” are its direct descendants.) Forty years later, it’s still a national treasure.