During COVID, I Watched ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ For The First Time. Here’s What I Learned.
A confession: It took a global pandemic and a half century for me to finally discover “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It’s even more shameful to admit this as a reporter who’s worked in the news business for over three decades.
The truth is, my first James L. Brooks-created news woman was Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig in the writer-director’s 1987 big screen comedy-drama “Broadcast News.” As a journalism major in my final year of college, I was mesmerized when Jane, a network news producer on assignment, unplugged her hotel phone for a scheduled and timed crying jag. When she ran up to the row of newspaper boxes and jammed a quarter into each to buy a copy of every paper, it mirrored my own daily morning newspaper addiction. Her commitment to journalistic ethics and her dogged dedication to the truth, made her an instant role model.
To this day, whenever the film plays on Turner Classic Movies, I drop whatever I’m doing for two hours and 13 minutes. Especially to see that pitch-perfect scene at the home of the network news boss when a network suit attempts to shame Jane, saying, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room” and Jane sincerely replies, “No, it’s awful.”
Thanks to the 19-month (and counting) pandemic’s work from home realities, I was looking for some TV comfort food to watch during my lunch break. All seven seasons of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” beckoned to me on Hulu. Since my bedtime clashed with the show’s timeslot on CBS when it premiered in 1970 (I was six) and the show didn’t really have a renaissance in reruns until the 1990s, I had inexplicably never visited the WJM-TV newsroom in Minneapolis.
While many old TV shows are now cringe-worthy when viewed through a 2021 lens, the character-driven humor of “MTM” still works remarkably well. Even though I was technically taking my lunch break as I watched each day, I began to jot down notes. Here’s what I ended up learning from Mary Richards, Rhoda Morgenstern, Lou Grant, Phyllis Lindstrom, Sue Ann Nivens and the rest of the WJM-TV news team throughout the 168 episodes.
- The Show’s Feminism Is Subtle
Unlike Norman Lear’s more topical “Maude,” hitting the audience over the head with messages wasn’t the tone of the show created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. But because the show employed so many women in the writer’s room, (including Susan Silver and Treva Silverman, who used snippets from her personal life to help make Rhoda one of the first free-spirited independent women in TV history), trailblazing moments were organic to the stories being told.
In the show’s third season, in the episode “Just Around The Corner,” Mary’s father (Bill Quinn), a renowned surgeon retires and her parents move into her Minneapolis neighborhood. When they begin to check up on her at all hours, viewers are subtly informed Mary has stayed out all night. In response to the interference, Mary protects her independence by promptly setting some ground rules for her nosy new neighbors.
In the subsequent episode, “You’ve Got a Friend,” Mary invites her emotionally distant dad to the apartment for dinner in an effort to forge a closer bond as adults. Mrs. Richards (Nanette Fabray) dutifully drops off Mary’s father and on the way out the door, utters the seemingly throw away line, “Don’t forget to take your pill!” When both Mr. Richards and his daughter reply in unison, “I won’t!” the studio audience howls in surprise.
In Season Five, Mary’s co-worker, news writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) is trying to convince his wife to have a fourth child. In Lou’s (Ed Asner) office, Mary and her boss are on opposing sides of the issue. Mary tells Mr. Grant, “A woman doesn’t have to have a baby if she doesn’t want to.” In response, Lou grumbles, “Well, I say a man’s entitled to have a baby if he wants to.” Mary has the perfect exit line: “Well, Mr. Grant, on behalf of women everywhere, let me say, we’d sure like to be there when he has it!”
2. Rhoda Is a Gay Boy’s Best Friend
In the third season episode “My Brother’s Keeper,” Phyllis’ brother Ben (Robert Moore), a musician, visits Minneapolis and she immediately wants to set him up with Mary. Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) is then horrified when her baby brother hits it off with her frenemy Rhoda (Valerie Harper) instead. Naturally, things boil over between the two women during one of Mary’s infamous parties. Rhoda tries to reassure Phyllis, explaining that Ben “isn’t my type.” Phyllis, beyond offended, replies, “He’s witty! He’s attractive! He’s successful! He’s single!”
And then Rhoda drops an unexpected truth bomb right there on Saturday night network television in 1973: “He’s gay!” Phyllis immediately hugs Rhoda and says, “I’m so relieved!” In addition to the audience’s reaction, the remarkable thing about the scene? The success of Rhoda’s punchline surrounds Phyllis’ cluelessness and not Ben’s sexual orientation.
Similarly sly was a line inserted into the sixth season episode “Sue Ann Falls in Love” when the gang gathers at Mary’s before the annual Teddy Awards and idiot news anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) and Georgette (Georgia Engel) arrive in matching tuxedos. The gag is the now-married notorious cheapskate Ted didn’t want to spring for an expensive gown for his wife. Mary is delighted, as is the studio audience. “It’s terrific!” she exclaims.
Georgette replies, “I think we look like the top of a gay wedding cake.” It’s a prescient piece of dialogue for 1976. It’s also worth noting that one of “MTM’s” TV children, “Grace & Frankie,” the Netflix series starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, features two formally attired grooms atop a wedding cake as the bride figurines topple off the crumbling cake in the show’s title sequence.
3. Lou Grant Slowly Becomes a Feminist — Sort Of
There literally wouldn’t be a “Mary Tyler Moore Show” if the cantankerous executive producer of WJM News hadn’t hired Mary Richards in the show’s 1970 pilot. After all, Mary arrives at the station to apply for a secretarial position and Lou ends up hiring her for the open associate producer position. Later in the series, Lou has a fling with Mary’s Aunt Flo (Eileen Heckart), a more accomplished journalist who interviews world leaders. While Lou feels competitive with Flo, he’s also smitten and there’s clearly a mutual respect.
In the “Mary’s Aunt” episode in the sixth season, Lou delivers this memorable monologue in a scene with Mary: “We had a woman like that on the paper in Chicago. One woman among 24 guys. She was the best reporter there so, naturally, the other guys gave her the works. Dirty tricks, hostility, insults. One rotten bum even took her typewriter apart one night and left all the pieces on her desk. Didn’t bother her. She just picked up the roller and hit the dirty bum over the head with it.” Lou tilts his balding head in Mary’s direction and adds, “I still have the scar.”
“When your aunt started out, she was a pioneer. All working women were. Pioneers had to be tough. They don’t win popularity contests. People like Flo Meredith broke the ground for people like Mary Richards.”
Moore’s Mary replies, “Sometimes, you really surprise me. You’re not what I’d ever call a liberated man but sometimes, Mr. Grant, wow.”
According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s excellent 2013 book “Mary And Lou And Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic,” Ed Asner had a similar awakening off-screen. At the start of “MTM,” whenever Asner spotted a female writing credit on an episode script, he would “bristle.” By the time he was starring in his Emmy-winning spinoff in the late 1970s and later as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Asner was publicly advocating for workplace protections and equal pay for women. In 1986, he even delivered the National Organization for Women’s 20th anniversary radio broadcast.
4. Sue Ann Nivens Is A Revelation
In a sitcom already stacked with strong distinct women, the addition of Betty White’s Sue Ann Nivens in the fourth season is nothing short of miraculous. But with Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman both poised to move onto their own MTM spinoffs, the timing was perfect. Even more astounding is in Sue Ann’s debut episode (WJM-TV’s “Happy Homemaker,” is an inspired mash up of Julia Child, Martha Stewart and Erica Jong), the writers bring her on to sleep with Lars, Phyllis’ husband. Naturally, two of comedy’s most iconic women end up on the set of “The Happy Homemaker” with a furious Phyllis exacting her revenge by collapsing Sue Ann’s chocolate soufflé in the wall oven.
One of the scene’s most hilarious moments ended up improvised by White out of necessity. In Keishin Armstrong’s “Mary And Lou And Rhoda and Ted,” she recounts director Jay Sandrich’s efforts to solve the gaping open oven door that hampered the action of the two actresses at the height of the argument. Instinctively, White, still holding her deflated dessert, slams the oven door shut with her knee. Before she left the studio at the show’s Friday night taping, Brooks and Burns already had more episodes in mind for White and Sue Ann.
Only an actor as talented as Betty White could turn a one-episode guest role playing a slightly unhinged, passive-aggressive homewrecker and turn it into recurring comedy gold for the rest of the series’ run. What’s more, Sue Ann is a revelation on primetime TV in 1973. She’s smart, single, claps back at the boys in a male-dominated workplace and is very sex positive, 25 years before Kim Cattrell’s Samantha Jones sauntered onto “Sex and the City.” Sue Ann even outrageously flirts with and ends up bedding her WJM workplace crush — Lou Grant.
By 1976, the show’s writers were giving White lots of titillating lines to sprinkle out onto the CBS Saturday night airwaves, too. Angling for a restaurant review segment on the news in “One Producer Too Many,” Sue Ann glides into the newsroom and informs Mary, “I was lying in bed last night and I couldn’t sleep and I got the most wonderful idea. So I went right home and wrote it down!” You can almost hear the audience processing the line as the laugh gains momentum while Moore and White (close friends off-screen) pause and desperately try not to break character.
“Sue Ann’s Sister,” possibly one of the show’s most underrated episodes was penned by future “Taxi” and “Cheers” writer David Lloyd as a showcase for White. Sue Ann’s attractive younger sister Lilia (Pat Priest) comes to Minneapolis for a visit and manages to snare a job at a competing TV station — in Sue Ann’s time slot. Her self-confidence shattered, Sue Ann withdraws to her boudoir, wearing a feather boa. In addition to a vibrating bed and remote control mood lighting, Sue Ann also has Tchaikovsky programmed into the bedroom’s sound system. Of course, the entire gang ends up piling into the bedroom in an effort to convince Sue Ann to return to WJM.
According to Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown’s 1989 book “Love Is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the hilariously over-the-top bedroom set was blocked from the studio audience’s view until the scene was played.
Quips Murray upon entering: “Love the bedroom, Sue Ann. Did you decorate it yourself or bring in a sex maniac?”
The episode also features one of the best sight gags in the show’s entire run. Upon entering the bedroom, Ted Baxter, completely unfazed by the decor, immediately looks skyward and adjusts his hat. Betty White later recalled in “Love Is All Around” the gag was improvised by Ted Knight in the moment. It got such a lengthy laugh, it was left in. Perhaps the only thing that got a bigger laugh was at the end of the episode when Mary Richards tip-toes back into Sue Ann’s den of iniquity solo to retrieve her purse, lies down on the vibrating bed and blasts Tchaikovsky for just a moment before scurrying out.
5. Mary Richards Evolves in Real Time
One of the show’s most impressive feats was throughout its seven-year run, viewers realistically get to see Mary Richards grow in confidence and experience, from the spunky 30-year-old unsettled by the gruff Lou Grant in her job interview to a self-assured professional, who, when she discovers her male predecessor made more money, walks into Grant’s office and demands a raise. Over the years, she gets promoted, receives a job offer to join a competitor, goes to jail to protect a source and increasingly, she spars with her boss.
By the fifth season episode, “Mary The Producer,” Mary Richards is responsible for overseeing the nightly newscast. Her decisions immediately meet with disdain, particularly from the station’s ever-incompetent news anchor Ted Baxter. “That’s not the way Lou would have handled it,” chides Ted. Murray eggs on the disagreement, stating, “Mary, Ted wants you to handle it how Lou would.” Mary then pointedly asks the anchor, “Ted, how would you like me to punch your face out?”
In the seventh season episode, “Mary The Writer,” Mary wants to submit an article about her grandfather to a national magazine. She pleads with a reluctant Lou to read the piece and give her his honest feedback on it. Lou, meanwhile, has an ulterior motive for agreeing — he wants Mary to shop for his baby gift for new parents Ted and Georgette. Lou hates the piece but Mary defends her work. “Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean it stinks,” she tells him. “You’re not like most people, Mr. Grant. It doesn’t mean you’re right. It doesn’t mean I’m right. It does mean, however, you can do your own damn baby shopping.” With that, Mary exits Lou’s office.
Later in the show’s final season in the “Sue Ann Gets The Ax” episode, “The Happy Homemaker” gets cancelled and Sue Ann has to complete the terms of her contract, taking on increasingly demeaning jobs at WJM, including voiceovers (“Don’t miss ‘My Mother The Car’ tonight. The fun begins when mother gets a lube job!”).
Sue Ann pleads with Lou to hire her for the news department and he side-steps the issue, tossing the responsibility to Mary.
As Lou attempts to retreat back into his office, Mary orders, “Just hold it, buster.”
An incredulous Ted asks, “Was that Mary?”
“You can’t use me like this, Mr. Grant,” she tells her boss. “You gave me a responsibility and I took it. It wasn’t easy for me but I made the decision and I am not going to hire Sue Ann just because everyone feels sorry for her.”
Horrified, Ted says, “Mary, what are you doing? We don’t stand up to Lou!”
When the end comes for the WJM news staff later in 1977 on the series’ final episode, even though viewers don’t know the fired Mary Richards’ fate after that final group hug with a tissue box, we know beyond a doubt she’s going to be just fine. After all, even the show’s iconic theme song’s lyrics were re-written from “How will you make it on your own?” to “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” after the first season.
After watching all 168 episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I experienced a bit of withdrawal. Consequently, I’m now spending my lunch hour in another iconic TV newsroom I’ve inexplicably never visited before — the Los Angeles Tribune. Turns out, in the fall of 1977, in the aftermath of Watergate and the popularity of “All The President’s Men,” James L. Brooks and Allan Burns made Lou Grant the city editor there.
In the new series, Mary Richards’ old boss has one — the Trib’s powerful publisher Margaret Jones Pynchon (Nancy Marchand), inspired by her real-life counterparts, the Los Angeles Times’ Dorothy Chandler and the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham.
But my favorite character is a smart rising young reporter named Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey). In the series’ first handful of episodes, she’s already solved the mystery of a slain gay playwright, discovered a local Nazi is hiding his Jewish heritage and dodged bullets while reporting on an uptick in gang activity.
And best of all? She calls her boss Lou.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.
November 2, 2021 @ 2:28 am
This is a wonderful article, Richard. Unlike you, I watched all the episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in first run when I was a teenager, and “Lou Grant” the first year I was a working reporter. But reading your fresh take on them really took me back, and I am grateful for your keen observations. I’m glad fate somehow has brought you to these shows and that you shared your thoughts with us.
Except… except… how could you make it through such an article without mentioning the death of Chuckles the Clown?