The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Part 2)

Favorite episodes and character changes.

It is not unusual for television series to evolve over a long run. Frequently this happens with cast changes, insisted tinkering by networks, and characters that grow or actors that redefine their characters.

As I mentioned in Part 1, this evolution happened with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Seven seasons is a long time. Of the 168 episodes, I have picked a dozen very enjoyable ones and why they stand out.

“The Show Must Go On” season 1, episode 8. As associate news producer, Mary gets the responsibility of election night coverage. A blizzard knocks out the reporting of election results. The crew wants to call the election and go home, but Mary stands firm and won’t do it, much to the frustration of the crew. When Chuckles the Clown arrives in the morning for his show, he goes on the air (in character) to deliver the results. This was Mary’s first real test of authority. She had two strikes against her: being a woman, and not being very assertive. The show very effectively blended social issues into a sitcom.

“Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid” season 1, episode 14. Mary volunteers to work Christmas Eve, so hat a fellow employee, who usually works that shift, can spend it with his family. Since she has to work Christmas Day anyway, her plans to visit her parents have already been cancelled. It is lonely and scary on Christmas Eve and she hears noises in the deserted building. To her relief it is Lou, Murray and Ted to cheer her up.

“The Boss Isn’t Coming to Dinner” season 1, episode 31. Lou and his wife have separated. Empty nesters, Lou and Edie have discovered their lives are out of sync. Lou deflects Mary’s dinner offers and finally discovers the reason why. She wants to attend college and he wants things to be like they used to be. They reconcile, but they will not stay together.

“The Square Shaped Room” season 2, episode 13. Lou is now a bachelor and he wanted to change how his living room looks. Mary recommends Rhoda for the job. Her idea and Lou’s ideas are totally opposite. Lou hates the new decor and furniture but pretends this he loves it. He tells Mary that he hates it and for her to make it right, since it as Mary’s idea in the first place.

“The Slaughter Affair” season 2, episode 17. This episode is about Murray, who is driving a cab at night to earn extra money to buy his wife a special anniversary present. Unfortunately, the lack of sleep is causing Murray to make very visible mistakes writing the news. This is a rare instance of Lou getting angry at Murray instead of Ted. The episode shows Murray’s vulnerability, and gives Ted a brief moment of righteousness.

“Farmer Ted and the News” season 3, episode 9. Ted signs a new contact which contains a clause that allows him to earn outside money. Lou believes he got the best of the deal by not giving in to Ted’s financial demands. It turns out that Ted’s agent has lined up several commercials for Ted to earn extra money. These are not very dignified ads, and it upsets Lou, who demands that Ted cease the commercials. Ted refuses, so Lou resorts to threatening him, and giving him a bump in salary, which pisses off an already jealous Murray who keeps ripping the pockets from Ted’s blazers. This episode gave me belly laughs.

“I Was a Single for WJM” season 4, episode 24. The news team wants to do a story on singles bars, the new way available people meet. They scout a location, write a script and plan to do a live remote. What could go wrong? The cameras scare everyone off, except for Lou, Murray and Mary, who are left with an empty bar as Ted reads the script from the studio that now does not match the empty bar.

“Not a Christmas Story” season 5, episode 9. Snowed in, the gang must enjoy a Christmas dinner on the set of Sue Ann’s cooking show, where she insists they wear fun hats and enjoy the season. They are all miserable despite Sue Ann’s efforts. Sue Ann was featured in numerous episodes, trading insults with Murray, being catty with Mary and fawning over Lou. This episode is on Sue Ann’s home turf, so you see a bit more into her world.

“Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcasters School” season 5, number 23. Ted invests money to form a school for up and coming broadcasters. He learns that his money is gone and so are the people who are supposed to provide the classes. Ted is backed into a corner after students demand that he provide what they paid for. Lou, Mary and Murray are roped into helping save Ted’s reputation.

“Edie Gets Married” season 6, episode 1. Lou gets a wedding invitation, from his family ex-wife. She has moved on, yet Lou has no one in his life at the time. It’s hard for Lou to see Edie marry someone else, but he rises to the occasion and makes Mary proud.

“Once I had a Secret Love” season 6, episode 18. After several years of Sue Ann hitting on Lou, a drunken Lou spends the night with her. Lou, instantly regrets it, but she is over the moon. Lou confides in Mary who promises she will not tell anyone, but Murray weasels it out of her and Lou finds out. An angry Lou declares his friendship with Mary is over, and Mary has to fight to get it back.

“Ted’s Change of Heart” season 7, episode 5. After Ted suffers a heart attack on the air, he suddenly begins to appreciate life like never before. He drives everyone crazy until they begin to see his point and stop to enjoy the sunset, just as Ted reverts back to his old self.

Over the course of seven seasons, Lou probably changed the most, followed by Ted. Murray changed the least, with Mary somewhere in the middle.

Lou was a bit one-dimensional in the beginning. Hard-nosed, loud, insensitive, opinionated and kind of a bully. But lovable. Mary was able to find the softness inside of him. The decade of the 1970s challenged Lou. Women were not only in the newsroom, they were competing with men for the same jobs, and were demanding equitable pay, and respect. Two main things changed Lou. His divorce and Mary. The breakup on his marriage blindsided him, but was representative of what was happening in America. Lou had to figure out how to live alone and navigate the dating scene. He did not like feeling vulnerable or sad. Mary could talk to Lou like no one else and he listened. She pushed her way into areas that made him uncomfortable and sometimes paid the price. He also respected the work she did.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, 1970-1977

In the beginning, Ted Baxter was a loud, self-absorbed jerk. He was also very naive and overplayed by Ted Knight. Baxter was written so broadly that he was unrealistic and almost cartoonish. Thankfully, Knight found a balance and gave Baxter some heart to go with the arrogance. Baxter had to contend with an ultra-arrogant brother, a father he never really knew, a mother that remarried and finally a woman who saw the finer things in him and found a way to become part of his life. In later seasons, Baxter was less self-absorbed and a bit more humble.

Murray was always the rock of the newsroom, he was steady, always with his dry sense of humor, and his praise for Mary. In one episode he thought he had fallen in love with Mary; he did love her, just not that way. Murray got the fewest number of episodes written with him as the center, but he was always commenting on whatever was going on and wisecracking with either Ted or Sue Ann. Murray represented people who worked hard at their jobs and only wanted a bit of recognition and praise along the way.

I haven’t really said much about Sue Ann, who was brought in as Rhoda and Phyllis departed for their own shows. Betty White might have had the most fun on the series. She played against type as the ribald, saucy, aggressive, Happy Homemaker. Occasionally, she was humbled, but always managed to rebound with out smudging her mascara.

Mary Richards was 30 when the show begin, still young and hip, who was not quite as naïve as she sometimes played. She only came close to a serious relationship in the last season. Until then, she had dated a variety of men, rarely the same ones, and Mary did not seem to have overnight guests. Mary’s hairstyle and fashion became more conservative and stylish to a woman pushing 40. She moved out of the rooming house, which resembled a college girl’s first apartment, into a modern high-rise apartment building. For Mary to be single at age 37 was pushing it. I felt that as driven as Mary was, she could have found a way to have both a family and career.

Mary Tyler Moore decided to end the show while it was still drawing respectable ratings. Like The Dick Van Dyke Show, she did not want to grow stale creatively or run the risk of cancellation.

It was sad to see the show end. The show was never played for cheap laughs, and it is easy to remember episodes and even lines voiced by characters. It was a classy show.

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