Classic TV Reviews: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season One, Episode Two: “Today I am a Ma’am”

30 May

When we’d last left our heroine, Mary Richard’s world was in flux – she was at a new job, with a new apartment, in a new city with an entire cast full of people who seemed, maybe, just maybe to be warming to her. In a lot of ways, the pilot episode of Mary Tyler Moore was the start of a great serialized sitcom – one where over the course of a season or maybe even a sequence of episodes our protagonist would begin to make friends and get ahead in her business life, slowly but surely through a series of comic hijinks.

I think surely, if this show was being made today, that is the direction the show would have moved in. You had everything in place – Rhoda and Lou Grant were both set up as both liking but having reasons to  be wary of Mary. Lou tells her he might just fire her and while we’re meant to take it as a bit of bluster (especially by the end of the episode where he wanders in, drunk and writing a letter to his wife, though that presents a whole different realm of trouble) but he is also seen as ornery and perhaps a bit of a tough nut to crack.

Rhoda, though, especially is left in a place of competition with Mary. They do end the episode chatting and there is a last minute, out of nowhere revelation that Rhoda has an apartment upstairs (undercutting one of the stories at the heart of the busy pilot, that Rhoda wants Mary’s apartment) but there is legitimate dramatic and comic potential that exists to showing and establishing further the roots of a friendship that would be one of the core relationships of the show.

That we get none of these things in the second episode is indicative of where  things stood in 1970 for a new sitcom, no matter it’s ambitions –  it’s well acknowledged that the pilot, at the time it aired and more specifically when it tested with audiences, didn’t go over well. It seems like that audiences probably wanted the cast to just straight away like the likeable Mary and given what television had given them to go by to that date it’s a reasonable (if perhaps flawed) expectation.

So, instead we’re given an episode where it’s established early that Mary is just part of the mix at her job, where the ratings are down, slightly in a scene that starts the episode, gives a quick start to our story, as Lou explains to Mary she’s no longer in the 18-29 demographic and thus no longer young (followed up quickly by a young page calling her ‘ma’am’, which she admits soon thereafter is a first and mortifying) and then is never seen again, as the episode instead focuses on Mary and Rhoda.

Mary and Rhoda are, at the time of this episode, already best friends, in such a way that suggests that maybe the series took a jump in time from the first episode to the second. Or perhaps they just wanted to get to the heart of the show they wanted to make. Or perhaps they succumbed to pressure to make things more ‘likeable’. Nevertheless, not only are they now the best of friends but Mary, who is making a new home as the series begins seems to have a long history in her new home, even in this, our second episode.

This is not to say this is a bad episode. Standing on it’s own, as simply an episode of the show, it’s quite entertaining at times (though a bit hammy as well) and is a small scale establishment of something that would go on to be one of the principle running gags of the show – the disaster that happens any time Mary Richards attempts to throw a party. But it’s incongruous as a second episode and it’s hard not give it some thought.

Our general plot is that Mary, after suffering the embarrassment of being called out on here age at work, grouses about it to Rhoda who suggests they try and find dates, given they aren’t getting any younger. There would be something oddly sexist about the need to sate oneself through a man if not for the fact that it’s driven by Rhoda, who is being established at this point as chronically insecure. And who seems to have an ulterior motive, it seems, not too long after.

Rhoda, as well as Phyllis, with Cloris Leachmen appearing at this point to be a series regular (though she only appears, past this and and the next episode sporadically throughout the season, always billed as a ‘special guest star) try to get Mary to think of someone she might be interested. She comes up with an old flame, Howard Arnell, who Phyllis confirms was crazy about her. Mary tells us he was always quite nice.

Rhoda tells her she ought to give him a call – there is something interestingly striking about the landscape of the 1970s as opposed to now – it’s not to say it’s hard in this day and age to lose touch of someone but there is a definite anachronism about the way the whole thing plays out, with Mary breaking out a phone book and cold calling a man she’d not heard of or from for years and one who would prove to be very interested in her. This all makes sense – even up until the mid to late-90s this is how the world worked but watching it, in 2012, it was hard not to queue up the fact that our lives, at this point, are so interconnected and that there are few 30somethings out there who would lose touch in this way. It’s not a major point and it’s hardly a gripe but, to me, it stands in an odd contrast and actually, on some level, gives us a feel for the world and the era.

Anyhow Mary is unsure it’s for the best to meet Howard but Rhoda and Phyllis both push her with Rhoda doing so because she has someone she wants to give a call to herself. It seems she met a man recently… by running him over with her car. And he gave her his number, after-all he only banged up his arm (though his briefcase was ‘totalled’) she tells us, though one imagines he did it for insurance reasons. When Mary refuses to relent she’s told by Phyllis that it’s OK, she could instead help out with Bess’ (her daughter) sleepover tonight – 19 of her best friends! And 20 air-mattresses to blow up. Mary quickly decides to relent to Rhoda and give him a call. And realizes that Howard is nice. Too nice. The kind of nice that has been counting down the days since they last met. Mary is increasingly unsure this is a good idea.

Rhoda, for her part, gets some bad news as well. When she calls her would be beau, Armond Linner, she learns that he’d be glad to come over. And that he’ll bring his wife along too, if that’s OK. And thus the scene is set for an awkward evening at the Richard’s residence.

As Mary and Rhoda prepare for the ‘party’, Rhoda starts scheming to steal Armond away and when asked if maybe he has a happy marriage, Mary is accused of being a buzzkill. Part of Rhoda’s strategy is to not eat, hoping to lose ‘ten pounds by 8:30’. She’s unsure of her outfit and wonders aloud if maybe she should ‘call her date and ask what his wife’s wearing’. There is comedy to mined her and to this point they’re doing well with it without going too terribly over the top. I’m not sure that continues, however.

Armond, and his beautiful wife Nancy arrive and Rhoda promptly loses all previously held belief this is going to go well. She had said no to the chips on the table when offered, citing her diet and upon having Armond enthusiastically introduce ‘Mrs. Linton’, what he still loves to call her, he say, just weeks after their honeymoon, Rhoda breaks and slovenly inhales chips. It’s a cute moment but I think about the moment the show starts to go off the rails.

Howard arrives next, as he opens the door he takes a shot of Mary with a camera he has around his neck – because he wanted to record her reaction. And he’s over the top affectionate, as established earlier. Richard Schaal plays this all in a manic Steve Martin sort of way that makes him all too much a cartoon, for my tastes and takes things down a notch.

Howard’s obliviousness to everyone else, Rhoda can barely muster his attention to introduce herself as ‘another person in the room’ and introduce ‘my date – Mr. and Mrs. Armond Linton’ and fierce devotion to gaining Mary’s attention and affection are perhaps more annoying than they are amusing.

There is some false drama introduced in the form of the guests expecting dinner when only offered drinks. It’s quickly defused. The drama of how to get rid of Howard is blown off quickly as well – it turns out, as much as he’d love to marry Mary (a suggestion he brings up himself, out of the blue, of course) he needs his freedom and thus ought to really, as much as he’s torn, get going and maybe he’ll see Mary some other time. It’s convenient and odd in a way that makes the character only more annoying.

In the end, it’s decided, by Rhoda, that the moral of the story is that she’s no matter how lonely she’ll only accept a date ‘with a couple I really like’.

I am probably giving this episode a raw deal, there is a number of funny lines and Mary and Rhoda both get some fun moments and the concept of Rhoda’s plot is really fun and funny. But overall there remains not much to this past some funny lines and an arbitrary, silly plot. With all the will in the world I can’t say that it wouldn’t have been a lot more fun to continue the plot from the pilot and get a little more detail into how and why Mary and Rhoda become such good friends. But perhaps that’s asking too much.

Grade: B-

Give it a watch – it is, despite my protests, pretty funny –

Hulu – Today I am a Ma’am

Next time:  in a case of perhaps accidental serialization, Mary does end up watching Phyliss’ daughter Bess and, wouldn’t you know it, troubles arise from there…

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