There are two, very distinct ideas that came to my mind as I watched this, the third episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show – the obvious one, full of plot twists and turns and which is done well enough and with enough verve for it to work well but there is also another show, a show of incidental comedy moments and the further establishment of what would become the main cast of the show, seemingly shunted to the side for the majority of the episode but still managing, often to start stealing the show.
The main plot is, as I said, fairly twisty – Phyllis, as played by Cloris Leachman – who’d later be spun off into her own show but who was oddly always billed as a ‘special guest’, is concerned her daughter Bess (who figured prominently in the pilot and who, as played by Lisa Gerritsen, is pretty good there and in a more prominent role here and who would also join Phyllis, logically enough in her spin-off) will get sick when her father catches chicken pox – she pawns her off on Mary for a few days. Mary isn’t sure about it and Phyllis doesn’t make this any better by telling her she has to take care of her inline with the ‘progressive parenting’ techniques in the books she raises her child with.
Predictably enough Phyllis, it’s revealed, isn’t exactly doing the best job of things, especially when it comes to keeping Bess in line. We’re first introduced to Bess in the episode with her decked out in a wig and make-up stolen from Phyllis, a regular occurrence, it seems. And when Mary tries to suggest that perhaps the make-up doesn’t look particularly good and that it’s perhaps a bit unusual for Bess to refer to her mother by her first name she locks herself in the bathroom and again Phyllis notes it’s something that happens a lot though she notes it’s really because Mary isn’t using the books.
It’s interesting how this is all played. It’s a clear attempt to criticize a certain sort of liberal child rearing technique. Phyllis is often used in the show in their criticisms of certain effete notions, which she summarily plays wildly over the top, which is certainly true here. Phyllis does everything according to the books and their notions of independence and freedom and has no discipline in place. What is sort of odd is that the counterpoint isn’t really Mary as disciplinarian, getting the better of Phyllis – it’s Mary as a source of fun and whimsy that Bess is missing.
Mary herself, after winning Bess over in a sequence that is among the best known in first season – a montage of shopping and ice cream that, like the opening title sequence has a certain iconic flair but seems oddly out of place, to me, in the character’s universe. But whatever one might think of it, it establishes, quickly, a bond between Mary and Bess, which starts imploding for same reasons that Phyllis was so ineffective – a lack of any real discipline.
Once Mary and Bess are attached Bess doesn’t want to leave and go back to Phyllis, which creates the crux of the dilemma of the episode. This is one of the several episodes this season where I would have been glad to see an idea get a few episodes to build but that is just not the way that this show, or shows of it’s type and time in most cases, operated in these days. So, we get in a half hour episode – Mary doesn’t know if Bess likes her, she wins her over, Bess doesn’t want to leave, Phyllis is mad at Mary, Mary wants Bess to go back and Bess ends up going back. It’s a lot of story and at times it slightly overwhelms. That said – it works.
The B plot mostly seems to be that Ted Baxter is bad at his job and screws things up. Given that’s the premise of the character, well, that’s not much of a plot. That said – the newsroom characters are all very amusing in their roles. The jokes go fast and free and are often pretty funny. Given this is only the third episode they can be forgiven for basically re-stating the role of one of main supporting characters and especially can be forgiven since it’s funny.
And that’s the second thing going on in this episode – we’re just seeing the cast play, seemingly shallow plots that are just there to provide a springboard to small comedy moments, some of which are barely even in any real context, such as Rhoda attempting to get into the Lotus Position, getting stuck and spending perhaps a minute and a half of engaging in the lovely physical comedy by Valerie Harper – who plays what could have been a oddly digressive scene so well that it’s actually one of the highlights of the episode.
And while the Bess plot is interesting and well done and has nice moments from Mary, Bess and Phyllis, I do think it’s the somewhat aimless B-plots that are the funniest bits. And that’s OK, actually – Phyllis and Bess are supporting players worthy of an occasional main plot like this but the honing of the other characters – Rhoda, Ted, Lou – here is actually more important to the show and the fact that they’re so good in small roles, filling in the spaces between the main plot, bodes well for the series moving forward from here. And those characters all, certainly have their big spotlights yet to come.
This is possibly the funniest episode of the season thus far but the pilot was likely a better episode. Still quite good, however.
The Onion AV Club recently posted an article speaking of a season five episode as part of an ongoing series on adolescents on television through the years and this stands as another Mary episode that strongly features an adolescent even if it’s a bit more about parenting than it is about being a kid.
Speaking of the kid, though, Lisa Gerritson, given a spotlight here lives up to it about as well as you can expect a young actress to- she gives a good performance and never seems out of place.