There are a myriad of shows in the annals of television history which have debuted with an episode not befitting the eventual stature and quality of the show it introduced to the world, however, ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ is not one. Sitcom pilots present creators with several problems, chief among them being that a pilot exists for two conflicting reasons: to prove the worthiness of the shows existence and to also, simultaneously explain the situation driving the comedy. To do so, most, if not all series have to succumb to loading their show with expository dialogue and scenes that weigh down and confuse the more comedic elements of the plot.
That said, if anything, ‘Love is All Around’ the first episode of the series, is one of the best episodes of the first season and a superb example of a sitcom pilot done right. Written by series creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, it manages to get across the necessary information to introduce the characters, their world and situation while letting those introductions drive the action of the show.
At the time the show debuted, in 1970, Mary Tyler Moore was not at the height of her fame. Having ended a long run on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ she starred in a few features in a four film deal with Universal Pictures, notably a particularly poor Elvis vehicle ‘Change of Habit’ and had starred, in a failed attempt to bring “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to Broadway which never made it past previews. However, after a star turn on a Dick Van Dyke television variety special ‘Dick Van Dyke and The Other Woman’ she was suddenly again a hot enough commodity that CBS was interested in giving her her own show.
At the time Mary was married to Grant Tinker, who with her co-founded MTM Studios to produce the show. The original pitch for the show, by Brooks and Burns was for Mary to be a divorced woman in her early thirties adjusting to being single again- that was shot down by the network, who were afraid, given her stint on the Van Dyke show where she was his wife that audiences would think that the premise involved her not just getting a divorce (a fairly scandalous thing in and of itself at the time) but a divorce from Van Dyke. Instead a compromise was made to make Mary a single, never married woman who was coming out of a break-up of a long term relationship.
We’re first introduced to Mary Richards, Mary’s eponymous character, via the classic opening credits, set to the song that gives this episode it’s name: ‘Love is All Around’ by Sonny Curtis. In the first season these credits also tell a short origin story for the Mary character – they show a going-away party and Mary driving toward Minneapolis, the setting of the show and finally Mary emerging iconically to the streets of the city where, at the end of the credits, as the song hits the cue to say she will, in fact, make it after all, Mary launches her hat in the air.
If there was anything I knew of the Mary Tyler Moore Show previous to my actually engaging it recently, it would be this sequence, one that, previously had seemed a bit precious and which, even with the best of will still seems to be, just a bit. That said, it works better in context than it does in isolation and I feel I’m solidly in the minority – a statue commemorating the scene stands in the place it was shot to this day. Either way the opening credits do some of the work for the show in establishing who this character is and yet creating some mystery as to her circumstances.
Once they end we’re given an opening shot of another iconic location, Mary Richard’s apartment, which she is welcomed into by frequent guest-star Cloris Leachman playing the role of Phyllis which would go on to star in one of the three spin-offs the show (and MTM Pictures) produced- ‘Phyllis’. Phyllis and her daughter Bess show Mary her new apartment and we establish for the first time the concept that Mary is, largely, playing straight woman to the larger character surrounding her, as Phyllis and Bess bicker about whether or not Mary ought to be referred to as her aunt and then whether Mary ought to have the apartment when Bess would prefer it go to Rhoda (who she gladly refers to as ‘Aunt Rhoda’, to Phyllis’ dismay). Mary is mostly an on-looker in the proceedings, her personal laughs mostly coming from Moore’s exaggerated facial reactions (which rival just about anyone’s, I think it’s fair to say).
Rhoda Morgenstern, as played by Valerie Harper is introduced when the large picture window’s in the foreground of the scene’s blinds are open to show her washing the windows of what she goes on to refer to as “her apartment”. Rhoda, in the pilot episode acts as an antagonist to Mary here and tries to convince her that she, in fact, deserves to have the apartment. It’s a matter of debate throughout the episode and as a running joke Rhoda’s attempts to obtain (retain?) the apartment works very well to introduce the character, who, to my mind is probably the series best supporting character (and, again, one of the three characters to be given a spin-off – ‘Rhoda’ which initially was as or more successful than it’s mother series and remains the only television series to ever debut as the top rated show of it’s week in it’s premiere)
Rhoda and Phyllis plainly do not get along which is a dynamic that would stay in play as long as the two remained on the series but none the less they act as exposition machines to tell the story of Mary Richards to this point. The thing being – the scene is so well played and the exposition done in an almost meta-storytelling way, with Mary begging off having her story be told to near stranger Rhoda, that it actually works quite well.
The story, as it is, is that Mary had been dating a medical student for two years, supporting him, under the promise that he’d marry her once he became a doctor, at which point he told her ‘why rush into things’ which spurred Mary to break things off with him and decide to make the new life we’re being introduced to now.
The scene with Rhoda ends with the pair’s first particularly funny back and forth as Mary works herself into a bluster asking if she thinks she’s a push-over, when Rhoda tells her she is she tells her she might just push back and Rhoda tells her ‘C’mon, you know you can’t carry that off’ and Mary… breaks and says ‘I know’ – it’s a telling moment and does a lot to cement the relationship between the two characters.
Another thing it does is establish Mary as having something of a duality of character – on one hand she is a strong, career oriented and successful 30 year old woman ‘making it on her own’ but she also has a core that is maybe a bit less tough than she’d wish to let on. There is something to be said for that being an anti-feminist statement, that for all her bluster Mary ‘can’t carry off’ being a truly strong woman but I’d rather disagree – Mary is certainly a product of her time but her greatest failings often come from not wanting to be mean, rather than a place of weakness, as seen in the scene described, where she tries to stand up to Rhoda and fails not because she couldn’t show strength but because it’d mean coming off as a bad guy, which is, consistently, shown as a role that Mary is ill at ease with.
The second scene introduces us to both the second iconic set of the series, the WJM-TV newsroom and our final major character, Lou Grant, who yet again, would in end up with his own spin-off series, in his case ‘Lou Grant’, a series which is perhaps more impressive for being a dramatic spin-off for a sitcom character, which may be the first and only one of it’s kind and is certainly the only character for which an actor, Ed Asner, would win an Emmy for both his comedic and dramatic portrayals.
Mary and Lou’s first scene together is a job interview. After we’re briefly introduced to Gavin McCloud’s Murray Slaughter (another series regular, the only one to never be nominated for an Emmy) as Mary asks where she can find Mr. Grant, who she’s scheduled to have an interview with for a secretarial position, only for Mr. Grant himself to tell her, never identifying himself to come to his office, dismissing Murray’s insistence that the position has been filled.
Once in his office and having revealed himself Lou and Mary have the best scene of the episode together. It starts with Lou offering Mary a drink and after she initially demurs she instead says to Lou, brandishing a lone bottle of hard liquor that she would take a Brandy Alexander and is offered, instead a coffee.
During the course of their extremely chemistry filled scene together we see Mary assert a backbone, telling Lou that she shouldn’t be asked her religion in a job interview and the subtext of the scene works well to create Lou as both a likeable figure and one that is slightly intimidating to Mary. She ends up being offered the job of, rather than secretary (Murray is right – the position is filled) Assistant Producer. Mary is instantly impressed but is told that the job pays a fair amount less than a secretarial one would (and that for 15 dollars less she can be a full producer, which she shoots down by saying she can probably only afford Assistant Producer).
The scene works on several levels and is the germ of much of what works about the show as a whole. Much of the scene is given to a running joke of Lou asking a question, Mary demuring or refusing to answer, only to confusingly provide the previous answer when given an even tougher question (example: ‘What is your religion’ ‘You’re not allowed to ask me that’ ‘Why aren’t you married’ ‘Presbyterian’) which builds to a lovely climax. And upon recieving the job she’s told, in one of the series (again) iconic moments, that she has spunk… and that Lou Grant HATES spunk. She’s told she will be given a trial at the job and that if he doesn’t like her and she doesn’t like him, he’ll fire her.
Much like the scenes with Rhoda this sets up a dynamic that seems promising for the future and in fact would have, one imagines, set up in modern sitcom storytelling, a rather interesting ongoing storyline about the attempts to assert herself worthy of the job. But such concerns I’ll cover in more depth in my next review.
Mary, then, comes home and excited about her new job tries to inform Phyllis, more concerned with telling her some big news. Phyllis’ fun is spoiled by Bess, however, who spills the beans – Mary’s ex- called and he wants to get back together. Phyllis is then more interested in chastisizing Bess for stealing her moment than comforting a very shocked Mary but eventually offers than she knows how she feels, to which Mary responds that she doesn’t even know how she feels. For a pilot episode it certain offers a pretty weighty hook, right off the back and one has to wonder if it went to this well so early to ease the fear by the network that we’d think her ex-lover was Van Dyke.
Never the less, we’re off to Mary’s first day at the newsroom, where she meets lead anchor Ted Baxter (who, again, in disagreeing with general wisdom, I do tend to see as being a bit overly broad and less funny for it) and tries to find something to do, finally contenting herself with breaking the tip off her newly sharpened pencils and sharpening them anew. It’s established as well that Lou’s wife is out of town and he refuses to take her call, saying he’ll talk to her when she gets back – in a month.
We’re then given one more scene with Rhoda – she has a locksmith open the door (who then, in an odd, broad and amusing moment, takes a moment to ‘memorize her face’, in case any wrongdoing has occured and exits) and re-asserts her want for the apartment and gives a bit of her own backstory – she was a New Yorker (of which, Valerie Harper’s performance gave no doubt, playing the character as a boisterous New York Jew in a way that makes it all the more odd that the characters latent Judaism is swept under the rug in her spin-off) but couldn’t find a New York apartment and having found this one in Minneapolis isn’t about to leave it. In spite of their grousing Mary concedes after some banter that she’s having a hard time disliking Rhoda, who agrees and says they’ll have to work on it. (Another element that could have well spawned longer stories, another element I’ll serialize into my next review, even if they refuse to serialize it into the episode in question)
Finally, we have our climactic scene, as Phyllis prepares Mary for her ex- Bob to arrive and tells her, in a lovely subversive moment about the joys of marriage and it’s wonders, as long as you’re ‘realistic’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘accomidate’ and finally in a lovely played moment by Leachman, who by this time is harshly squeezing Mary’s hand ‘sublimate’.
Once Phyllis makes her exit Mary prepares with one of the lovelier and dynamic throwaway sequences of the episode, unbuttoning her shirt to show a little cleavage, before rebuttoning it and declaring herself a coward. The door rings and she finds, not Bob but Lou, completely drunk. Mary puts together that he’s there to proposition her and that that’s why she got her job and is informed that she does indeed have ‘a nice caboose’ but that in fact he’s there because he misses his wife, who has the finest caboose of all.
He asks Mary to use her typewritter and she attempts to get him to leave but fails and he begins writing. The running gag of the scene is that he drunkenly finds the words to say in whatever Mary happens to say. He remains there as Bob rings the doorbell and enters, with rose in tow.
The roses, however, turn out to be stolen (or, at least traded) from a patient of his and the empty gesture only gets him so far. She mentions the Grant’s marriage in reference to being asked about Lou’s presence (she gets him out of there hair soon enough by saying ‘All My Love, Lou’ which he dutifully repeats and types and then leaves ‘to go tie one on’) and he gets very defensive about the subject. Once it’s clear he has no intention of proposing, as she’s supposed he might, he offers her a conciliatory offer of his love which she’s right to catch as being rather insincere. Then in a sequence that could be trite but shows the lovely chops of Brooks (who’d go on to be quite the big name in sentimental comedy, from ‘Terms of Endearment’ to ‘As Good as It Gets’ but also is given credit for several of the best dramatic moments of ‘The Simpsons’ which he also helped create – a personal favorite being the climax of ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ where the titular character exits and leaves behind for Lisa a note, asserting simply ‘You are Lisa Simpson’) he chalks it up to her being better at saying things and she tells him she’s simply terrible at saying goodbye and when he realizes he’s been dismissed he tells her to take care of herself and she responds that she just did.
It’s a lovely moment that sets the tone of Mary’s character, who has been shown till now as having perhaps a deficit of backbone, instead being able to come through when it counts and muster the strength to make a big move and not, in fact, be pushed around. The scene works big, in showing Mary’s character and also in spotlightling that Lou might have more heart than we gave him credit for – the fakeout where we think he might be hitting on her is another big highlight of the episode. It’s a big profound and well played scene to end a terrific episode of television on – showing the heart, the humor and the independent spirit that was the heart of the show.
There are few television pilots that truly spell out to the viewer just what they’re in for with the series better than ‘Love is All Around’. It’s a delight and I heartily recommend giving it a watch – it’s available to be watched instantly on Hulu and I’ve provided a link at the bottom of the page.
Love is All Around on Hulu
Next time we’ll be dealing with Rhoda and Mary, serialization or lack-there-of, the shows portrayal of Mary’s dating life and the series second episode: ‘Today I am a Ma’am’. Hope to see you then…