Tag Archives: TV History

Classic TV Review: Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season One, Episode Three: ‘Bess, You is My Daughter Now’

24 Jun

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.

Bess, You is My Child Now

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.

The montage:

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.

Grade: B+

Quick thoughts:

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.

http://www.hulu.com/watch/668

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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…

Introducing: Retro TV Reviews featuring The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and explanation of why)

21 May

It’s a wonder to me, as an appreciator of good television and good sitcoms especially, that The Mary Tyler Moore Show is not better remembered. Sure, it turns up in lists of great television shows here and there but you hardly ever hear of it otherwise. It’s a shame not only because it’s a classic of the highest order when it comes to sitcoms but because, like many an old film it stands up as being tremendously good.

There seems to be a divide in the world of movies and television when it comes to appreciation of the classics. It’s seen as a shame if someone hasn’t seen a classic 70s film like ‘The Godfather’, ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Annie Hall’, especially if that person is a serious film fan. But old television is seen, oftentimes, as disposable. There is an audience for it, in re-runs, for a certain amount of time and there exists such things as ‘TV Land’ but it isn’t viewed as something that people with good taste gravitate toward.

Reasons exist for this, of course. Television is seen as a medium that exists to sell advertisements. And what is popular in television is often not very good. Not to mention that some of the finest television produced, when it disappoints the bottom line and doesn’t draw ratings can tend to be cancelled despite being at it’s creative peak. The cream doesn’t always rise to the top in television and while that’s true for  movies, as well, and all of pop culture, it can be more pronounced in television, especially broadcast television.

This is reason to celebrate those shows that maintan a level of high quality and manage to connect with a large audience. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of those shows. And yet it feels as though it’s been largely forgotten. For a show that lasted seven season, spawned three spin-offs and won and was nominated for more Emmys in it’s seven seasons than all but one other show in the history of television, this seems quite odd. And yet it’s consistent with how television, especially what is seen as old television, is treated.

I would argue that the shows contemporaries, most notably ‘All in the Family’, seem to have faired slightly better in the memories of the general public, but not by much. Old television is put out to pasture in a way that old movies never are. Even something like the aforementioned TV Land, that is supposed to celebrate the best of old television, is more interested in promoting things like Everyone Loves Raymond or The King of Queens and, it seems, see it’s older shows as more filler than filet mignon. This may have to do with the fact that there are more Film Aficionados out there than anyone who much care about the history and quality of television, especially when it comes to the sitcom, a form that is disrespected not only by audiences but by, in many cases, creators as well.

In this day and age, however, television and the criticism of it have become something that has an audience on the internet. Websites such as The Onion’s AV Club and web personalities such as Alan Sepinwall take television seriously and review it on an ongoing basis. There are flaws with this, of course, as many programs have a level of serialization that makes week to week reviews a hassle but the rise of shows ranging from Community to Mad Men have the presence of the web to make these reviews things that people (such as myself) will read and enjoy and debate. And while the AV Club’s TV Club does have a selection of ‘classics’ it reviews, as of yet there is many a fine series that has not gotten such treatment – ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ being a prime example.

Until recently, I’d not even seen the program, I’m willing to admit. It’s been a few months now since I really gave myself up to the fact that I very much enjoy sitcoms. On some level it was something that I felt a certain level of shame about. The sitcom is not the most revered of forms – it’s often viewed as a hacky, laugh tracked bad joke. At a certain point, however, I had to admit that the vast majority of what I liked on television existed in the medium of the sitcom or at least something resembling it – modern shows as distinct and interesting as ‘Parks and Recreation’, ‘Louie’, ’30 Rock’, ‘Happy Endings’ and a myriad of others are among the best things going on television today and the classic early seasons of ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘Seinfeld’ to even such things as ‘Friends’ exist as being as beloved as most any movie. I’m a sitcom fan and as one, I have recently felt a need to give myself a history lesson and one of the places I started was getting the first season of Mary Tyler Moore from Netflix where I was pleasantly surprised. So much so that I decided it needed to be shared…

It’s with these things in mind, I welcome you to an ongoing series of reviews of the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which will start soon with the pilot episode: ‘Love is All Around’. I’ll have further thoughts on the series and why I think it’s important and even, in fact relevant to today’s culture in that review, which I’ll be posting in the next few days.