Scenes from the Mary Tyler Moore show.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77)

by Ken Sanes

From 1974 to 1977, America had the rare treat of having first-run episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Rhoda on television at the same time. All three were produced by Mary Tyler Moore's and her then-husband, Grant Tinker's, MTM Enterprises. And all three were perfectly poised between the traditional mainstream culture reflected in the television of the 1960s and the more farcical, cynical, sex-saturated depictions of young and not-so-young narcissists we have, today.

Two of the shows -- Mary Tyler Moore and the spin-off, Rhoda, depicted the emerging paradox of American culture: growing freedom for women (and men) to shape their own lives, accompanied by a new sense of limits and a loss of optimism. In the show, Mary Tyler Moore plays Mary Richards, a well-integrated, genuinely nice, non-narcissistic character who is stuck with a less than ideal life, for a new, less optimistic, age. She works for a mediocre television station and, despite the fact that she is the best catch in America, she can't find a mate.

The program also starred Ed Asner as Lou Grant, the outwardly hard nosed and gruff news editor who is inwardly a pussy cat. The late Ted Knight played Ted Baxter, as the television anchor whose outward appearance as an airhead conceals absolutely nothing underneath. He is self-worshipping, superficial and has no idea of the meaning of many of the stories he relates on the air, all of which makes him a good symbol for the popular culture that was developing in America. Like Diana Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway, in the movie Network, he is television.

Betty White plays Sue Ann Nivens, the man-hungry gourmet with a cooking program that is on the same network as the news show. She's Mary's opposite -- conniving, cynical, sarcastic -- just as Lou and Ted represent alternative forms of age and authority: image versus imagelessness, vacuousness versus substance, narcissistic self-absorption versus (more or less) altruistic adulthood.

The newsroom, which is the main site of the action, along with Mary's studio apartment, is a kind of trap of banality, made more livable by the fact that Mary is able to bond with the men on her right and left, as if they are her family. Lou is her surrogate father; and Murray Slaughter, the news writer, her brother. Mundane Murray sits next to her, pounding out the words, turning the great and small events of the day into copy that will be butchered by Ted.

If the newsroom is a family, then Ted is the idiot uncle and the only one who seems to be in his element. Sue Ann Nivens is the neighbor with an over-active social life.

Mary Tyler Moore turned out to be the nexus for, and force behind, some of the best stuff on television. She co-starred on The Dick Van Dyke Show and, as noted, her MTM Enterprises was responsible for The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Rhoda and The Bob Newhart Show. In addition, it produced the program, Lou Grant, the finest drama ever created for television, which depicts journalists who try to solve social problems by telling the truth to the public. That show's tempered optimism was in stark contrast to the cynical depictions of life that were to come with Hill Street Blues, et al. Lou Grant depicted a fallen world capable of redemption, in which good had to struggle against bad, and also had to struggle to figure out what was good and bad. Many of the best dramas that came after it showed a world that, in the immortal words of the television commercial, had fallen and could not get up.

Mary Tyler Moore's MTM Enterprises also produced Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and WKRP in Cincinnati, among other shows. Mary also had a connection to other good programs. For example, David Ogden Stiers was chosen to play Major Charles Emerson Winchester on M*A*S*H after he was seen playing the station manager on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And Gaven MacLeod, who was Murray, the writer with the humdrum existence, went on to take charge of romance on the Love Boat, while Betty White became Rose, the innocent teller of stories without a conclusion or a point, on The Golden Girls, which was set in virtual Miami.

Unfortunately, Mary Tyler Moore was never able to create another success for herself like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She did give an excellent performance as the cold, overly defended, mother in the movie, Ordinary People. Like many parents depicted in contemporary movies and television, her character ends up as a scapegoat, in one of many dramas that does an exceptional job dissecting how things go wrong.

 

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Scenes from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, at the top of the page.
Top: Mary Tyler Moore (Mary Richards) at her desk in the WJM-TV newsroom.
Left: Valerie Harper (Rhoda Morgenstern), Cloris Leachman (Phyllis Lindstrom),
and Mary Tyler Moore in Mary Richards' apartment.
Right: Gavin MacLeod (Murray Slaughter), Ed Asner (Lou Grant), and Mary Tyler Moore in the station's newsroom. 

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