Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 5/7/2013
What made The Mary Tyler Moore Show good television? A staff of young women writing comedy while slipping social issues into the 1970s backdrop of the show? A breakthrough lead character that became a feminist icon? Fashion forward style, character spin-offs and a series superfan?
Entertainment reporter Jennifer Keishin Armstrong writes an absorbing behind-the-scenes history of the trailblazing situation comedy that aired for seven seasons on CBS in Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic.
The show was part of a Saturday night lineup considered one of the best in CBS history including All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett. Mary Tyler Moore and second husband Grant Tinker staked their reputation and fortune at MTM Enterprises on their flagship show and hired Room 222 showrunners James L. Brooks and Allan Burns to develop the scripts.
Researching Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, Armstrong conducted interviews, phone calls and email conversations with Tinker, Brooks and Burns and former CBS execs Fred Silverman and Michael Dann. She discovered photos, memories and personal stories shared by cast members like Valerie Harper as well as staff writers Treva Silverman, Pat Nardo and Gloria Banta.
A particularly valuable resource for research on the book was Joe Rainone, a superfan who wrote five-page critiques he sent to Brooks and Burns. The producers began counting on Rainone’s weekly feedback and elaborate rating system for each episode. They even invited him out to Los Angeles to visit the set and watch a taping.
Armstrong writes with clarity about the show’s feminist aspirations in chapters titled “Girl’s Club,” “The Writers Wore Hot Pants,” “Pot and the Pill” and “Girl, This Time You’re All Alone.”
“The character who could change all their fates, Mary Richards—who could give Treva Silverman something to write about, could make Jim Brooks and Allan Burns the innovative producers they wanted to be, could give Mary Tyler Moore the comeback she needed—began her fictional life in a room full of men. And that life began with one dreaded word: divorce.”
Brooks and Burns pitched the idea to CBS programming executive Mike Dann in New York. Dann worried that loyal fans of Laura Petrie and The Dick Van Dyke Show would not react well to Moore playing a divorcée. So, they returned to Los Angeles to rethink a contemporary concept for the show that would allay the network’s concerns.
According to Armstrong, Brooks and Burns came up with a compromise for the show: Mary Richards would recover from a major breakup and start a new life with a job at a TV newsroom in Minneapolis.
Armstrong writes that the ensemble cast featuring Ted Knight, Gavin MacLeod, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper made sitcom magic and would be one of the show’s first innovations. Mary Richards would split time equally between work at the utilitarian newsroom set of WJM-TV and home at the set of her $130-a-month studio apartment with the grand Palladian windows. This split between domestic and career life would be another trailblazing concept for a female character on television.
Despite her ground-breaking role, Moore was actually ambivalent toward the women’s liberation movement. She played Mary Richards with a sweet disposition that ran foil to other more assertive characters on the set. Armstrong cites the episode in which the character awkwardly demands equal pay and receives a paltry raise, to hilarious effect.
Gloria Steinem and other feminists criticized her character for addressing her boss “Mr. Grant” while the rest of the cast called him “Lou.” Mary Richards was deemed a pushover with no liberated chops, writes Armstrong.
Written by singer-songwriter Sonny Curtis, the show’s theme song does end with a promising “You're gonna make it after all.” And the iconic opening sequence shot by director Reza Badiyi certainly inspired a generation of young women to throw their hats into the arena.
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a highly worthwhile read about The Mary Tyler Moore Show and how the trailblazing situation comedy raised the bar in television casting, writing and production.
Category: Nonfiction, Television