By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Georgia Engel all guest-starred Wednesday night on Betty White’s TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland,” thereby reuniting the five actresses who had major roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
The casting stunt provides me with yet another excuse to give a shout-out to the wildly progressive and hugely influential 1970–77 program about a funny, independent-minded, career-oriented single woman. Since it seems like every countdown of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s” best episodes ends with “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” the Emmy-winning sixth-season corker about a happy-go-lucky clown who gets “shelled” by a circus elephant while dressed as a character named Peter Peanut, I’ve decided to retire the episode to TV Valhalla and reflect on these 12 other brilliant episodes instead.
12. “The Good-Time News”
This third-season premiere episode goes straight for the feminist awakening. Mary, charged with the newsroom budget, discovers that she makes less than the man who had the job before her. She argues for equal pay and eventually ends up with a raise — though it doesn’t totally make up the difference. Gloria Steinem would later zing the show during a panel discussion with the show’s co-creator, James L. Brooks, for that less-than-perfect conclusion. One could argue, however, that it was realistic for the era and was actually a nod to the continuing necessity of the women’s movement.
11. “Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?”
In this 1974 episode, the show gets the closest it ever did to addressing the political issue of the time, Watergate. Mary gets a scoop in the form of secret documents from a Deep Throat–like source, then chooses jail rather than revealing that source to a judge.
We get some nice topical tension along with the humor of our little Mary in a jail cell with prostitutes. “What did they get you for?” asks one. “Impersonating a Barbie doll, right?” Guest star Barbara Colby delivered that Barbie line with such aplomb that she was invited back a few weeks later for a hilarious episode in which Mary tries to help her get out of the flesh trade and into fashion design. In a sad denouement to a promising career, Colby signed on as a regular for Leachman’s spinoff, “Phyllis,” but had to be replaced when she was killed in a random Los Angeles shooting that was never solved.
10. “Edie Gets Married”
This marked the best of Priscilla Morrill’s several wonderfully understated appearances as Lou’s wife, Edie, who came to embody a specific phenomenon of the times: She was inspired by the women’s movement to leave the husband she had married when barely out of her teens. Lou’s journey through the aftermath made for some terrific plotlines, and this capped it off, sending the gang to Edie’s wedding to another man. As usual, Ed Asner plays the dramatic brilliantly, making the episode a hell of a tearjerker.
9. “Just Around the Corner”/”You’ve Got a Friend”
Season three pushed the envelope even further, thanks to the changing TV environment (e.g., “All in the Family” was now in full swing) and the women’s lib movement. These episodes weren’t officially a twofer — they were the seventh and 11th episodes in the season, respectively — but they’re so historically linked it’s easy to confuse them as the same half-hour.
In “Just Around the Corner,” Mary is horrified when her parents move from the suburbs to a home just a few blocks away from her apartment. Her trepidation is soon validated when she stays out all night and her parents notice, haranguing her about what she was up to. That may sound like any old plotline these days, but in 1972 it was such a big deal — that part where she stayed out on a date all night — that another show, “Maude,” referenced it.
Several weeks later, “You’ve Got a Friend” aired and also involved Mary’s parents. Mary invites her father over for dinner and her mother, as she’s leaving the two of them for the evening, shouts, “Don’t forget to take your pill!” Both father and daughter answer, “I won’t!” Holy moly, Mary Richards was on the Pill! Brilliantly, the show moved past the line with just a double-take, and no other mention. Dad probably didn’t want to know the details.
8. “Support Your Local Mother”
Co-creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns wrote this script second, just after the pilot, but it ran sixth in the show. That’s partially because CBS executives didn’t like it, to the point where they forbade the producers from shooting it. Their gripe: The plot has Rhoda refusing to speak to her overbearing mother (Nancy Walker) when she pays a surprise visit. Because of the show’s innovative mix of comedy and pathos, CBS suits didn’t quite get it in the early days. What was funny about a main character ignoring her mother? The producers, backed by their independent studio head, Grant Tinker, shot the script against CBS’s wishes. Walker would win an Emmy for her appearance, and the show would (obviously) build up enough steam by episode 13 to stay on the air and do, mostly, as producers pleased.
7. “Once I Had a Secret Love”
This sixth-season beauty offered everything “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” did best: a mix of hilarity and poignancy, with a hint of sex. In it, Lou happens into a regrettable one-night-stand with “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) and accidentally leaves a sock at her place. Sue Ann returns it to him — laundered, of course — at the office, tipping Mary off to the rendezvous. The twist comes when Mary lets the secret slip to co-worker Murray (Gavin MacLeod) and Lou finds out. Where a typical sitcom would play out the slapstick elements of the affair and/or the farcical elements of the secret-telling, this episode ends on a devastating dramatic scene in which Mary begs for forgiveness and Lou tells her he won’t fire her for the offense, but he doesn’t like her anymore. The two, of course, do reconcile, but the emotional effect is resounding.
6. “Lou Dates Mary”
David Lloyd, the master sitcom writer responsible for “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” also navigated this tricky one: In the penultimate episode of the series, the only possible will-they-or-won’t-they is resolved definitively. They won’t.
Mary wonders, briefly, why she hasn’t dated Lou, her longtime boss and now close friend (even though she’s still calling him “Mr. Grant”). She asks him over for a possibly romantic dinner — the ask-out scene shows both that Moore has, by this time, mastered comedy far beyond her signature crying schtick, and that Moore and Asner have become a true team. The date, of course, goes awkwardly from the start and culminates in a giggle fit when they try to kiss.
For the record, Brooks, Burns, and Asner all argued for Mary and Lou as a couple; Moore argued against the idea and won. The result is one more moment of bittersweet realism that defines “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It also sets the show up to end on a truly feminist note, with Mary neither coupled off nor that concerned about it.
5. “My Brother’s Keeper”
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” didn’t tackle issues of the day the way “All in the Family” did, calling them out and wrestling them to the ground on a weekly basis. Issues that did come up emerged organically and surprisingly, no more so than in this 1973 triumph. In it, Phyllis’s brother comes to town, and Phyllis tries to set him up with Mary. Instead, he spends almost all of his time with Rhoda.
By the end, Phyllis is beside herself with grief at the possibility of her nemesis marrying her brother. Rhoda assures her they’re just friends; he’s not her type. Phyllis, incensed at this insult of her brother, lists his qualities: He’s great-looking, smart, funny … “He’s gay,” Rhoda adds. Phyllis replies, “Thank God.”
The shocked laughter from the audience had to be cut, it lasted so long. This subtle take on a nascent movement wasn’t even meant to happen; the original script called for everything except the gay revelation. But Robert Moore, who played brother Ben, was actually gay, and director Jay Sandrich suggested the possibility that it could be incorporated into the story line. The result was a show that accepted the idea of Ben being gay, making the laugh not at his expense, but Phyllis’s.
4. “Rhoda the Beautiful”
This 1972 episode addresses Harper’s 30-pound weight loss, as well as her character’s penchant for self-deprecating remarks about her looks. In it, Rhoda reaches her target weight by following a dieting program — which, endearingly, she’s doing with Murray. (Fun fact: Harper and MacLeod did Weight Watchers together on the set.) She’s also asked to participate in a beauty pageant at Hempel’s, the department store where she’s a window dresser, but when she wins, she doesn’t want to tell Mary. Of course, she eventually does blab, with requisite cracks about the ridiculous crown and sash. The episode serves as an example of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s” groundbreaking willingness to take “girly” issues like body image seriously.
3. “The Lars Affair”
This 1973 episode introduced White as Nivens and simultaneously signaled to TV viewers that “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was set to embark on a mind-blowingly hilarious run of episodes. This half-hour finds Sue Ann, a proto–Martha Stewart, having an unapologetic affair with Lars, the never-seen husband of Phyllis. White, breaking free of her sweet-natured screen image, purrs housekeeping orders like a passive-aggressive drill sergeant and employing those adorable dimples even through an icy showdown with formidable opponent Leachman.
2. “Love Is All Around”
In these precious 22 minutes, Brooks and Burns introduce their brilliant ensemble cast and give us the necessary exposition — Mary’s moving into a studio apartment alone in Minneapolis and looking for a job after leaving her non-committal ex, whom she put through med school. The episode also sets the blueprint for the show’s unique ability to toggle between Mary’s home and work lives, and between the serious and the funny. Stand-out scenes: Mary interviews for a job with Mr. Grant in a masterpiece of comic writing and timing that culminates in his famous line, “I hate spunk!” Mary tearily confronts her ex, Bill, who sort of wants to win her back, but not enough to propose. “Take care of yourself,” he tells her, leaving at her behest. She counters with an earth-shattering, “I think I just did.”
1. “The Last Show”
So much can go wrong with a series finale that many great shows have left us on a bum note. But “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” nailed it, so much so that finales hence would nod to this one in hopes of evoking a bit of that feeling through mere association.
The writers ended things with a buy-out of WJM that would leave everyone fired except dim anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). This allowed the characters to reflect viewers’ feelings, literally giving them a chance to say good-bye. Mr. Grant gave a heart-wrenching speech (“I cherish you people”) that reflected the gooey center of his hard-bitten character. The teary group hug that enveloped the whole cast, and their subsequent group shuffle to the tissue box, began as an ad-lib in rehearsal — the stars really were crying as they hugged — and stuck for the ages. By the time Mary turned out the lights on the newsroom one last time, the crew member charged with dimming the set was so taken he forgot to flip the switch.