Friday, October 16, 2015

You’re Gonna Make It After All

I am going to tell you all right now that I am not an astute literary critic. But, I spent many years working at a local TV station and living in the upstairs of a historic home, a mere flight of steps away from dear friends. Therefore, I love the "Mary Tyler Moore" show.

I realized that I was living a Mary Richards life in the 2000s, and I’m not even kidding. I can make almost everything fall into place: hilarious co-workers at the TV station, poorly executed dinner parties, interesting dates/boyfriends, and I had a close friend whose real job was creating department store displays. Let that last one sink in for a second; the only two people I can think of in the world who had a real job doing that are my friend Jessica and the character of Rhoda Morgenstern.

Anyway, I recently picked up Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a 2013 book by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong all about the program. And I loved it.

It focuses on the people who created the show as well as the actors that were part of the now-classic program. Like any good book about something ingrained in popular culture, it talks about how someone almost got a different part (Gavin MacLeod and Ed Asner both auditioned for the role of “Lou Grant”) and how the show or certain key parts of it almost didn’t happen.

It also tells the story of the female writers who landed jobs working on that program (and Hollywood in general in the 1970s). There was no established career path to get them there, and I found the detailed lives of these trailblazers fascinating, including how their personal experiences occasionally ended up on screen. 

Armstrong actually begins the book with the story of writer Treva Silverman, introducing her life and unique comedy talent while using her as somewhat of a thread throughout. I loved that Armstrong chose to start the book with a name most readers wouldn’t recognize, and Silverman is a fascinating character in her own right.

There was sort of an interesting pseudo-rivalry with MTM and “All in the Family” since the two were both part of the CBS Saturday night lineup. They helped each other in some ways, but they addressed social issues very differently: a rant from Archie Bunker would cause an immediate conversation, but the issues on MTM were character-based and plot-driven. For example, while Archie Bunker would freak out over meeting someone who was gay, MTM handled the issue differently by giving Phyllis a gay brother (even though she didn’t know he was gay). When he visited and took a liking to Rhoda instead of Mary, Phyllis started freaking out that they would get married. Rhoda matter-of-factly told Phyllis that he was gay, and she was relieved. The author noted that it made the audience laugh at someone's reaction instead of the person at the center of the issue.

Of course, MTM didn’t always hit that note just right. Earlier in the series, MTM tried to be more like “All in the Family” by creating a confrontation in an episode called “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda.” Mary realizes a new friend is an anti-Semite and tells her off, but it wasn’t really the show’s style for Mary to explode like that or be so preachy. How the writers dealt with creating a sitcom narrative that addressed issues was a fascinating part of this book.

The book also explored something I didn’t realize: the boundary-pushing TV of the 1970s led to an overcorrection in the 1980s and the networks’ self-imposed “family hour.” Suddenly gone was the edgy social commentary laced in popular programming.

The book really covers every element: the actors’ camaraderie, power struggles, fights and reconciliations; the worries that audiences would think Moore was still Laura Petrie (she even wore a wig the first seasons); the "Rhoda," "Phyllis," and "Lou Grant" spinoffs; and how the creative forces and actors went on to other endeavors (the ones who created "Taxi" used the names of some MTM staff members as characters). 

And, I have to mention one other thing. The author met a superfan who used to type up pages of notes on each show and mail them to the studio. He had his own detailed rating system for each show based on how many “jollies” (times he laughed out loud), “grins,” and “sobs” (any tears counted as sobs) it provided him. He was obsessed. But, here’s the almost weirder thing: the producers read the letters and loved them, finding them an accurate measure of the show’s effectiveness, even more so than professional television critics. He even visited the set, spending a week with the producers and cast members. He provided the author with photos and memories of that time; it was such a bizarre part of the history of the show, but the author found it endearing.

I do think you need to already be a fan of the show to truly enjoy this book. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of every episode (I was born the year it went off the air), but I do remember seeing key episodes in reruns. When I could remember plotlines or scenes mentioned in the book, the stories told really popped. And it gets into a lot of detail about the inner workings of Hollywood and television studios; it can be fascinating or laborious.

Let me end this "Reading Rainbow"-style: If you enjoy learning about television programming in the 1970s, creative forces that worked together to make something unique, the clashes of entertainment and culture, behind-the-scenes details of a classic show, and learning what makes talented actors, producers, and writers tick, then this book is for you.

And if you want to see Mary and Rhoda try to meet men at a club for divorced people, then this embedded video is for you. Some of this holds up (and is a bit too relatable even today), and some is hilariously dated. Thanks, Treva Silverman.


  1. My love for the Mary Tyler Moore Show is large. My younger cousin once wrote a paper in college about Seinfeld, the first sitcom that had a true group cast instead of one star. He was devastated when his professor wrote at the top his paper, "No. Mary Tyler Moore Show."

    I love the episode you wrote about where Phyllis doesn't know her brother is gay. I think my all-time favorite episode is Toulouse-Lautrec is One of My Favorite Artists--have you seen that one? Mary has to deal with the age-old problem of her date being (gasp!) shorter than she is.

    Valerie Harper's memoir--I, Rhoda--is a great companion to this book. She has very fond memories of her time on that show. (If somewhat weird--she had to get permission to join Weight Watchers because her character was supposed to be fat. If Rhoda was fat, I'm a mongoose.)

    1. This book really made me love Valerie Harper. She was a real rock for the show and some of the stars. They touched on her weight and its changes and how that affected the character. I need to watch more of the shows....fortunately, they're all on Hulu!

  2. Great post, CC. I am ashamed to admit it, but I have never seen an episode of MTM. [GASP.] Your descriptions make me want to fix this travesty!

    1. This confession seems quite similar to CC's confession of never seeing Little House on the Prairie AFTER we talked about it several times while road tripping through South Dakota. :)

  3. I really enjoyed your post. I remember watching the show with my Mom. I think I remember enough to enjoy the book, too.

  4. Loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show! That and the Carol Burnett Show were staples when I was a kid Ted Knight was one of the funniest guys ever to appear on television. And Betty White-hilarious! Thanks for the recommendation-sounds like a great read!

  5. I should've watched more of Mary and Rhoda growing up. I started catching up on Hulu, but didn't stick with it. If anyone is ever in Minneapolis, definitely go see Mary's statue on Nicolette Mall and throw your hat in the air. It's quite fun! (I'd post my photo here if I knew how.)