She Could Turn the World on with Her…

Did you ever notice that Mary Richards (the heroine of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) rarely dated a man for more than a single episode? Oh, sure, that’s the way TV was back then in the 70s, with self-contained episodes, before sitcoms and dramas had on-going storylines, but still, you had to wonder…Just how loose was Mary? Was she a heartbreaker? Afraid of commitment?

I feel neither qualified nor compelled to write at length about the depiction of feminism on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—it’s also too broad and important a topic to shortchange in a blog post. However, while watching on DVD the first three seasons of the show, I became sensitive to this recurring motif (we see how her relationships begin but rarely how they end) and wondered if all involved were subversively telling me something. Finally I saw a moment—a single joke—where all my suspicions were addressed.

I’ve always known that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired from 1970-77, was classic TV, even when I was watching them as first run episodes. (Of course, as a kid, I would have been happier if it were simply The Ted Baxter Show.) As an adult, without having re-watched many episodes in syndication, I would have assessed the show as such:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was more progressive than its immediate predecessor, Marlo Thomas’s That Girl (1966-71), where the central character’s independence was hampered by her inbred sense of settling down and marrying her boyfriend Donald; and the show was definitely the beginning of career-focused women in TV, paving the way for the likes of Murphy Brown, Carrie Bradshaw and Liz Lemon.

While recently watching the show on DVD, I found that my assessment wasn’t that far off. But it was Mary Richards’s sex life that I hadn’t considered. I guess I thought she had one but didn’t know the show implied it so strongly.

I would have assumed any episode dealing Mary’s sex life would have been clichéd TV: a lengthy set up and an extended scene or two of soul searching on Mary’s part, with a touch of humor here and there. (You know the kind of sitcom episodes I’m talking about, right? The anti-drug episode of Diff’rent Stokes comes to mind. Also, when Edith Bunker enters menopause on All in the Family. Big problems, moral dilemmas, laugh-track free scenes—stuff like that. When I was a kid, you’d always know when these episodes were coming because they’d get a “Close Up” in the TV Guide.)

But, in the hands of Mary Tyler Moore and creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks, the issue of Mary Richards’s sex life is quite the contrary. There’s a complete lack of judgment or concern. It’s presented matter-of-factly.

A crucial episode of season 3 has Mary’s retired parents moving to Minneapolis, to be near their daughter (“Just Around the Corner,” airdate October 28, 1972). This puts them in direct contact with her day-to-day life, with her mother being overly inquisitive about Mary’s dating habits. We see Mary dressing for a date one night, and the next scene begins the following day, with her entering her apartment—dressed as she was the night before. (I made a genuine WTF?! face when I realized what she was wearing. Nothing like this had ever happened in the show before.)

And that pretty much sums up the attitude. Later, when confronted by her parents, Mary never apologizes for her behavior nor says where she was all night.

But that isn’t the moment I’m referring to. The moment that inspired this post happens a few episodes later and also involves her parents (“You’ve Got a Friend,” airdate November 25, 1972). Here’s the set up, though it’s incidental, trust me: Mary and her father have a difficult, strained relationship, and Mary’s compelled to face him head-on, inviting him to dinner and asking her mother to leave them alone. Since her mother dotes on both of them and acts as perpetual mediator, it’s disarming that Mary asks her to leave.

Not being an expert on early 70s TV, I don’t know how scandalous dialog like this was, but the audience’s reaction is an indication that it was uncommon. What’s key here is that the reveal that Mary is on the Pill not only passes without judgment, it also passes without verbal comment. What I expected would have been the source of a whole episode—Will Mary take the Pill? What does that mean about her loose morals? Is she ready for this?—is simply a joke. And the brilliance of the joke—it’s timing, the performances, its ability to address everything I’ve just written about and still be funny—is what makes this Perfect TV. Perfect.


While it’s somewhat off-topic, this is the best place to show the impact The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s has had on my life:

-A lifelong dream of mine is to have a job where my name will be on the door, Lou Grant-style!

-My wife and I wanted to put our son’s initials on his bedroom door, but I refused to until I could find the right font. (And there’s only one font that will suffice for a wooden initial.)

-As long as I’ve been food shopping, I always put my meat in the cart like this:

Doesn’t everyone?


Filed under Comedy, TV

8 responses to “She Could Turn the World on with Her…

  1. Mom

    This was a very interesting blog about Mary, and do I dare say it, SEX?!
    Her show, being a “family show”, the idea of her having a sex life was never overt. Rhoda, yes, But never sweet Mary. I’m sure in the two episodes you featured here, the “sex” inuendos went over people’s head…especially “the pill” reference. First of all, the pill was very contoversial in the 60’s & 70’s and a good girl would not take it. As for her sleeping over, that too was never done by good girls. Mary was a good girl. Including these references in the show was very daring on the part of the writers, producers and Mary Tyler Moore herself.

    • Thanks for comments, Mom. It’s nice to get perspective from someone who saw them in the 70s and understood them (not to make you feel or nothin’, but safe to say, since you’re my mother, it’s a safe bet you’re older than me!).

      Had you seen that Pill joke back then, you would have gotten it, right? What would your reaction have been? Was her reputation impeachable because she was the Star of the show, OR because she had been Laura Petrie, OR because even if Mary Richards was on the Pill, she was never going to seem as “loose” as Rhoda?

  2. Not sure if you want to be an expert on early ’70s TV, but the essential work on the subject is Harlan Ellison’s two-volume collection of criticism, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. And oh, those TV Guide Closeups! Thanks for the memory.

  3. Adam L

    What genius casting for the part of Mary’s mom (Nanette Fabray)! Holy cow! Love your post. I can’t even hear those first three notes without getting choked up – the end song does me in too. I don’t know what it is. There’s something devastatingly cheery and melancholy about it – just like Mary! – and it conjures the time so well, like nothing else. It so instantly sends me back to myself as a wide-eyed 5-12 year old, cheery and melancholy myself, I can barely stand it.

    • “What genius casting for the part of Mary’s mom (Nanette Fabray)!”
      I agree. It even has some nostalgic resonance: she was the 4th on Sid Caesar’s Caesar’s Hour (after Imogene Coca flew the coop), which put her in direct contact with Carl Reiner, which brings us to the Dick Van Dyke Show, and, naturally, up to Mary.

      Those opening credits are still riveting! So full of hope and promise.

      Revisiting these as an adult, Ted Baxter is still a scream–but it’s Lou Grant (who used to scare me as a child) who really shines. Ed Asner’s timing and delivery are a constant source of laughter.

      “and it conjures the time so well, like nothing else.”
      That makes me wonder if you’re like me (and so many others): I never quite took to her second apartment. It’s not as much of a downfall as, say, Laverne & Shirley moving to LA, but I don’t feel as cozy with the episodes in that later apartment.

      • Nick

        No, her second apartment made no sense. Why’d she do it? Was it in the show, that she had to move, or just a kind of ‘let’s get a new set’ from the studio? Was it commented on? Or are we dealing with a Sargent-York situation?

      • “Why’d she do it? Was it in the show, that she had to move, or just a kind of ‘let’s get a new set’ from the studio?”
        According to Wiki, the second episode of Season 6 is called “Mary Moves Out,” and here’s the plot: “Missing Rhoda and Phyllis, Mary feels she’s fallen into a rut. She eventually decides to move to a high-rise and with the help of the gang, it soon starts to feel like home.” So, I’d say it has a lot to do with Rhoda and Phyllis’s shows prompting MTM to update its look, maybe.

        “Or are we dealing with a Sargent-York situation?”
        My favorite Gary Cooper film!

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