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: