Thursday January 26, 2017
Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017)
This is one of the most iconic shots of my childhood. I used to see it every Saturday night between “M*A*S*H” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” which were themselves bookended by “All in the Family” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Lineups don't get any better than that.
“M*A*S*H,” I think, went onto other nights (Tuesday?), but “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I believe, stayed on Saturdays. Mary did move, though—from that beautiful apartment around Lake of the Isles to the ugly Cedar Square West by the university. I was bummed about that. I was a young, overly sensitive kid in a divorced household and I didn't like change. Plus the new place had no character. No sunken living room. I remember complaining about all this to my father—“Why would she move?”—who told me some part of how the world works. Mary moved, he said, because the real woman who owned that house around Lake of the Isles was tired of all the tourists snapping photos and refused to sign a deal with MTM Productions. Or maybe it was because she saboutaged things when they needed to film exterior shots. Right? Didn't she put up “Impeach Nixon” signs or something? Either way, it was sobering to me: how conflicts in the real world upset the fictional one. Were we safe nowhere? (Answer: no.)
Anyway, Lake of the Isles woman notwithstanding, we loved her. We took great pride in her and in the show. Most national storylines took place in other cities—New York, D.C., L.A., Mayberry—and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” tried its damnedest to get the whole Minneapolis vibe right: snow, Vikings, snow. I know the show was revolutionary in being about a single, 30s career woman at a time when feminism, or women's lib, was just beginning to rise, but it was also revolutionary in setting its story in a city in the heartland. And it was our city. That opening? When she's walking around the lakes, and on Nicollet Mall, and by Donaldson's (now defunct), and shopping at Lund's, and washing her car in the Fran Tarekenton jersey? God, that made me happy. Still does.
A lot of the show went over my head. The feminist angle, for example. I didn't get that this was a unique thing. I was born into the change, so I had to learn later what we'd changed from. I didn't get that Mary was supposed to be the attractive one and Rhoda the dumpy one, the yang to Mary's ying, since I always thought Valerie Harper was prettier. Rhoda had a line, looking at, I believe, a piece of candy, and saying, despondently, “I don't know why I'm putting this in my mouth. I should just apply it directly to my hips.” I didn't get the joke, or why that was a bad thing. Aren't curvey hips good? Some guys, led by Sir Mix-a-Lot, would still argue with Rhoda's thinking here, but the fact that it was voiced on a TV show was revolutionary.
I remember another line that confused me as a young Vikings fan. It was an episode in which Mary hires a female sportscaster, a former swimmer named B.J. (Caren Kaye), and Lou gives her the tip that the Vikings might be trading Fran Tarkenton. She acts all excited but when she and Mary are alone, she asks, “This Fran Tarkenton—who is she?” That's the joke. The part I didn't get was why Lou would be excited by the news. Trade Fran? Are you crazy?
Of course the “Chuckles the Clown” episode was the famous one. I still think about it now and again. A little song, a little dance. A little seltzer down the pants. The older I get, the truer that feels.
Was she the first “Where are the good men?” woman on TV? Not that Mary would say that. Too polite. Too Minnesota Nice. But that was the running gag: the ways in which this dysfunctional workplace somehow worked; the ways in which this super-functional, super-attractive woman could never hook up. There was always a problematic reveal. One guy was too short, another too whatever. I remember she dated this super-attractive guy, a skiier, and Mary had to come to terms with her own shallowness in being with him since they had nothing in common. One evening, she tried to find that common ground and asked about his favorite movie. He said, “The Man Who Skiied Down Everest,” she wistfully said hers was “Gone with the Wind,” and he responded, after a pause, “Don't believe I've heard of that one.” Even I got that joke.
Her real relationships were the work ones, particularly after Rhoda left for her own show. After that, the visitors to Mary's apartment were colleagues. Or this week's bad date.
That last episode. The group hug. Why were they disbanding? Oh, right. A new owner came in, saw the horrible ratings, felt the problem was either in front of or behind the camera, and against all logic, concluded that the worst anchorman in the world, Ted Baxter, was fine, and fired everyone else. That's more brilliant than I realized then. I probably thought it was an anomaly rather than the way of the world. Let's face it, we just elected a malicious Ted Baxter president of the United States. A little more seltzer down our pants.
The point of Mary was that she wasn't that. She kept trying, kept smiling. She made life worth the seltzer. With each glance and every little movement.