Sunday, March 16, 2008

Making It After All

Thanks to Hulu, I watched the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show the other night. I'm not sure I'd ever seen the pilot before; I was six when it originally aired in September, 1970. I might have caught it years ago on Nick at Nite, although I have no memory of it. All in all, it's an interesting thing to watch.

It seems hard to imagine, but the show was pretty radical at the time. Mary Richards was the first central comedic character who was single by choice. She wasn't divorced, she wasn't widowed, she was just single. Apparently the original concept for the show called for her to be divorced, but MTM was afraid audiences would balk because she was so identified with the popular Laura Petrie, and she didn't want people to think Laura had divorced Rob. She only took the role once the network allowed the character to be a single working woman, and in that sense the most radical thing about the show occurred essentially by accident.

I had forgotten all about this fact, but Mary Richards moves to Minneapolis after being dumped by her boyfriend of four years, who she had helped put through medical school. The show opens with her arriving at an apartment being held for her by her old friend Phyllis, who would appear to own the building. Mary immediately meets her new neighbor Rhoda, who is also interested in the apartment but who relinquishes it to Mary. Rhoda is wearing an extremely unflattering horizontal-striped pants suit, and the dynamic that would exist until Rhoda moves back to New York is set up from the get-go: Mary is pretty and gets what she wants, Rhoda is dumpy and suffers. Watch the pilot and note that Valerie Harper is not fat, not even overweight. She's just dressed to look that way, much the way that Vivian Vance was always made to look older and uglier than Lucille Ball.

Mary goes out and gets a job and we meet Murray and Ted and she has the famous discussion with Lou Grant where he tells her he hates spunk. It's at the end of the episode where we find the real break from convention. Mary is unpacking in her new apartment (and, for perhaps the only time, we see that Mary Richards does in fact own a bed - it's right there in the middle of the living room). Her boyfriend shows up, having come to Minneapolis to apologize and take her back home to marry him. She refuses, actively choosing to be single, actively choosing to create a different kind of family, made up of colleagues and other single women.

In September, 1970, Mary Richards is 30 years old. For seven years, until her late 30s, she will remain single. In fact, the series will end not with her marrying and leaving WJM, but with new management breaking up the workplace family by firing everyone except the incompetent Ted. Mary will date, even have sex, but she will not entertain the notion of marriage or children. She will never regret the decision that she makes in the pilot. The show's producers weren't certain of the outcome of Mary's decision, that's for sure. Take a look at the original opening credits, which feature the lesser-known first verse of "Love Is All Around":

It's a big scary world, and she's all alone! How will she make it on her own? As it turns out, quite well indeed. The show was almost canceled after the first season but in the end was renewed, the theme song was changed to get rid of the ambivalence, and ultimately the television landscape was altered forever. Without Mary Richards we'd have no Murphy Brown, no Carrie Bradshaw, no Rhoda and no Rosanne. Without Mary Richards we wouldn't have The Office or any other situation comedy where the workplace and not the family is the focus. Without Mary Richards our hats would still be on our heads. Thanks, Mary Richards, for making it after all, even if you had to use your wiles and turn the world on in order to do it.


tunsie said...

I happen 2 have a relative with chronic OCD,like monk but i don't watch because i see strong cousin cleans the ceiling of her apartment EVERYDAY.i am not a dirty person but i don't have my ceilings done,my windows yes,but not my ceilings.i don't watch the new or old shows,but i wouldn't mind seeing some old 60 minutes clips.tunsie.tunsie.tunsie

tunsie said...

yesterday while on break from my usual work 2 girls sat on my lap 2 sat on tne floor in front of me.I read them a story which left them in tears,and they said lamb chops.was that all it took?now we know why u love her.we haven't even met her and we like her,such a soft heart.tunsie.tunsie.tunsie