Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Turns 50

It was fifty years ago today, on Saturday, September 19 1970, that The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted on CBS. It would go onto become one of the most successful shows of the Seventies and has persisted in syndication ever since it ended its run in 1977. It won  29 Emmy Awards, a record that was not broken until Fraser took its 30th Emmy in 2002. It was nominated many more times.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show centred on Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore), a single woman who, after a broken engagement, moved to Minneapolis. Initially applying for a secretarial position at TV station WJM, she instead becomes the associate producer of the station's six o'clock news. Her boss was the somewhat grumpy, but soft hearted news director Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner). Working with her was head news writer Murray Slaughter (played by Gavin MacLeod), who was Mary's closest friend at work and known for his humorous quips. The anchorman on WJM's six o'clock news was the inept Ted Baxter (played by Ted Knight), who was known for his many on-air errors. Mary's best friend was her neighbour Rhoda Morgenstern (played by Valerie Harper), who was single yet sardonic and had a sense of humour about her love life. Her landlady was Phyllis Lindstrom (played by Cloris Leachman, who was a bit snobbish and could be arrogant.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. James L. Brooks had written for such shows as My Mother the Car That Girl, The Andy Griffith Show, and My Three Sons, and had created the show Room 222.  Allan Burns had written for Jay Ward's animated shows, and with Chris Hayward he had created The Munsters and My Mother the Car. With Chris Hayward he would later serve as a story editor on the sitcom He & She, and Get Smart.

As originally conceived, Mary Richards would have been a divorcee starting a new life. This met with disapproval from CBS, their research department declaring that American audiences would not tolerate a divorced lead character. The network's objection to Mary Richards being divorced was made worse by the fact that with the casting of Mary Tyler Moore CBS was worried that viewers might confuse Mary Richards with Mary Tyler Moore's earlier character of Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and think that Laura had divorced Rob Petrie. It was then that it was decided that Mary Richards would be a woman making a new life following a broken engagement. Initially Mary Richards was to have been the assistant to a gossip columnist loosely based on Joyce Haber, then the gossip columnist for The Los Angeles Times. James L. Brooks and Allan Burns later reworked this so that Mary worked in a newsroom in Minneapolis.

Among the most famous aspects of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is its theme song, "Love is All Around." The song was written and performed by Sonny Curtis, who had been one of The Crickets, and had written The Everly Brothers' "Walk Right Back" and The Crickets' "I Fought the Law" (later covered by The Bobby Fuller Four). In the first season the lyrics reflected a woman just starting a new life. The lyrics changed with the second season to better reflect the fact that Mary had become established in her new life.

CBS gave a commitment to The Mary Tyler Moore Show without ordering a pilot episode. That did not mean it would be smooth sailing for the show.  While The Mary Tyler Moore Show would become regarded as a classic, it did not fare well when a live version of the show was performed in front of a test audience. They did not like the fact that Mary was over 30 and still single. The audiences disliked Rhoda and thought Phyllis was abrasive. They didn't care for Lou Grant either. Unfortunately, The Mary Tyler Moore Show fared only a little better with further test screenings.  If it seems unusual that The Mary Tyler Moore Show fared poorly with a test audience, consider the fact that other classic shows also fared poorly with test audiences. Batman, The Monkees, and Seinfeld all received disastrous ratings from test audiences.

Fortunately, Grant Tinker, then Mary Tyler Moore's husband and head of her production company MTM Enterprises, was able to persuade CBS vice president in charge of programming, Michael Dann, to still give the show a chance. Initially, Mr. Dann placed the show on Tuesday nights, where it would be sandwiched in between The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw. Furthermore, CBS only ordered thirteen episodes. Fortunately for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Michael Dann would leave CBS for the Children's Television Workshop. Fred Silverman was then promoted to vice president in charge of programming. With then CBS President Robert Wood, Fred Silverman was one of the architects of what became known as the Rural Purge, in which CBS cancelled nearly all of its show with rural appeal. With its urban setting, The Mary Tyler Moore Show then became much more attractive to CBS.

Fred Silverman watched the pilot episode as well as rough cuts of the show's second and third episodes. He really liked what he saw. Realizing that it was scheduled in a poor time slot, Mr. Silverman moved Green Acres from its Saturday night time slot to the Wednesday night time slot in which The Mary Tyler Moore Show was originally scheduled, and then placed The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Saturday night. The Mary Tyler Moore was sandwiched between two top rated shows, My Three Sons (which ranked no. 19 for the year) and Mannix (ranked no. 17 for the year). It should come as no surprise, then, that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a success. It ranked no. 22 for the season.

Throughout its seven seasons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would have very little in the way of changes in its cast. Valerie Harper left the show following its fourth season when Rhoda received her own spin-off show. Despite this, she would continue to make guest appearances as Rhoda until The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its run. Cloris Leachman left the show after is fifth season after Phyllis received her own spin-off. She would make guest appearances in the seventh season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the show's third season Georgia Engel was added as Ted Baxter's scatterbrained girlfriend Georgette. Ted and Georgette would eventually marry. In the fourth season Betty White was added to the cast as Sue Ann Nivens, the host of the WJM show The Happy Homemaker. Although on The Happy Homemaker Sue Ann was relentlessly upbeat and perky, in real life she tended to be sardonic, competitive, and very man hungry.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show proved to be very successful. From its second to fourth seasons it ranked in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings for each year. In its fifth season it ranked at no. 11 and in its sixth season at no. 19. In its final season it still came in at a respectable no. 39 in the Nielsen ratings for the year.

Given it success, it should come as no surprised that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was not cancelled, but simply ended production. After seven seasons, Mary Tyler Moore found the show was no longer as challenging as it once was and had decided to move onto other things. Since The Mary Tyler Moore Show was ended on its producers' terms rather than being cancelled by the network, it was able to have something that was very rare in 1977, a series finale. In the appropriately titled "The Last Show," WJM's station manager decided to fire everyone on the six o'clock news except for the one person responsible for its low ratings, anchorman Ted Knight. It would become regarded as one of the greatest series finales of all time.

The success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show would result in three spin offs. Rhoda saw Rhoda Morgenstern return to New York City. Debuting in 1974, it ran for five seasons. Phyllis saw Phyllis and her daughter move to San Francisco following the death of her husband. It proved less successful than Rhoda, running only two seasons. Following the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant was spun off into his own show, Lou Grant. In the show Lou had become the city editor for The Los Angeles Tribune after he had been fired from WJM. While The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis had all been sitcoms, Lou Grant was a drama. It ran for five seasons.

CBS would produce two retrospectives of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Tyler Moore: The 20th Anniversary Special aired in 1971 and The Mary Tyler Moore Reunion aired in 2002. Of course, the show has persisted in syndication ever since it left the air and is widely available on streaming services.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show would prove to be a historic show. Of course, there had been shows centred on single women before. Both Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show as single women, although they almost entirely centred on her characters' professional lives. That Girl starred Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie, a single woman who moves from her hometown to her New York City. Unlike Mary Richards, however, was engaged throughout the show's run. The Mary Tyler Moore Show centred on both Mary's career and her private life, and she remained unattached throughout the show's run. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was then largely responsible for changing the depiction of women on television.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was also historic as the first show produced by MTM Enterprises. MTM Enterprises would become one of the most successful independent television production companies in the Seventies and early Eighties. It would produce such classic shows as The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, and St. Elsewhere.

Fifty years after its debut, The Mary Tyler Moore Show still has an impact.  Every sitcoms that featuring sharp dialogue and well defined characters largely owe something to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show marked a shift from the sometimes gimmicky sitcoms of the Sixties to a more sophisticated form of character driven comedy still seen today. While The Mary Tyler Moore Show did not deal with issues the way such "relevant" sitcoms as All in the Family did, it did address subjects rarely, if ever, addressed in sitcoms before. The show featured what might have been the first ever positive portrayal of a homosexual ("My Brother's Keeper") and even used death as a source of humour ("Chuckles Bites the Dust"). The gap between men and women's salaries and the birth control pill were among the subjects almost never mentioned on sitcoms prior to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Along with He & She a few years before it, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would point the way for sitcoms for years to come.


Steve Bailey said...

Terrific summary of a world-class sitcom. TV writer Ken Levine ("M*A*S*H," "Cheers," "Frasier") tells a great story on his blog. When he and his partner David Isaacs decided to become TV writers, they thought they'd better start by witnessing a show in action. So they went to see a taping of "Mary Tyler Moore." As it happened, the episode that was performed that evening was "Chuckles Bites the Dust." Levine said that, as he and Isaacs were surrounded by audience members howling with laughter, they nearly quit the business right there, because how could they ever writing anything that was nearly as funny?

Dennis Bedard said...

And let’s not forget that Gavin Macleod started as a bit player on Hogan’s Heroes and after MTM, became Captain Steuben of Love Boat. Ted Knight later had his own show, The Ted Knight Show, which was almost antithetical to his role in MTM. He went on to his most famous role as Judge Smaels in Caddyshack where he played the perfect foil to Rodney Dangerfield’s bombastic and crude real estate tycoon. MTM was perfect for its time, always gently pushing the envelope but never crossing the line. She was the daughter every father wishes he had and the sister every brother wanted.