How The Mary Tyler Moore Show reinvented the sitcom in just 10 episodes

How The Mary Tyler Moore Show reinvented the sitcom in just 10 episodes

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

After the end of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore found herself without an obvious path forward. According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s excellent book, Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted, Moore had hoped to go on with more seasons of Van Dyke, but the lead actor himself as well as the show’s creator, Carl Reiner, were both ready to move on to other projects. So Moore tried other things too, most notably a run on Broadway that ended disastrously. Granted, this was largely because the creative team behind her show (a musical adaptation of Breakfast At Tiffany’s) never got a handle on the material, but it was also because Moore herself, who had started out as a dancer, wasn’t well suited to the giant spaces of the Broadway stage. She thrived in the intimacy of television, where her warmth and charisma communicated perfectly to an audience. And after a successful variety special returned her to the public eye, Moore was signed by CBS to do a sitcom that would go directly to series, no pilot necessary.

Moore could have easily done another show like Dick Van Dyke, perhaps told from the wife’s point of view. Instead, she and her husband, executive Grant Tinker, decided to toss things over to James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, two seasoned comedy writers who had attracted considerable attention for their work on Room 222. What Brooks and Burns came up with proved to be unexpectedly revolutionary: Moore would play a single woman, working in the big city (in this case, Minneapolis). She would be emerging from a failed relationship, and the story would be split equally between her work life (at a smalltime TV news station) and her home life (with her friends, not her family). None of this was unprecedented. That Girl was about a single woman, while the work/home split was similar to Van Dyke. But Brooks and Burns’ evolution of the form had more to do with content than premise.

For starters, Moore’s character, Mary Richards, would never be defined by a man. Indeed, she had no long-lasting romantic relationships for the seven-season run of the program. She reflected an American workplace that was increasingly filled with women who defined themselves more via their careers than their personal or domestic lives. Brooks and Burns also filled their writers’ room with women who were living lives like those of Mary and her best friend Rhoda, most notably the great Treva Silverman. TV sitcoms had so rarely been written by women, and so few had been told from a female point of view at all, that the female writers Brooks and Burns hired were able to tell the sorts of stories that simply hadn’t been told on TV before. Even typical sitcom setups could gain new context simply by flipping the perspective to that of a single woman.

The most significant change to the sitcom form Burns and Brooks introduced wasn’t immediately obvious when the show began. The two writers decided that Mary Tyler Moore would take the influence of Van Dyke and push it even further than the previous show had. Like that show, Mary Tyler Moore would derive much of its comedy from its characters, rather than its punchlines. Where Moore went beyond Van Dyke came in just how thoroughly it embraced that template. If a scene needed to be dramatic to serve the characters, then it would be dramatic. If there were only a couple of jokes in a scene, so be it. The stories—and the jokes—came entirely from the characters and their interactions. That meant that Brooks and Burns’ first-episode script largely baffled CBS executives (and the episode itself attracted a number of negative reviews), but their method of sitcom writing would, over time, become the dominant one. Even the least sophisticated sitcoms on TV now must at least pay lip-service to character complexity.

Even though CBS wasn’t sure what it was about to put on the air (and initially tried to bury it in a difficult timeslot), Tinker and Moore stood behind Brooks and Burns. The four then assembled one of the best casts in TV history, including Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Ted Knight, all of whom went on to win Emmys for their work on the show. Even later in the show’s run, the producers added popular, beloved characters played by such luminaries as Betty White and Georgia Engel. The production company put together to produce the show, MTM, went on to produce many of the most significant TV series of the ’70s and ’80s and would become one of the foremost incubators of great TV writers in the history of the medium. (Among other shows produced by MTM were The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP In Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere.)

Mary Tyler Moore can be a confusing watch for modern audiences. Though regularly held up as one of the greatest TV shows ever made, it’s not immediately clear just why that’s the case, and the show’s humor still provokes smiles, but it rarely graduates to huge belly laughs. The show is best approached as a long series of lightly comic one-act plays starring the same characters. Some are hilarious. Others are more heartwarming. But throughout, the series is filled with beautifully rendered characters who get involved in stories with surprising emotional richness. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is worth exploring purely for its historical importance to the medium, but it’s also richly involving and deeply humane, particularly to those willing to get on its wavelength.

Here are 10 episodes that will best convey that wavelength.

“Love Is All Around” (season one, episode one): Few sitcom pilots are any good. And, to be sure, there’s some clunkiness in this one. But “Love Is All Around” also features a bold statement—particularly for its era—of female independence and some of the best character introductions in TV history. It’s also got Lou Grant saying, “You’ve got spunk… I hate spunk!” and Mary’s first meeting with the two other tenants in her building, Rhoda Morgenstern (Harper) and Phyllis Lindstrom (Leachman), which forms a nearly perfect comedic trio. Brooks and Burns’ script is at once efficient and funny, and it sets a high standard for a hit-and-miss first season and buys the show substantial good will.

“The Birds… And… Um… Bees” (season two, episode one): Much of what made The Mary Tyler Moore Show so great had to do with how it balanced Mary’s work and home lives in fun and complicated ways. In the second season première, when the show was beginning to grow from a modest hit into a phenomenon, Mary produces a segment for the news at her station, WJM, about sex education. At work, this causes an onslaught of angry comments about the idea of airing such a report in the first place. At home, Mary’s piece causes Phyllis to ask Mary to teach Phyllis’ daughter, Bess, about sex. The episode is also a great example of how good MTM was at talking around the sorts of social issues that drove some of the other great sitcoms of the era, particularly those from producer Norman Lear. Lear directly confronted the problems of the time. MTM made shows set in and around them, but rarely shows that were all about those problems.

“Rhoda The Beautiful” (season three, episode six): Though the first two seasons of MTM are good, it’s in season three that the series really gets cooking, introducing Engel’s sweetly daffy Georgette and beginning to build some of the central storylines of the show, particularly the very strange romance between Georgette and news anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), a blustering master of bullshit. It’s also the season where Harper took Rhoda from Mary’s loyal sidekick to the kind of character who could be at the center of her own sitcom, which she would be after MTM’s fourth season. Some of this is the unfortunate attitudes of the era—in that Harper lost a bunch of weight and suddenly her network thought, hey, here’s someone who could carry a sitcom—but just as much of that came from Harper taking Rhoda from a self-deprecating goofball to someone with a lot of deeply won confidence. This episode reflects on the real-world weight loss and begins Rhoda’s long evolution.

“My Brother’s Keeper” (season three, episode 17): Many of MTM’s best episodes were about dates gone horribly wrong, particularly when Rhoda was involved. This episode, however, plays off Mary and Rhoda’s dating woes, as well as their relationship with Phyllis, to hilarious effect. By this point in the show’s run, Mary (sweetly good-natured and optimistic), Rhoda (self-deprecating and just a little bit cynical), and Phyllis (ostentatious and self-involved) create a perfectly calibrated trio. And “My Brother’s Keeper” works because it starts out as one kind of episode—combining the dating stories with a story about Phyllis’ playfully contentious relationship with Rhoda—before zig-zagging into something else entirely, when the truth about Phyllis’ titular brother’s interest in Rhoda is involved. It’s as political as the show ever got, and it displays how the series’ gentler approach to social-issues comedy could still pack a laugh-filled punch.

“The Lars Affair” (season four, episode one): The fourth season has most of the elements that made Mary Tyler Moore what it was. Engel and White, as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, are firmly ensconced in the cast, yet neither Harper nor Leachman have left for their own spinoffs just yet. Both sides of the show’s ensemble are built out to their fullest extent, and the show ping-pongs between both settings with confident brio. This episode offers a terrific showcase for two of the show’s most purely comedic characters, the gleeful nymphomaniac Sue Ann and Phyllis, whose husband (the never-seen Lars) falls into an affair with Sue Ann. “The Lars Affair” dares to take Phyllis’ emotions seriously, but it also dares to show just how funny she would be in such a situation.

“The Lou And Edie Story” (season four, episode four): Though The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a feminist landmark in American television, its central character is not incredibly feminist. Yes, Mary Richards leaves a dead-end relationship to take a job, but she also largely fits into a position that remains comfortably beneath men and doesn’t rise through the ranks. Hot-button feminist issues of the period—like equal pay for equal work—appear only fleetingly and aren’t deeply delved into, and Mary prompted just as much grumbling from ’70s feminists as she did praise. Yet the other female characters on the show offered other takes on the American female experience, as with Lou Grant’s wife, Edie. Any episode dealing with the troubled marriage between Lou (Asner, as Mary’s curmudgeonly boss) and Edie is a winner, and this one, in which the two split up for good, brings one of the few stories that would continue throughout the series to a breaking point.

“A New Sue Ann” (season five, episode seven): One of the great things about MTM’s workplace setting was the way in which it allowed the series to gently mock the very medium that produced it. The shows that air on Minneapolis’ WJM aren’t wildly satirical takes on television, but they do seem like the sorts of things that a smalltime station would think were great stuff. The Happy Homemaker is just such a program. Sue Ann is an interesting character, and she becomes a greater part of the series’ makeup once Rhoda and then Phyllis leave, but she rarely sacrifices the things that make her hard to take. “A New Sue Ann”—in which she’s forced to deal with a younger woman who threatens to take over her Homemaker empire in a spin on All About Eve—is a terrific showcase for her.

“Chuckles Bites The Dust” (season six, episode seven): If one episode of Mary Tyler Moore survives for all time, it will probably be this one, perhaps the most famous sitcom episode ever produced. To modern eyes, it might seem a little strained, a whole episode building up to a punchline that seems rather too neat a reversal of what came before. But check out the beautiful construction on the way to the climactic funeral scene, with so many awful puns about the death of children’s entertainer Chuckles The Clown. Look at David Lloyd’s weird, surrealistic script, which features Chuckles dying (offscreen, no less) because he’s wearing a peanut costume and a rogue elephant decides to shell him. And watch Moore’s performance, never better, particularly in the funeral scene, where she races between emotions at the drop of a hat and cements herself as one of television’s finest comic actresses.

“Ted’s Change Of Heart” (season seven, episode five): Ted Baxter is perhaps MTM’s most consistently comic character, but the actor playing him longed to do more dramatic stories. Even though Ted made for a perfect blowhard, the writers acquiesced to Knight’s desires and gave him increasing numbers of poignant storylines and episodes. His relationship with Georgette—one of the best things about the later seasons of the show—is part of this drive, as is the two adopting a child. And this episode might be the height of that approach, as Ted has a heart attack and all too briefly realizes the shallowness of his own life. It can’t last, perhaps because he’s a sitcom character and perhaps because he’s human, but “Ted’s Change Of Heart” takes aim at some big topics for a sitcom, but it displays how ambitious—and capable of living up to those ambitions—the show had become by this point.

“The Last Show” (season seven, episode 24): Just as it’s hard to make a great sitcom pilot, it’s hard to make a great sitcom finale. Too many become bloated and overlong, driven by overwrought sentimentality and a need to say goodbye to every single character at length. To be sure, “The Last Show” is the mitochondrial Eve of sitcom finales, the finale from which all others eventually followed. But where those finales are bloated, “The Last Show”—involving the sale of WJM and the firing of everyone but Ted—is lean, efficient, and beautifully moving. The Mary Tyler Moore Show made the argument that a woman could find her family in the workplace, not at home. “The Last Show” drives home the final point of that argument, before sending everyone out with a lovely grace note. In the end, Mary turns out the lights. It’s sentimental, but not too much so, just the way for the series to end.

If you like those, here are 10 more: “Christmas And The Hard-Luck Kid II” (season one, episode 14); “The Boss Isn’t Coming To Dinner” (season one, episode 21); “Thoroughly Unmilitant Mary” (season two, episode eight); “Put On A Happy Face” (season three, episode 23); “Better Late… That’s A Pun… Than Never” (season four, episode 20); “Will Mary Richards Go To Jail?” (season five, episode one); “Phyllis Whips Inflation” (season five, episode 18); “Ted’s Wedding” (season six, episode nine); “The Happy Homemaker Takes Lou Home” (season six, episode 13); “Sue Ann Gets The Ax” (season seven, episode 17).

Availability: The first three seasons are available on Hulu Plus, and other seasons cycle through on a semi-regular basis. All seven seasons are available on DVD and for digital purchase.

Next time: Genevieve Koski finds 10 representative episodes of King Of The Hill. Yup.