The Mary Tyler Moore Show—“Mary’s Delinquent”

The Mary Tyler Moore Show—“Mary’s Delinquent”

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the first eight installments is adolescence.

“Mary’s Delinquent” (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, season 6, episode 8; originally aired 11/1/1975)
In which Little Sisters turn out to be afterthoughts…

Phil Dyess-Nugent: Television as an inescapable mass-entertainment medium became a thing around the same time that teenagers came to be recognized as a sociological class with their own language, herd instincts, and tastes—a development that grew out of the recognition that they’d become a distinct consumer group with their own folding money and their own ideas about spending it. One of the funny things about TV history is that, during the time that young consumers were reshaping the accepted standards of what was exciting and beautiful, TV as a creative medium was still in the hands of adults who viewed them as kids. These consumers were seen as kids who were just going through a phase before becoming respectable 9-to-5 earners, after which they would laugh at how silly they’d been to have ever gotten caught up in ridiculous fads like rock ’n’ roll “music.” For years, teenagers connected to TV through Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark, both of whom catered to their taste in musical entertainment without ever pretending to understand it or care for it much themselves. (The other side of the coin was Jack Webb, who revived his old hit series Dragnet in the late ’60s for the express purpose of telling kids to get a haircut and stop getting high while the baby is drowning in the bathtub.)

The earliest show I can think of that had teenage characters as its protagonists is The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, whose tone was one of jokey cartoon nostalgia. Dobie was an adolescent the way his sidekick, Maynard G. Krebs, was a beatnik: Maynard wore a goatee and had a panic attack at the mere mention of the word “work”; Dobie had a goofy grin and claimed to be girl-crazy while always remaining ferociously bland. Dwayne Hickman, the twentysomething actor who played Dobie, first achieved fame playing a wacky teenager on Love That Bob. (Hickman always said he learned everything he knew about acting from Bob Cummings, and it showed.) Because he was such a yutz and didn’t really seem to belong to the same era as Elvis Presley and The Wild One, Dobie was as non-threatening as an AARP member queuing up for the early-bird special. This may have helped set a trend: Most of the shows I remember from the early to mid-’70s that featured teenage protagonists (such as Happy Days and The Waltons) tended to be set in the past. In addition to making the characters seem harmless, this distancing effect also made it easier to argue that they deserved to have a show built around them: The John Boy we saw may have been something of a simp, but he was going to grow up to be a great writer—he tells you so in the voiceover narration.

It wasn’t until 1977—when NBC hired the novelist Dan Wakefield to create a new dramatic series—that anyone attempted a show that offered a sympathetic look at contemporary life through the eyes of an adolescent hero, a show that respected the intensity of his feelings and filtered them through an adult perspective that understood his blinkered point of view and capacity for self-romanticism. James At 15 was critically lauded as a breakthrough show, but it turned into a fiasco when NBC flipped out over an episode in which James lost his cherry. The network’s poor reaction resulted in a title change (James At 16) and the departure of Wakefield; the show itself clocked out after 20 episodes. Although there were other “quality” dramas that included sensitive portrayals of adolescent characters (and at least one compromised, minor-classic ’80s sitcom about adolescent travails, Square Pegs), it wasn’t until the ’90s that the sort of thing Wakefield wanted to do became commonplace on network TV, as seen in such shows as My So-Called Life, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, and Freaks And Geeks. One reason for that was the arrival of a new generation of creative talent. Joss Whedon, Kevin Williamson, and Paul Feig are very different in many ways, but in the ’90s, they had two things in common: They thought of working in TV as a great possibility to be explored rather than something to be ashamed of, and they were still young enough to want to tap into their own adolescent experience and explore it in depth. 

Part of what made The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the other MTM comedy hits of the ’70s and early ’80s feel like a break from the average-people sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s is that, being about the workplace families adults assemble for themselves instead of domestic family units, they were largely kid-free zones. So if one of these shows wanted to do an episode about a kid, they had to bring in a ringer. The ringer in “Mary’s Delinquent” is Francie (Mackenzie Phillips), who enters Mary Richards’ life through a Little Sister program designed to connect troubled youths with good surrogate-parent role models; Mary describes her as “15, bright, cute as a button, and out on probation for shoplifting.” The episode, which was written by the talented writer-actresses Mary Kay Place and Valerie Curtin, is typical of its times in that it looks at Francie entirely from the outside. She’s not conceived as a character with her own autonomy, but as a problem that Mary, the grown-up audience surrogate, feels she has to crack. Part of what’s fresh about it is that the episode sees the humor in Mary’s inability to crack Francie’s code.

The other thing that’s fresh about it, and the one thing in it that reaches past light entertainment in the direction of art, is Mackenzie Phillips. Phillips is one of those child actors who didn’t manage a graceful transition to an adult career, but then, she’s apparently lucky to have made it past her teens in one piece. The sitcom One Day At A Time, on which she had a regular role, debuted about a month after this episode aired. Her first arrest for public drunkenness and cocaine possession happened during that show’s third season, when she was 17. She ended up being fired from the show in 1980, rehired after a stint in rehab, then fired again. (A couple of years ago, Phillips, who says she started doing drugs with her father when she was 11, joined Heidi Fleiss, Tom Sizemore, and Dennis Rodman for a season of Celebrity Rehab.) But her performance here dates from a brief window when, with her movie work in American Graffiti and Rafferty And The Gold Dust Twins, she was one of the most irresistibly hard-to-reach kids in American pop culture.

If Mary has trouble reading Francie, Francie has no such trouble with Mary: “I know your type. Never late, never absent, never getting loaded, never getting busted—a real Suzy Creamcheese.” Mary always had sense enough to treat her goody-goody image as something to be embarrassed about. While it made Laura Petrie seem like the perfect woman during the Camelot era, a decade later it made her a stand-in for all the people who’d grown up believing in the divine perfection of the American plan but spent their adult years suspecting they’d been duped—which, in 1975, was pretty much everybody. So Mary accepts the insult but asks that Francie reserve judgment until they really get to know each other—and just like that, Francie says sure. Another actress would have demonstrated some real hostility before backing down, but Phillips is deadpan and rather pleasant through the whole thing—which may mean that she doesn’t really mean any offense, though it could also plausibly be a real teenager’s truest show of hostility. How old do you have to be before you notice that adults get most riled when you’re clearly laughing at them internally but aren’t giving them anything they can actually point to as objectionable behavior on your part?

So Mary, trying to hold up her end, defends Francie when $50 disappears from Murray’s desk at WJM-TV, only to have Francie later confess to the theft. Then Francie barges into the newsroom to share the most “wonderful” news with Mary: Francie just shoplifted a really cool outfit, and she wants Mary to rejoice over the fact that she actually feels bad about it. At this point, Francie is clearly fucking with her, but in that mysteriously powerful, passive-aggressive, doubleplus self-protective, ironic way that comes with an unspoken understanding that if anyone calls her on it, she reserves the right to go into her shell and never come out. It’s left to Mary’s boss, Lou Grant (who doesn’t do unspoken agreements), to say what needs to be said: “You’re gonna have to take that outfit back now. You know what ‘now’ means? It means you don’t walk back to that store. You run. Run, run, run.” Then he adds, “Nobody had to tell you that. You don’t go around telling people you stole something if you didn’t expect to take it back.” Francie assents to the truth of this, and heads back to the store to pay her “dues.”

Here’s where The Mary Tyler Moore Show splits the difference on its attitude toward Mr. Grant’s pre-feminist, tough-love sensibility. It didn’t do him any favors in his marriage—his wife walked out on him because she needed to “find herself”—but nobody ever questioned his bona fides as a parental figure. In terms of its social attitudes, MTM was a loose show for its time, but it had enough remaining traces of Jack Webb in its DNA to want to believe that this was how you reach an unreachable kid: Just stand your ground and talk straight, and they’ll feel respected and snap to attention. I’m not sure I buy this, and I’m 99 percent sure that Mackenzie Phillips didn’t buy it. She says her lines and does what she has to, but there’s an amused undercurrent: She sounds as if Francie is playing along, for now, because it amuses her to do so. But Mary and Mr. Grant don’t seem to notice that she’s half-yanking their chain. So long as it got me what I wanted, I’m not sure I’d want to notice, either.

In the subplot, Sue Ann Nivens also picks herself a Little Sister—and, as she announces with undisguised glee, “Mine’s black!” Sue Ann is only doing this to boost her chances of winning an award, but she really gets into it, cooking a soul-food dinner and taking her new friend to see a double bill of Shaft and Super Fly. The big punchline comes when pompous WJM news anchor Ted says, “The more confused and immature a person is, the more easily influenced they can be by someone else”—whereupon Sue Ann and her Little Sister enter wearing matching afros. Edgy stuff for 1975 primetime, but if you take away the racial element, what you’ve got is a prescient vision of how the power balance between the generations was fated to shift in TV: Today, there are people calling all the shots at major networks who wouldn’t pick out a pair of shoelaces without consulting a 15-year-old.

Ryan McGee: I think you’re right to talk about the essential unknowable nature of Francie, who very much plays like a cipher in this episode—to the point where I felt like I was missing something about Phillips’ performance. She’s not really hiding anything, per se, because she’s unsure of what she should be hiding in the first place. She’s not trying on different guises in order to mess with Mary. She’s trying on things like the bedazzled jacket just to see how they fit her. It stands in stark contrast to someone like Murray, who sits at his desk and watches life pass by; he has a static position both in the office and in life itself.

The ’90s shows you mention all come from a place that seems to try and express those feelings in a way that “Mary’s Delinquent” simply cannot. It’s all well and fine to have Lou step in as a voice of authority, since it might confirm for some at home that all kids of all generations just need a swift kick in the ass in order to put them on the straight and narrow. But there’s no way Francie doesn’t keep on doing what’s she’s been doing until something serious actually happens to her. Even then, there’s no guarantee. The episode doesn’t come out and say this, of course. Mary feels as if she’s done some good with Francie. But she’s also back to work, focused enough to try and return the helicopter she accidentally purchased. Neither side particularly has a lasting effect on the other, mostly because each side is too busy simply trying to make it through the day on their own. This isn’t a dark, nihilistic view of the world, but it’s an honest one all the same. While “Mary’s Delinquent” suggests the possibility of change, it’s smart enough not to promise it.

Noel Murray: With all the recent discussion on our site and elsewhere about how television from a woman’s perspective doesn’t get its proper due, I was especially interested to see Mary Kay Place and Valerie Curtin’s names in the credits. They weren’t the first women to write for The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the show’s voice was partly shaped by writers like Treva Silverman and Gail Parent, and Moore herself was known to be something of a bulldog when it came to protecting the integrity of her show and her character. But “Mary’s Delinquent” offers a distinctly feminine (and era-specific) spin on the “older guys trying to act cool around younger guys” plot. In Mary’s case, trying to be relevant to a teenager means acknowledging that she’s been around the block herself—or if not “around” than “nearby.” It’s funny to see the continuum on which Mary places herself. She’s a single woman and a career gal who can crack wise about Sue Ann’s cynical interest in the Big Sister program (“Now, some poor underprivileged kid is going to be forced to learn how to cook a quiche”), but she freaks out when she thinks Francie is taking “reds” that turn out to be Tic Tacs. The goalposts have moved in the ’70s, and what was daring for a woman at the start of the decade—to be like Mary Richards—is now blandly conformist in comparison to these youngsters who are popping pills and sleeping around.

If it’s not getting too personal, I’d be interested in hearing Donna and Meredith talk a little about the tricky balance of being “cool” as an adolescent female, which often seems to require you to be at once virtuous and worldly, in ways that seem untenable.

Donna Bowman: My parents distrusted the television, but for some reason Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart (which were on back-to-back on CBS in the ’70s) were shows we often watched together. In my mind, they are the gentle, friendly flip-side of the crude, in-your-face All In The Family, which my folks wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole. (Even today, “Those Were The Days” makes me feel like something frighteningly deviant is about to happen.) I treated this peek into “real television” (as opposed to the variety shows and sports that made up the rest of our viewing) as a peek into the adult world. And so I can barely see the adolescents being portrayed in “Mary’s Delinquent” by Mackenzie Phillips and Tamu Blackwell, because I’m busy soaking in the world of work and dating and apartment living, courtesy of the regular cast. 

I confess, it’s mostly the fashion. The fact that I couldn’t have any of these clothes because my grandmother made most of my wardrobe and I was confined to orthopedic shoes made them all the more irresistible to me. This was the golden age of tying something around you (at the waist or neck); it looks to me like going out without a matching belt or scarf was the equivalent of showing up half-dressed. Men in big cities, I learned, wore turtlenecks under their sports coats, unlike all the adult men I saw at church in three piece suits year-round. This being from a mid-’70s season of the show, I find Mary in a calf-length skirt, and a little part of me dies inside; her miniskirts and boots from the early seasons were the height of sophistication to my childhood self.

The other piece of the adult world I craved unswervingly was Lou Grant’s office. Seeing it again now, I realize how tiny it was. And yet that’s everything I wanted from growing up: A frosted-glass-enclosed retreat with my name on the door in that awesome minimal typeface. A place of my own. If I were Mary’s Little Sister, I’d raid her closet rather than Murray’s desk drawer. (I’d also stay away from Ted, who defines “perv” for me and whose appearance on an Orange Bowl halftime show I attended with my family involved some sexual innuendo that still embarrasses me to this day.)

Meredith Blake: I don’t know, guys. I don’t think Francie is a mystery as much as she is beside the point. In fact, the thing that strikes me about “Mary’s Delinquent” is just how underdeveloped her character is. She has what, maybe 10 lines of dialogue in the entire half-hour? I don’t mean this as a criticism, necessarily, because as Noel suggests, this episode is really more about Mary than it is about Francie. Mary, the square, doesn’t quite know how to handle a rebellious teen in her midst. She may be a successful thirtysomething woman, yet she’s reduced to a bundle of nerves in Francie’s presence. That’s because Mary’s never quite outgrown her goody-goody adolescence. 

Noel, you’re right on the money to say that young women are under pressure to be worldly and virtuous at the same time. As a fundamentally nerdy kid from a stable family, I was never a likely candidate for juvenile delinquency, but like many teenagers I did dabble in some highjinks that now fill me with shame, partly out of boredom and partly out of a desire to be “cool.” But, as “Mary’s Delinquent” attests, women never really escape the contradictory expectations first placed upon them as teenagers: to be cool without being bad, to be fun without being sloppy, to be experienced without being slutty. Just listen to the coded way Murray speaks about the young women in the Little Sisters program: “Some of these girls may have, uh, dated heavily.” Mary counters by claiming, unconvincingly, that she’s not as naïve as they all think. In the space of a few seconds, this episode captures the irreconcilable push-pull of contemporary womanhood. 

Like Donna, I was also extremely distracted by all things aesthetic in this episode. Although I miss Mary’s sunken living room the way that Donna longs for her early-season miniskirts and boots, I do find myself coveting Francie’s outfits. (What does it say about me that I want to dress like a ’70s juvenile delinquent?) Those tight-fitting, high-waisted bellbottoms are a thing of wonder, obviously, but if you look closely, you’ll discover the seemingly abstract pattern on her t-shirt is actually the silhouette of a person (maybe a woman?) carrying what appears to be a briefcase (or could it be a bowling ball?). In either case, maybe there’s more to Francie than any of us presumed.

Todd VanDerWerff: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of my four or five favorite TV programs ever made, so this one was going to be a favorite of mine no matter what. I don’t think this is one of the program’s strongest episodes, but it comes from what might be the series’ strongest season (and how many shows can say that about their sixth year on the air?), which includes the immortal “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” What’s impressive to me is how thoroughly the series has figured out its rhythms at this point, even after losing two major characters to spinoffs and shifting one of the show’s standing sets (as Mary moves apartments earlier in this season). Moore is one of the best actresses the medium has ever had, yet it’s so easy to forget how perfect every member of this ensemble is by this point in the show. Such relatively unheralded performers as Georgia Engel are offering up lines like, “He taught me how to tap dance” (in re: her imaginary friend) that would be given to bigger “stars” on other shows. This is a true ensemble, and it’s just fun to watch everybody play.

As to the question of what this show tells us about adolescence, I’m not sure. I agree that it tells us more about the adult characters than it does the teenagers, but I find that fascinating all the same. So much of our conception of adolescence is handed down to us by adults who are struggling to make sense of those few years when the entire world seemed to go crazy as much as anything else. We can all remember that time, but the more we think about it, the more it might seem like a bizarre blur that happened to somebody else. (I know it frequently does for me.) Most of the characters see the two girls at the show’s center as the delinquents they’re meant to be, but I like that Mary and Sue Ann see them almost as extensions of their young selves, in very different directions. One of the abiding storylines of the series is that Mary is too trusting, but while that will get her into a scrape, it will also get her out of it. Where Sue Ann is easily swayed by anyone around her, Mary holds firm in her basic optimism about, well, everything, and she’s rewarded for it, if not always in the way she’d like to be. She’s the only person on the show who even attempts to relate to Francie as anything other than a teenage terror and/or mystery, and though she’s punished for it, she’s also rewarded in the end. The Mary Tyler Moore Show sometimes seems to me like a lesson in how to approach life from a decade swirling with turmoil: Keep positive and carry on.

Erik Adams: With the spotlight shining so squarely on the adult characters here, I identified the episode’s amorphous perspective on adolescence in the way the various employees of WJM treated Francie and Celestine: Mary is Francie’s “Big Sister,” but she ends up acting more motherly than sisterly to her charge. Sue Ann, evidently convinced that the youth vote is crucial to winning a local media award, desperately grasps at being on the level with her Little Sister, Celestine. Ted is the Twin Cities’ creepy uncle, so there’s no surprise in him suggesting he and Francie could date a few years down the line. And Lou, patriarch of the newsroom, puts on his dad pants when he perceives that Mary’s kid-glove approach isn’t going to steer our young shoplifter away from a life of crime. But the great thing about “Mary’s Delinquent” is that it doesn’t single any of these approaches out as the “correct” one. Sure, Lou’s the adult who got Francie to return the jacket—all the while scoring a killer button for the helicopter storyline—but there’s no indication as to whether or not the guy with the hole in his gums is the one who guides this troubled youth down the straight and narrow. That’s one of the pluses of the episode’s “unknowable” guest players: The show doesn’t purport to know any more about the teenage psyche than any of its principals.

Stray observations: 

RM: I cannot believe how much 30 Rock’s Pete Hornberger plays as a direct descendent of Murray Slaughter. I haven’t watched an episode of MTM since 30 Rock started, so I never connected the two until watching this episode.

NM: I lived through the ’70s, and yet I’m still thrown by that decade’s notion of racial progressiveness, which largely had to do with white people using black slang and black people making the kind of jokes about “the ghetto” that now get passed around via email by our racist uncles.

NM: Always fun to hear James L. Brooks’ honking laugh in the background, appreciating what his cast is doing.

MB: Given Betty White’s resurgent popularity in recent years, it’s interesting to see how her public persona has shifted rather dramatically since her time on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Sue Ann Nivens has that veneer of dimpled sweetness that’s so fundamentally “Betty White,” but there’s an undercurrent of nastiness and narcissism we’d never associate with the ditzy, daft old lady who’s since become an unofficial national treasure.

TV: Watching this episode was entirely worth it for three line-readings by three women, all of which have been mentioned at least once. The way Engel says “tap dance,” White says “black” (with such relish!), and Moore says “nearby” are all pitch-perfect. They’re good jokes, but they gain another level in the mouths of these performers and their emphasis on particular words, or even particular syllables. Even more remarkable is that their respective performance styles are fairly different, yet they seem to all occupy the same universe. I miss that aspect of the multi-camera sitcom, which feels much more homogenous now.

Next week: Rudy Huxtable grows up in The Cosby Show’s “The Infantry Has Landed (And They’ve Fallen Off The Roof).” (This episode is on Hulu for HuluPlus subscribers here. It is also on YouTube. The first part is here.)

After that: After taking a week off for Independence Day, the Roundtable returns to consider the horrible things Kevin Arnold says behind its back in The Wonder Years’ “Nemesis.” (This episode is available on Netflix for Netflix Instant subscribers here. It is also available on YouTube. The first part is here.)