The Mary Tyler Moore Show is unique in that few shows of its era are as deserving of the full-length book treatment. The series stuck to its creative guns and grew into one of the best, most beloved shows of the 1970s. The choice to center its comedy on characters, not wacky situations, proved quietly revolutionary, influencing almost every comedy made since. Yet the show has largely slipped into the mists of time; the complete run was released on DVD but the series rarely pops up in syndicated reruns. The accomplishments of Norman Lear’s socially conscious sitcoms of the same era are easier to boil down for those writing about the great TV of the ’70s.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted aims to fix that. Beginning in the early ’60s and following around four or five of the most important people in the show’s genesis (including Moore herself, key writer Treva Silverman, and co-creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns), Armstrong nicely delineates exactly what drove these people together and what creative alchemy resulted from their meeting. Moore, running from a Broadway flop, found herself again contemplating television in the wake of a hugely successful variety special. Brooks and Burns put potentially promising film careers on hold to try and create the kind of TV comedy they could be proud of (or at least prouder of than My Mother The Car, which both had worked on). Silverman just wanted to break into an industry dominated by men, while Moore’s husband, Grant Tinker, tried to build a sort of Shangri La of television to serve as the sitcom’s production company.
As almost always happens, watching the pieces of this historic television show come together is slightly more fun than what happens after. Armstrong devotes a significant portion of the book to such things as Brooks and Burns’ struggles with CBS network executives—who didn’t want the kind of show the two were proposing, but were forced to put it on the air because of their strict deal with Moore—and the casting process. (It’s fascinating to read about how the producers and Moore reacted differently to the various actors who would become synonymous with their roles. Moore, for instance, knew instantly that Valerie Harper would play Rhoda Morgenstern, while her producers took more convincing.) It all culminates in two stories, of how Brooks and Burns saved the show during the pilot-taping process by sticking to their guns and how an executive switchover directly led to the show being saved from a premature death by scheduling. (Also notable: The series was hailed as an instant turkey by the press before it had even gone into production, and the early reviews were distinctly unkind, particularly fascinating for a show that would become a huge critical favorite by the end of its run.)
In comparison to these long, early portions, the rest of the book, dealing with the show’s seven-season run, as well as the launch of spinoffs Rhoda and Phyllis (and, by extension, the growth of MTM Productions into one of the dominant TV forces of that decade), leaves a bit to be desired. There are places where Armstrong seems to rush past potentially interesting stories in favor of moving onto the next big thing, and there are also sections that deal too glancingly with the show’s impact on culture—and how later female-centric sitcoms left feminists of the era complaining that Mary Tyler Moore did too little to advance the cause.
Yet even those lesser sections are breezy and well-reported. Armstrong has talked to a great many of the people who worked behind the scenes and in front of the camera, as well as digging up contemporaneous accounts and reviews. All of her research results in a book that’s always compelling, even when it seems to be sliding by certain things too quickly. And if nothing else, the book is an excellent look at an era when women began to make as much noise behind the camera as they did in the spotlight. Armstrong’s quick profiles of the series’ many regular female writers paint them as true pioneers and women whose groundbreaking work has led to sadly too little gender diversity in the modern TV landscape.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was such an important series that a book that exhaustively spells out every innovation it pioneered might become exhausting. Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted occasionally leaves the reader wanting more information, but in most cases, it proves an engaging, highly entertaining read of a show that set out to simply be very good and ended up rewriting TV history. For fans of the series and fans of the medium, it’s a must-read.