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Review: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic (Encore Post)

In honor of the groundbreaking work of Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at age 80, here’s my book review of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Originally written and posted on 3/4/2014.  

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

There’s a good reason for that.  When this groundbreaking sitcom premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. But I was a stubborn enough toddler (or so I’ve heard) that, had I understood what “MTM” was all about, I bet I could have made a pretty convincing case to my parents to let me watch it.

Instead, I saw it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I – as someone with my first job out of college – could appreciate it much better. (Never mind that I usually watched Mary and Rhoda while my fiance watched sports with his best friend in the other room, but that’s besides the point. I was happy, he was happy, and we’ve been married ever since. We must be doing something right.)

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why having a team of female comedy writers was so groundbreaking in 1970.

In today’s anything-goes television environment, it’s almost quaint to remember just how revolutionary “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was. The idea of Mary being divorced and having a career was – to put it mildly – a hard sell to network executives. The CBS execs replied with, “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.

Yeah. Those were the good old days, right?

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted explains how the writers and producers got around that (some reviews suggest that the book should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan,” for the writing and producing team that made the show happen). It also explains how having a female writing team significantly shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as the edgy ones on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises.

Ironically, my childhood dream was to grow up and be a screenwriter for “St. Elsewhere” – the critically-acclaimed medical drama that, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” also saw its share of firsts and also was produced by Grant Tinker’s company MTM Enterprises, named for his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore.

(In high school, I entertained the crazy idea of sending Mr. Tinker an unsolicited script. I talked about this a lot. Now, after reading the story about how superfan Joe Rainone would write detailed, weekly letters to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” cast analyzing each week’s show and how Marilyn Miller from Monroeville, PA (just outside of Pittsburgh) wrote a spec script for MTM and became a writer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I kind of want to kick my own ass.)

Regardless of my lost dreams, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted was entertaining – and the audiobook proved to be a good choice as I lived vicariously through the characters on my way to and from my real life, slightly-less-exciting-than-a-scriptwriter-but-hey!-still-a-writer! job as I listened to this on my commute to work.  I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers. I was glad that they included what they – the writers and the actors – have done since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air.

It was also so goddamn nostalgic, almost sad to a point. So many magnificent shows of television’s Golden Age of Comedy are referenced in this book as well as how the show that almost wasn’t going to be on the air wound up inspiring so many others.  The end of the book gives a nod to Mary Richards’ “cultural daughters” like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon of “30 Rock” and “power ensembles” as found in “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” Truly, Mary Richards’ influence and that of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is more far-reaching than anyone probably ever imagined.

Still, although we have indeed come a long way (baby) from the days when a writer couldn’t pen an episode about a New Yorker who was divorcing someone who was Jewish with a mustache, it makes one wonder if all the hard fought gains are truly appreciated by the talent we have today. Probably by some, yes. But I think the further we get away from television’s Golden Age, and the less communal our viewing experience becomes, the fuzzier those golden days will seem.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong 
Simon and Schuster
2013 
298 pages
Narrated by Amy Landon 
11 hours, 22 minutes 

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