Test Pilot #17: The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Debut date: September 17, 1970
Series legacy: One of the most well-regarded comedies of all-time.
I have to apologize, sort of. I took a few extra weeks to figure out where I wanted to go with the next set of Test Pilot files. I thought about doing another genre study or perhaps focusing on another network or channel, but ultimately decided that it was best to try something slightly new. And because I’ve been working on my MA thesis, thinking about ideas of authorship and reading a great edited collection on MTM Enterprises, bringing all those things together within the Test Pilot framework felt like the right thing to do. Thus, over the next four TP entries, we’ll be dipping further back into televisual history than ever before and into the MTM Enterprises archives, if you will.
Authorship is a really tricky thing and perhaps no more so than in the world of television. Numerous scholars have discussed the problems with analyzing television with an authorship slant with all of them rightfully pointing out that any production has countless cooks in the kitchen, within individual episodes and across multiple efforts just the same. With so many writers, directors, producers, co-producers, executive producers, story editors and everything else, it is difficult to say that a series is reflective of one person’s sole vision. Even an egomaniac like Matthew Weiner doesn’t do everything on Mad Men, no matter how much he might think he does.
But despite the complex issues related to authorship, the MTM Enterprises book edited by Feuer introduces an intriguing concept (one that, admittedly, has some small space in my thesis) of “corporate authorship” wherein a collective (featuring those from both production and business) can produce something of a corporate signature that reflects certain ideals, standards and expectations. In the case of MTM, Feuer argues that the production power of the ’70s and ’80s reflected a signature of quality, not unlike the way HBO and AMC co-opted those ideas of taste and distinction for their respective cable channels years later. These ideas of authorship and quality really stuck with me and inspired me to dive into the MTM oeuvre for this quartet of Test Pilot files. Unlike past groupings, I have no real “big questions” I’d like to try to answer. I’m trying to keep it a little more open this time and if there are obvious connections we can make between certain MTM programs or themes to point out, great. The two things I want to discuss are 1.) this idea of “quality” and whether or not, at least from my perspective, the MTM series are “quality” and 2.) How MTM did or did not put a specific stamp on some of the series it produced, comedy or drama.
In any event, it seems like the best way to talk about MTM Enterprises is to start at the beginning with the company’s namesake, The Mary Tyler More Show. MTM is one of the most-respected comedies of all time, winning 29 Emmy awards and finding a spot on countless “Best of” lists. From its iconic opening titles to the seemingly endless number of spin-offs it spawned, MTM feels like something of a cultural institution. So much so that even though I have probably only seen three episodes, I feel like I know about it. I really don’t, but almost 31 years later, it still feels pretty important. In any event, taking the veterans role in our viewing of MTM is the wonderful Jaime Weinman. He writes for Macleans on the TV Guidance blog and can be found on Twitter talking about his love for the multi-camera comedy, his disappointment with Community and all sorts of other great things. Mr. Weinman has a vast knowledge of television comedy and therefore I think the perfect candidate to talk about this series with me. Take it away, Jaime:
The question I always ask when watching the Mary Tyler Moore pilot is: “why isn’t the rest of the season this good?” Not that the pilot is perfect, but it’s a worthy introduction to a great series. The season that follows turned out some good episodes but also some weak ones, and few scenes that achieved iconic status like Mary’s iconic first interview with Lou. (When I make a list of the truly great Mary Tyler Moore episodes, they’re nearly all from seasons 3 through 7.) Though the show was always good, it took a long time for it to become great: when people ask me about Mary Tyler Moore, I usually recommend watching the pilot and a few selected episodes from the first two seasons (like the introduction of Rhoda’s mom in “Support Your Local Mother”) and then skip ahead to the third season, where the writers made a conscious decision to go all-in for character development in a way that no American television series had attempted.
But the pilot doesn’t seem to belong to a show that will take two years to truly find itself. The script by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns is exceptionally confident, particularly in the way it avoids conventional jokes wherever possible. Most sitcoms in the ’60s were very jokey: Gilligan says something silly or does something stupid. Stuff that seems like comedy even on paper. Brooks and Burns went for things that didn’t look like jokes and only become funny because of the situation. They got away with it, in part, because of the decision to shoot with a live studio audience, a format that was even deader in 1970 than it is now. (We don’t always think of Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies and other ’60s favourites as single-camera, but they were; strip the laugh track from Gilligan and it’s the format of Cougar Town.) It’s strange to think now that multi-camera comedy could be a friend to subtlety, but only a live audience’s reaction would have convinced CBS that a line like “Bess, that was mother’s news” is one of the funniest moments in the script.
It’s also a classic example of the multi-cam sitcom structure that is sometimes referred to as “six scene” structure. Sure enough, this episode has exactly six scenes (alternating between the only two sets, the apartment and the office) plus a tag at the end, with each scene bringing us a little closer to that climactic sixth scene, where the three different worlds the episode has set up – Mary’s new apartment, Mary’s new job, and Mary’s former life with her boyfriend – all come crashing together.
Of course, a pilot usually looks pretty good if you come to it knowing that the series eventually got great. Even Parks & Recreation looks okay now that we know who everyone is. (Nothing will ever make the 30 Rock pilot work, though. There are limits.) The characters in a pilot are raw material, basically one-line concepts that the actors and writers are hoping to turn into something interesting eventually. When I try to think how these characters would seem if I didn’t know what came later, I start to understand why the show didn’t instantly build on this fine pilot.
Some of the characters are pretty well-defined: Mary, because the writers are just writing to Moore’s familiar persona; Phyllis, because Cloris Leachman has a zany way of moving and delivering lines; and Lou, whose chemistry with Mary is so clear that scenes between Mary and Lou in the office would become the absolute highlight of many episodes. (By the end of the series, a weak episode can be saved by Lou calling Mary into his office for a chat.) But Rhoda is so abrasive that the studio audience didn’t like her, and the writers had to add a line with Bess (Lisa Gerritsen) assuring everyone that Rhoda’s really nice at heart, because children are wise or something. More importantly, they’ve cast the young, attractive Valerie Harper in a part that was clearly written for someone of a different description — it would take them a long time to write for what Valerie Harper could do instead of writing her as the dumpy girl they didn’t cast. Murray and Lou aren’t in the episode for long enough to make much of an impression; they’re generic wisecracker and generic pompous idiot, respectively. (One interesting thing is that all the male regulars are balding or graying men in parts that could, in theory, be cast with younger men. Today no major network would cast a bunch of old unsexy dudes if they didn’t have to.) There’s a lot to build on here — that’s why it’s a good pilot — but like any new characters they have a long way to go before becoming finished creations.
Apart from some fuzziness about who these people are, which every pilot has, the 24 minute episode (that’s 24 minutes of actual content not counting the hat-throwing opening titles and the first appearance of the MTM kitten) is a little fuzzy about the socio-political viewpoint this show is going to have. People often wonder what the fuss was about Mary Tyler Moore, why it was supposed to be so revolutionary in its portrayal of a single woman. People wondered the same thing at the time. (I remember an interview with two writers for Norman Lear’s shows who mocked Mary for being such a white-bread show, unwilling to take on big social issues like they did.) You can see Brooks and Burns and Moore trying to figure it out in the pilot: How far can we go? How far should we go?
Like most good comedy, it has a timely, real-world issue at its core, in this case about changes that have taken place in society during the ’60s. Mary is a 30 year-old woman who is, for the moment, better off not being married. There had been other single girls on TV, but they were usually looking to get married or had steady boyfriends (like Marlo Thomas’s character on That Girl). The dramatic climax of the Mary Tyler Moore pilot comes when Mary establishes that she will not have a steady boyfriend, that all the regulars on the show will be her co-workers or housemates. When her boyfriend accuses her of trying to pressure him into marriage, it stings because it’s a common gender stereotype and because she’s lived up to the stereotype, defining the last two years of her life by whether she’s going to get married. So she has to look for something to define her that doesn’t involve being a wife. Think how rarely, even now, you see a female lead who isn’t defined by her romantic relationship to a man, and you’ll understand why this was a big deal.
Still and all, it’s Mary Tyler Moore, America’s favourite suburban ’60s housewife, and Jim Brooks, America’s favourite packager of humour and sentiment. These aren’t social revolutionaries, and this is not All In the Family, which would hit CBS later that same season. Mary Tyler Moore has one foot in the late ’60s, when U.S. television sitcoms were mostly pure escapism and censorship was the strictest in American TV history. (Brooks and Burns can’t even say directly that Mary was living with her boyfriend; they convey it by having Bess say, meaningfully, that she knows “everything” about Mary’s past relationship.) The question of what kind of show to be — a light comedy or a “relevant” one — will be something Mary Tyler Moore will be grappling with for the next couple of years, until it finally settles on its identity as a character comedy.
In the early pages of the MTM Enterprises book, Feuer notes that The Mary Tyler Moore Show “was just traditional enough and just innovative enough” (emphasis mine). After watching the pilot episode for our purposes, I can totally see that perspective. As Jaime so eloquently points out, MTM still feels like it’s a product of the late ’60s, but there are crumbs of difference and novelty present within these opening 25 minutes. As someone who has never seen the initial offering, this episode is both exactly what I thought it would be and still kind of unexpected at the same time. The narrative is as I predicted it would be, but the humor is surprisingly timeless and potent, even 31 years later.
This is mostly a byproduct of my current summer viewing, but as I watched this episode, I couldn’t help but think of Cheers. Not necessarily in regards to character or plot, but definitely as far as humor and “world-building” go. Both series’ pilot episodes actually deal with similar situations (in MTM, Mary officially calls its quits with her ex-boyfriend and finds a new job and in Cheers, Diane gets dumped by her would-be fiance and finds a new job), but their true similarities lie in how they handle the jokes. MTM has a slightly more structured final comedic set-piece (which is fantastic, by the way), but both series find ways to cultivate humor from the characters and their quirks. Mary, Phyllis and Lou all come well-formed as characters and even though she’s something of an antagonist here, I really enjoyed Rhoda. She’s abrasive and fun without being too annoying or obviously villainous. Again, this sort of reminds me of the Cheers pilot wherein the character interaction drives much of the humor, but it similarly never feels like people are ragging on one another just because the script dictates it.
Jaime mentioned the six-scene structure and that plays dividends as far as pacing goes. Enough of Mary’s past and future are both established within this episode and yet, things never feel didactic whatsoever. The plot bounces from her personal life to her work and back and still lets those worlds develop with fairly long and substantial scenes. Mary’s first visit to her apartment and her initial visit to the TV station extend along for a while, but they never get boring. There’s a dynamism to the actor’s performances and the writing that keeps the jokes flowing so it is really easy to forget that most of the episode is just people sitting or standing still talking to one another. Nothing really “happens” until the final sequence when Ed Anser overwhelms with his awesomeness.* Nevertheless, this episode succeeds because Mary’s small world is established, she meets the characters that will populate that world for seasons to come and I found it fairly easy to get a beat on them. This might be simply a product of the time, but this episode feels expertly and simply structured and executed. Yet again, kind of like Cheers‘ first episode.
*Now I just want to watch UP again.
I say this to point towards a question I’ve raised before (within those Cheers reviews, in fact): Why aren’t today’s comedy pilots this good? I love Parks and Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother and Community. With that group of series, the quality of their pilots ranged from problematic at best and pretty terrible at worst. They all grew into something much better, some very quickly, but their initial offerings just don’t work. Yet, here I am again, watching an “old”/”traditional”/”multi-camera” sitcom and completely enjoying myself. I’m not sure if it is simply a product of the times or a larger reflection of changes in the development process, but after just one episode, I could see why people loved Mary Tyler Moore so much (even if Jaime suggests it doesn’t get “good” until season three). There is something simply, but totally effective about this episode and these characters that I could help but smile.
Horace Newcomb once noted that MTM and its various off-shoots and related series feature stories where “the problems are mental and emotional; there is a deep sense of personal love among [the characters].” I really like this assertion and I’m wondering if this kind of storytelling doesn’t happen so often in today’s pilots because everything has to be so conceptual, either within the story (How I Met Your Mother, Community) or in the way a series is shot (Office, Parks). Perhaps we have just reached a point where simplicity in story and world don’t really hook viewers in anymore so the higher concepts are a must, but it seems much easier to like, understand and sympathize with Mary here than it was to do the same with Leslie Knope, Ted Mosby or Liz Lemon. I’d like to think that a MTM-like series could be made today, but maybe we’re too cynical and too postmodern.
As for the innovations, however slight they may be, they are there. The fact that this series is toplined by three female characters, with two of them choosing to be single, is damn impressive. Even for today’s standards, a comedy with three of the four most integral characters being women is fairly unforeseen. So many of today’s comedies are clear ensembles, but there’s still nothing on the air right now that is so obviously powered by women and, both at the center and in sheer numbers as a whole. Ed Anser has a lot to do and arguably steals the whole episode out from underneath Moore, but outside of his Lou Grant, it seems to me that Phyllis and Rhoda are the other lead characters.
Additionally, I was surprised to see how little these ladies talked about their love lives. There is some discussion there, but there isn’t much indication that these character’s stories are going to be all about who they date, who they sleep with and who they love. Feuer’s chapter notes that the producers originally wanted to be even more progressive by having Mary actually get a divorce or be coming off one with the episode began. They eventually settled for the break-up of the long relationship, but the seeds of that kind of progressive attitude that most of us “know” (even if you’re like me and actually don’t know it, but just hear of it) from MTM are planted in this episode and I guess in parts of the episode that didn’t actually come to pass. Jaime rightfully pointed out the tension with progress and tradition in the fact that the series wouldn’t explicitly talk about Mary’s relationship with the man who shows up near the end of the episode, but the way she handles the situation is what matters, not some of the minutia in getting there. There are standard sexist comments about Mary’s physical appearance, but I took them to be more reflective of Lou’s character than any sense of series-wide sexism or treatment of women, though I could be wrong.
*I just have to say, Mary Tyler Moore is very attractive here. More so than I ever thought.
So is MTM “quality?” That’s always hard to tell after just one episode, obviously. Some series have wonderful pilots and keep it up into the series (Friday Night Lights), others start so strong and go nowhere fast (The Nine). I watched a few more episodes after my pilot viewing and liked them about the same, so I can at least say that the series keeps at this level for the most part, no matter what Mr. Weinman says. That still doesn’t really prove the kind of quality Feuer mentions in the first chapter of her edited collection, but the seeds are planted and already starting to grow.
Conclusions on legacy: Great, even if it is not quite reflective of the series’ early episodes