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Part of the best of American television,
This review is from: The Mary Tyler Moore Show - The Complete First Season (DVD)
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (MTM) is one of the most complete shows to emerge from American television. In the tradition of "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Dick van Dyke Show," it was a comedy with the comedic aspects drawn not simply from real life, but ordinary life.
By most complete I mean shows that reflect insightfully the lives most of us end up living, regardless of what, at seventeen, we think our lives are sure to be. And so, pretty much by definition, that point of view eliminates the one-hour dramas that have ranged from "Hill Street Blues" to "L. A. Law," from "The West Wing" and "E.R." to the "CSI" franchise. Eliminates them for the simple reason that real, ordinary life includes comedy. Real, ordinary life - if it has meaning at all - includes moments of honest, bonding laughter and not just ironic smirks from hardened cops, bloodied doctors or saavy politicos.
And by most complete I mean comedy that is found not by smashing apples into oranges ("My Favorite Martian," "My Mother the Car," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Mork and Mindy," "Third Rock From the Sun"), but by shifting the parallax of daily life just the slightest, at just the right point, to deliver the comedy, if not the absurdity, of human life on planet Earth.
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" followed the classic template of all the preceding great sitcoms. In this template about a half dozen main characters form a genuine community. The adults in the community are of an age at which the dreams of their youth are gone (or are as completed as they're going to be), and have come to realize, accept and perhaps cherish the notion that with whom you work is just as important, if not more so, than what you do.
"I Love Lucy," "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Dick van Dyke Show" all accomplished this form within the context of the respective times for each show. (Please note that the family shows, "Father Knows Best," "The Donna Reed Show," "Leave it to Beaver" etc., are of a different form and so are part of a different discussion. Those shows focused on the home, and so again by definition cannot fully illustrate a complete life. The shows under discussion focused mainly on work in the larger world, and then on home life.)
The times that held the premier of MTM were very much different from the times of those earlier shows. Nineteen seventy, when MTM premiered, was far more different from 1960, when "The Andy Griffith Show" premiered, than was 1960 to 1951 when "I Love Lucy" premiered. The entire American landscape had changed in the decade between Andy and MTM. Rather than depict an eternally rosy life, the premise of MTM was downbeat - a life that had not worked out, a deliberate physical and emotional ripping away of that old life, a move to a new place with new people. (True, "The Andy Griffith Show" was premised on a dead wife and mother, but that fact was establsihed as well in the past with episode one. With episode one of MTM Mary's state of being is current, and will underlie the basic story line for the entire run of the show.)
Another MTM key was a lack of hyperbole; that is, ultra-exagerrated characters who would never exist in real life. Like Barney Fife, Ted Baxter is an exaggeration, but not to the point of Cosmo Kramer, or Harry from "Third Rock ...." This lack of cartoon-like characterization keeps open the window into the lives of people who worry about what we all do - money, health, being alone, fulfillment. Not that characters on other shows of any description don't have such worries. It's just that on the dramas they do it loudly and explicitly and on the slappy comedies they do it for a laugh and nothing more.
On MTM we see characters grapple with these weights as we all do - or would like to, anyway. At first alone, and then quuietly as we ask a friend to bear witness. Just as important, these troubles emerge, unstoppable, from the background. A remarkably poignant scene in MTM finds Mary and her father in her apartment. He is visiting from their hometown, the place that drove Mary to Minneapolis. Standing in the small apartment with the foldout couch he is in the midst of what his daughter's life now is. The last thing he wants to say is "I told you so." I don't think that is in his mind at all. He probably wants to say "I'm sorry. I so wish everything might have worked out better for you." But he doesn't. And Mary doesn't. There is nothing to say. Finally he asks, in an earnest tone unique to a father talking with his grown daughter, "Are you happy?" After a pause timed so perfectly, Mary answers honestly, if with the slightest reticence, "Yes." And we know she is. In the arithmetic of the ups and downs, of the good and bad, she is ... and in a way too many of us ache to be.
Because the comedy of MTM was just a hair's distance from the drama, it was comedy of the highest order. The funniest moments in life are not set up. (If a priest, a minister and a rabbi ever did walk into a bar together it wasn't funny.) We rarely see these moments coming as they simply flip a situation around, or upside down or inside out.
Lou: MARY, YOU'VE GOT SPUNK!
MARY: (ALMOST BLUSHING) WELL, THANK YOU, MR. GRANT.
LOU: I HATE SPUNK.
One night when Mary has agreed to watch twelve-year-old Bess, then learns she must also go out, she hires a baby sitter. Just because the baby sitter is eleven doesn't stop her from saying to Bess, "Hello, little girl, what's your name?" Even the classic episode about the funeral of Chuckles the Clown was not an affected device - what else would eulogies for a clown be? And of course this edge of comedy - and the exhileration comedy denotes - was seen at the beginning of every episode. Who hasn't wondered who that scarf-wearing older woman is who is stunned, and possibly offended, by Mary Tyler Moore/Mary Richards as Mary/Mary twirls around downtown Minneapolis and tosses her hat in the sky?
The life of Mary Richrads was not just an American life, or a human life. It was a universal life, and by that I mean literally one sentient life - one single experience for better or worse - in the universe. Because it is the oldest of cliches, the one I'm about to use is the moldiest and smarmiest, and that doesn't matter. Cliches become cliches because they are true, and, yes, our lives are nothing without the lives of others. By deliberate calculation and hard work and just dumb luck (in the arts it's always all that together) James Brooks and Mary Tyler Moore created, in the life of mary Richards, one of the most memorable expressions of that cliche.