❉ Remembering the trailblazing work of Mary Tyler Moore who died unexpectedly on January 25 at 80 years old.
In an episode of ‘The Simpsons’, Bart points out to Homer that television has “spent so much more time raising us than you have.” That line always rang true for me, and I suspect many other American kids who grew up in the ’70s could relate to it as well. Of the many key texts in this audiovisual curriculum, two seem particularly relevant today.
One was a mainstay of after-school viewing, despite the final episode being produced several years before I was born. The other was a staple of prime-time viewing, part of a block of comedy programming whose quality and longevity has rarely been matched. The common denominator for both was actress Mary Tyler Moore who died unexpectedly on January 25th at 80 years old.
‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ was not just one of the 1960s’ most popular comedies but also one of the best, melding workplace and domestic situations with a skill many contemporary series should envy. Inspired by his experiences writing for early television icon Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner devised the program as a vehicle for Van Dyke, but Moore ultimately emerged as equally the star. Her breakout performance stood out even among a remarkably good ensemble and paved the way for ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’, whose landmark seven year run began in 1970.
While there is something amusing about an actress whose first regular TV role featured just her voice and legs becoming a feminist icon, that’s more a reflection of the preconceptions that affect actresses than it is of her talent. Still, neither her part as the title character’s secretary in ‘Richard Diamond, Private Detective’ nor even playing Laura Petrie in ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ anticipated what Moore had to offer as Mary Richards.
The first of many defining moments comes early in the first episode. Mary’s nosy landlady Phyllis Lindstrom sets out to explain her new tenant’s backstory to another character:
Phyllis: A beautiful romance just blew up in her face.
Mary: It did not blow up. I made the decision.
That one line tells us everything we need to know about Mary’s character. As we’ll see in many future episodes, she may be sentimental, but she’s no pushover and certainly isn’t defined by any one relationship. Being able to portray a character with that dynamic is the most obvious indicator of how progressive ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ was for its time – and arguably still is – one that paves the way for other evolutions.
On the surface, the show’s setting is quite conventional. Aside from making Moore’s character part of the workplace team, the split between the domestic and office settings isn’t all that different from ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’. Having Mary take an associate producer position when the better-paying secretarial job she applied for is taken is both a great joke and a brilliant twist on audience expectations, but even that just scratched the surface. Likewise, storylines dealing with gender equality, journalist ethics and sexual mores were very topical and handled with a balance of humour and intelligence but were only part of the picture. What distinguished the show above all, though, is its understanding of a broader cultural shift when it came to the family.
More so than Mary Richards never being married the most forward looking aspect of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ was that her co-workers and neighbours were not just comic foils but rather parts of an extended family. This shift from traditional structures to friends and co-workers coalescing into de facto families, especially among young people living far from their hometowns, was gaining momentum during the show’s original run and if anything is more prevalent today. Consequently, the tearful finale where no one wants to let go of the group embrace despite a desperate need for Kleenex all around still feels completely genuine.
As the concept of family became more fluid, so too did television’s mass audience. Their 168 episode run was not just a high-water mark for quality but also for TV as a collective experience. Other programmes may have had higher ratings, but the Saturday night block of comedies ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ belonged to on CBS – including ‘All in the Family’, ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ among others – was a cultural touchstone in itself.
As with her time on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’, Moore managed to stand out even among a formidable line-up of comedic talent. Four decades on, the mass audience has fragmented and streaming has rendered the idea of appointment viewing nearly obsolete, but at the time this was a line-up that unified multiple generations. Admittedly, some of the humour and the social concerns that drove it didn’t fully register until several years later, but ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and its Saturday night peers were no less formative despite that.
After the show that bore her name ended, Moore pursued a variety of stage and screen endeavours with varying levels of success. Her Oscar-nominated role in the film ‘Ordinary People’ was justifiably prominent, but her two iconic TV roles remained the most influential. It’s hard to envision the likes of ’30 Rock’, ‘Parks & Recreation’ and ‘Veep’ without her trailblazing work. Thanks to a combination of reruns and DVD, her influence seems likely to continue.