Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re launching our series on the best episodes featuring Ann Marie, a.k.a. That Girl (1966-1971, ABC). Fortunately, every episode is available on DVD.
Aspiring actress Ann Marie leaves home and moves to New York City against the wishes of her overly protective father. Determined to make a career as a performer, Ann Marie finds herself cast in a whole lot of strange and quirky predicaments — much to the amusement (and at times, exasperation) of her supportive and loving writer boyfriend, Donald.
That Girl stars MARLO THOMAS as Ann Marie, TED BESSELL as Donald Hollinger, LEW PARKER as Lou Marie, ROSEMARY DECAMP as Helen Marie, BONNIE SCOTT as Judy Bessemer, DABNEY COLEMAN as Dr. Leon Bessemer, and BERNIE KOPELL as Jerry Bauman.
Created by two of the head writers of The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl is often regarded as the ’60s incarnation of the iconically independent Mary Richards (of The Mary Tyler Moore Show). However, comparisons between the two shows are often misguided. Yes, they’re both about unmarried women who wish to make their own ways in the world, but the shows’ styles of humor are entirely opposed. While TMTMS is an ensemble multi-camera comedy, That Girl is single-camera and, undoubtedly, a star vehicle. As a result, the stories they tell are different. Also, while TMTMS pioneered the ’70s sitcom trend of lengthy character-driven dialogue, That Girl retained the whimsical and sentimental fun of the ’60s sitcom, maintaining a focus on heart. As a result, the WAY they tell their stories are different. So, sitcom scholars and fans: let’s all stop comparing the two. In my experiences with both series, I find that it’s best to separate them and recognize their individual contributions to the depiction of women in television. But I’m not interested in writing a thesis on That Girl today. Instead, I’d like to tell you about the best of Season One.
That Girl is interesting in that, although — like with most sitcoms — it experiences definite growing pains throughout its first year, the show always seems to have a handle on its characters and its stories. I mean, though there are a handful of scripts that don’t quite make the grade here, every episode still manages to feel like a That Girl. I give a lot of credit to Marlo Thomas, who is very likable (even when her character behaves in ways that seemingly lack logic and common sense) and maintains a sense of tonal continuity among episodes of varying quality. Additionally, this first season benefits from the presence of Ann Marie’s neighbor Judy, played by Bonnie Scott (from the original How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying) who disappears after this year, ushering in a string of characters that the writers would tryout in the “female friend” role. Though next season’s Ruthie Bauman would stay the longest, Scott’s Judy is the funniest and the most developed. But, that’s where the first season of That Girl succeeds most wonderfully: in its development of the characters. Right from the beginning, we know who they are and how they’ll interact with each other, and while they’ll never really change, there is evidence of subtle and continual growth. And, most importantly, it’s very amusing — on a regular basis. (Humor, as usual, is the principal criteria upon which I have adjudicated this series, along with premise creativity and the overall enjoyment factor.) So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There” (Aired: 09/08/66)
While working at a newsstand in an office building, Ann has several run-ins with a Donald Hollinger: first during a dispute over rights to a new desk and later during the production of a commercial in which Ann has been cast.
Written by Jim Parker & Arnold Margolin | Directed by Bob Sweeney
The first episode to officially air, this wonderful installment features a tag in which Marlo Thomas explains that this is a “preview show” and that the real first episode (i.e. the chronological first episode) will air the following week. Honestly, it was a very smart decision to put this one first, as it, in addition to introducing “that girl” to “that guy”, is one of the funniest shows of the season — perfectly demonstrating the show’s trademark coupling of broad/slapstick sensibilities with immense feeling. Superb way to launch the series (even though we won’t meet Lou and Helen until next week).
02) Episode 5: “Anatomy Of A Blunder” (Aired: 10/06/66)
After agreeing to accompany Ann to Brewster to pick up her hi-fi system and meet her folks for the first time, Donald is subjected to a disastrous picnic that looks to threaten his first impression on Mr. and Mrs. Marie.
Written by Dale McRaven & Carl Kleinschmitt | Directed by Bob Sweeney
This episode seems to be a fan (and cast & crew) favorite, and it’s easy to see why. Not only does the story build to something that we’ve been waiting for since meeting all the characters — the intersection of parents and boyfriend — but, again, there’s also lot of broad comedy as Ann and Don go on a typical and disastrously sitcom picnic that ends up delaying the meeting for which we’ve all been waiting. It’s no bother, as the delay proves to be quite amusing, and an especially good showcase for Bessell!
03) Episode 12: “Soap Gets In Your Eyes” (Aired: 11/24/66)
When Ann learns that her new glamorous role as a villainous on a soap opera has influenced Mrs. Hollinger’s approval of her, she seeks to remedy the situation by inviting over one of the show’s most respected actors.
Written by Tom & Helen August | Directed by Seymour Robbie
I think the most delightful thing about this episode — well, one of the most delightful things — is the introduction of Mabel Albertson, the ’60s sitcom perennial mother/mother-in-law. You will probably recognize her as Mrs. Stephens from Bewitched, which aired right next to That Girl on ABC. She’s her typical catty self here, and it’s wonderful. Additionally, this episode harkens to an amusing truism: viewers tend to mixup the personalities/existences of characters and their portrayers. With this note of realism, it’s okay for this episode to take the silly leaps that it does.
04) Episode 13: “All About Ann” (Aired: 12/01/66)
As Donald works to surprise Ann with an article about her life for an upcoming publication, his close association with one of the actresses in Ann’s workshop makes her very suspicious.
Written by Milton Pascal | Directed by John Erman
Jealousy was tired fodder for situation comedies even in the radio shows of the ’30s and ’40s, so when a series — and it’s such a common (and truly human) theme that it’s still done a bunch today — does an episode about it, the script has to be unique. What makes the whole thing work here is the brilliant climax in which Ann does an improvisational scene with the woman with whom she thinks Donald’s been cheating. Marlo makes the contrived jealousy angle believable, and fortunately, the show doesn’t try to keep viewers in the dark about Don’s dealings. All in all, a successful and funny episode.
05) Episode 17: “Among My Souvenirs” (Aired: 01/05/67)
When Ann discovers a ring given to her by an old boyfriend, she decides, against Donald’s better judgement, to return it to him — after all, it technically belongs to his mother.
Written by Peggy Elliot & Ed Scharlack | Directed by Seymour Robbie
The discovery of mementos from a sitcom character’s past usually guarantees an original premise, especially since, in addition to furthering an audience’s understanding of said character, the storytelling possibilities are endless. Even if it’s not hysterical, a conversation (that is grounded in reality) about Ann’s former flame is going to be an interesting scene. And when the script is funny, the entire installment is made the better. Unfortunately, the script is only mildly amusing, but the premise is solid and engaging enough to make the episode work — predictable ending aside.
06) Episode 18: “These Boots Weren’t Made For Walking” (Aired: 01/12/67)
Ann hopes her new job as a door-to-door shoe saleswoman will leave her more time for auditioning, but what her boss doesn’t tell her is that the shoes are poorly constructed — and made entirely from cardboard.
Written by Peggy Elliot & Ed Scharlack | Directed by John Erman
This episode introduces Ann to another Bewitched regular, Paul Lynde, who manages to make almost any television outing standout as a result of his involvement. The scenes between Thomas and Lynde are undoubtedly the highlight of the episode, but the unique and fun premise provides for much hilarity. This is a great sitcom episode: a good script, rooted in the series overall thematic goals, that’s made better by wonderful performances by both the regular and suporting players.
07) Episode 20: “Gone With The Breeze” (Aired: 01/26/67)
When Donald gives Ann the manuscript for the novel he’s recently completed and asks for her honest opinion, she tries to keep him from finding out that, not only did she not read the manuscript, but she’s also misplaced it.
Written by Tom & Helen August | Directed by John Erman
To be honest with you, this is another episode that utilizes a common sitcom plotline: “Character X loses something that Character Y has given them, and now Character X must retrieve/replace it before Character Y notices.” The premise is given some distinction here through Donald’s character — since he’s a writer, the object that is misplaced is the manuscript for his novel. Ann trying to pretend she’s read Don’s book is amusing, and the scenes with Ann in the department store (featuring a Beverly Hillbillies regular) are standouts.
08) Episode 26: “You Have To Know Someone To Be Unknown” (Aired: 03/09/67)
Ann does everything in her power to get recognized by a Broadway producer who is reportedly looking to cast an unknown for his latest play, but when Donald attempts to put in a good word for Ann, he learns that the role has already been filled.
Written by Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein | Directed by Jerrold Bernstein
Around this time is when the show really clicks and noticeably begins to fire on all cylinders. I suppose what appeals most about this episode is how latched onto the series’ premise it is — Ann is an aspiring actress who desperately wants a big break. In these terms, it almost seems strange that the series hasn’t done a story like this earlier. The big comedic moment (we think) will be when Ann makes a fool of herself, right after Don (and we) have learned that her efforts are going to prove fruitless. The real big moment occurs in a surprise ending when the show BRILLIANTLY flounces expectations and chooses humor over heart.
09) Episode 28: “This Little Piggy Had A Ball” (Aired: 03/23/67)
On the night that Ann has agreed to accept an award for a fellow actress, she makes the mistake of attempting something that she read about in the paper: bowling with her toes.
Written by Arnold Margolin & Jim Parker | Directed by Hal Cooper
This episode is pure Lucy: Ann Marie gets her toe stuck in a bowling ball. Yes, it’s inane. Yes, it’s more “sitcom” than sitcom. But, it’s very funny. Part of what makes the gag work and sustain itself through the second half of the entire episode is that the script provides a credible place for the bowling ball incident to be embarrassing — an awards show where Ann Marie has agreed to fill in. Episodes in later years will try to recreate this almost iconically slapstick That Girl bit, but none will be nearly as original or successful.
10) Episode 30: “The Mating Game” (Aired: 04/06/67)
Ann goes undercover as a bachelorette on The Mating Game TV show for one of Donald’s exposes, all the while not knowing that Donald is also one of the potential bachelors.
Written by Treva Silverman & Peter Meyerson | Directed by Hal Cooper
I think this episode is typical (and I mean that as a compliment) of the type of storytelling that works best for this series. The writers take a humorous situation — compounded by a few misunderstandings (or in this case, developments which surprise the characters) — and let it play out without trying to be ostentatiously jokey. For instance, there’s humor in the premise alone, so the writer’s don’t have to go overboard trying to overflow the script with laughs. This episode is exceptional, however, because of a very funny scene at the end involving a tape recorder.
Episodes that didn’t quite make the list above but deserve honorable mentions include: “Never Change A Diaper On Opening Night,” which features some wonderful stuff with Thomas and guest star Billy De Wolfe (who also elevates another mediocre installment from the season), “Time For Arrest,” which features a silly premise that shows originality, “Christmas And The Hard Luck Kid,” a solid episode that has more heart than humor, “Rain, Snow, And Rice,” a fan favorite that never manages to be as funny as the premise promises, and “Author, Author,” which, with a funny script with a nice guest star, most deserves to make the list above.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of That Girl goes to…..
“Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!