Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from one of my favorite sitcoms of all time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS). I’m thrilled to announce that every single episode of the series has been released on DVD.
Following the end of a serious relationship, Mary Richards moves from her hometown to Minneapolis where she takes a job as an associate producer of a local news show. At the office she contends with a gruff boss, a cynical writer, and an egotistical anchorman. At home, Mary hangs out with her neighbors, a spunky New Yorker and a flighty housewife.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show stars MARY TYLER MOORE as Mary Richards, EDWARD ASNER as Lou Grant, VALERIE HARPER as Rhoda Morgenstern, TED KNIGHT as Ted Baxter, GAVIN MACLEOD as Murray Slaughter, and CLORIS LEACHMAN as Phyllis Lindstrom.
One of the most important sitcoms of the ’70s, this series continues Van Dyke‘s high standard of character-driven writing, with an emphasis on the establishment and growth of relationships among members of the distinguished ensemble. Truly, this style of writing (which we really can credit to the success of this series) set the template that many sitcoms still follow to this day. Interestingly, however, despite the freshness of the premise and more sophisticated storytelling (uncommon to television in 1970), Mary Tyler Moore is one of the few sitcoms that actually gets funnier later in its run. The early seasons have memorable stories, great character building moments, and the best opening arrangement (in my opinion), but not a huge number of big laughs. For this reason, I recommend that newbies wait a few more seasons to dive in. For those who are familiar with the series, seeing the characters at the beginning (and, for the most part, they’re pretty well-designed from the start) will be fascinating. And, as I said, the stories are sophisticated (for television of this era) and memorable. Most of my selections in this list were chosen for either a high laugh quotient or a well-crafted story, and surprisingly, the majority of my choices come from the first half of the year. But, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this 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.) Every episode of this series is directed by Jay Sandrich, unless otherwise noted.
01) Episode 1: “Love Is All Around” (Aired: 09/19/70 | Filmed: 07/03/70)
Mary moves to Minneapolis and gets new friends, a new apartment, and a new job, but her ex-flame isn’t quite out of the picture yet.
Written by James L. Brooks & Allan Burns
As one of the smartest pilots of all time, this installment introduces the characters, establishes the setting, and wonderfully shows Mary letting go of her old life (her beau) and embracing the new (her boss) — which climaxes in a wonderful scene in which a drunken Lou shows up at Mary’s place while she’s entertaining her ex. Interestingly, the pilot had a disastrously bad run-through that had the entire company panicked — seemed that the Rhoda character was too abrasive. Solution? Have little Bess Lindstrom like her, allowing the audience to like her too. Not a hilarious episode, but an important and enjoyable one.
02) Episode 2: “Today I Am A Ma’am” (Aired: 09/26/70 | Filmed: 07/17/70)
Frustrated with their single status, Rhoda convinces Mary to have an intimate gathering at the latter’s apartment. Things don’t go quite as planned.
Written by Treva Silverman
One of the more interesting things about the early years is that Mary is actively interested in getting married and settling down. This desire changes as the series goes on, and the character’s development — mostly through the subtext — is an interesting watch. Here, Mary is bothered when she, as a single woman in her early thirties, is called a “ma’am.” This spurs the first of many disastrous dinner parties in which Mary regretfully invites her overeager (and supremely annoying) ex, Howard, and Rhoda invites the man whom she ran over with her car — but he brings his wife. Lots of humor mined from awkwardness.
03) Episode 6: “Support Your Local Mother” (Aired: 10/24/70 | Filmed: 08/28/70)
Mary houses Rhoda’s visiting mother — a Jewish New Yorker with a penchant for smothering — when Rhoda refuses to see her.
Written by Allan Burns & James L. Brooks | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Nancy Walker is brilliant as Ida Morgenstern, Rhoda’s overbearing Jewish mom from the Bronx, who fulfills every stereotype while instilling a sense of humorous believability. The first of four appearances she’d make on this series (before becoming a regular on the spin-off, Rhoda), this episode won an Emmy Award for best writing. Interestingly, Rhoda and Ida share no scenes together until the very end, and much of the comedy comes from Mary’s attempts to handle Ida herself, while convincing Rhoda to see her. It’s actually not my favorite of the Ida episodes, but it is a highlight of this season.
04) Episode 7: “Toulouse-Lautrec Is One Of My Favorite Artists” (Aired: 10/31/70 | Filmed: 10/02/70)
Mary interviews an author who asks her out for a date. She accepts, not realizing that he’s lacking in the height department.
Written by Lloyd Turner & Gordon Mitchell
Hamilton Camp (whom you’ll all remember as Andrew, the handyman on He & She, a series that bears more than one resemblance to MTM) plays an author whom Mary agrees to date, not knowing that he’s much shorter than she is. In addition to the expected comedy that comes from Mary (and Rhoda) dealing with the height difference, this episode boasts several well-constructed scenes, and manages to be one of the funniest installments of the season. The gag involving Ted interviewing Camp’s character (in place of Mary) is sort of predictable, but is nonetheless a laugh-out-loud moment.
05) Episode 8: “The Snow Must Go On” (Aired: 11/07/70 | Filmed: 08/14/70)
Mary is put in charge of the station’s election night coverage, but a blizzard suspends their attainment of the results.
Written by David Davis & Lorenzo Music
This is perhaps the strongest installment from the first season because it plays upon the established traits of every character (minus Phyllis, who does not appear here — she’s only in about half of these first season episodes) as they’re forced to handle a disastrous situation: election night coverage that’s been impeded by a blizzard. And they can’t quit until the results come in. Adding to the humor is meek Mary, who’s forced, for really the first time in the series, to take control of the situation when Lou puts her in charge. This clash between Mary’s personality and her attempts at authority are always amusing. A tight episode that utilizes its ensemble well and plays on little sets, this is one of my favorites.
06) Episode 9: “Bob And Rhoda And Teddy And Mary” (Aired: 11/14/70 | Filmed: 09/18/70)
As the newsroom prepares for the annual Teddy Awards, Rhoda’s boyfriend shows an interest in Mary.
Written by Bob Rodgers | Directed by Peter Baldwin
The most notable thing about this episode is that it introduces the Teddy Awards, an annual event that will be seen in every season (except the second) and usually, because it brings all the characters together, makes for some great comedy. Though certainly not the best of the bunch, this episode does, however, give us some nice laughs, and is fueled especially by the realistic and uncomfortable rift that plagues Mary and Rhoda when the latter’s boyfriend takes an interest in the former. Funny and nicely plotted episode that meshes several beats together quite smartly.
07) Episode 10: “Assistant Wanted, Female” (Aired: 11/21/70 | Filmed: 09/11/70)
Mary reluctantly hires Phyllis to be her assistant in the newsroom, and soon comes to regret the decision.
Written by Treva Silverman | Directed by Peter Baldwin
Here we have the best Phyllis episode of the season, and, as one of the funniest sitcom ladies of all time, Leachman rarely disappoints. Her character — a mother, housewife, and perfectionist — defies description. She’s a being that could easily be unlikable, but is forgiven of all transgressions by the humorous absurdity she brings to the series. Naturally, Mary hiring her in the newsroom is a bad decision because, not only does she not do her work, but she refuses to be called an assistant; she wants to be referred to as a “co-worker.” Nuanced character + solid premise = such wonderful comedy.
08) Episode 19: “We Closed In Minneapolis” (Aired: 01/30/71 | Filmed: 12/11/70)
Murray is overjoyed to learn that a local playhouse wants to produce one of his works, until he learns that Ted is to be the star.
Written by Kenny Solms & Gail Parent
After a stretch of well-written episodes that just don’t have enough laughs in them, here we have an episode that gives us plenty. (And it’s surprising because episodes that center around Murray are usually the weakest of the season, simply because they’re the dullest.) Most of the comedy here comes from the animosity between Murray and Ted, as the latter is starring in Murray’s play about a newsroom. (Sound familiar?) As expected the reviews are horrendous for all, except Mary, who plays a daffier version of herself in the show. Very enjoyable episode that uses the characters’ relationships to its advantage.
09) Episode 20: “Hi!” (Aired: 02/06/71 | Filmed: 12/18/70)
Mary goes to the hospital to get a tonsil — singular — removed and shares a room with a grumpy patient who makes being friends difficult.
Written by Treva Silverman
The detail about Mary having to get one tonsil removed has always struck me as very clever and very funny. But this is an episode that’s grown on me. I suppose, like the test audience found with Rhoda, it’s difficult to see peripheral characters act nastily towards our Mary, and Pat Carroll, who plays Mary’s roommate in this episode, is deliciously sour. But when I realized how funny it was to place Mary in a room with her complete opposite, I appreciated the construction, and the genuine laughs that come from both the sophisticated script and believable players. Carroll and Moore are both great in this underrated episode.
10) Episode 22: “A Friend In Deed” (Aired: 02/20/71 | Filmed: 01/15/71)
A forgotten pal from an old summer camp takes a job at WJM and wants to become Mary’s best friend again.
Written by Susan Silver
Like the above episode, this installment has grown on me. The guest star — who is utterly annoying (but, purposefully so) — is Pat Finley, who would later play Bob Hartley’s sister on another MTM produced series, The Bob Newhart Show. Mary’s niceness is exploited here for great comic effect, and once we can get over how awful it is to see her being taken advantage of, I have to admit, again, it’s quite funny. Rhoda and Mary in the awful bridesmaid dresses (which I would ordinarily consider a cheap bit) are probably the best sight gags of the season. And I was quite satisfied with the ending (a rarity).
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed making the list above include: “Divorce Isn’t Everything,” in which Rhoda and Mary join a club for divorced people in the hopes of winning a trip to Paris, “Anchorman Overboard,” in which Mary arranges for Ted to speak at Phyllis’ women’s club, “Christmas And The Hard-Luck Kid II,” in which Mary must work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, “Howard’s Girl,” in which Mary dates an old flame’s brother, “Second Story Story,” in which Mary’s apartment is burglarized, “The Boss Isn’t Coming For Dinner,” in which Lou and Edie temporarily separate, and “Smokey The Bear Wants You,” in which Rhoda dates a park ranger. These last five episodes feature great stories but not enough laughs; the first two have more laughs, but less polished scripts.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Mary Tyler Moore Show goes to…..
“The Snow Must Go On”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!