Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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.
I used to find the second season of MTM inferior to the first, largely because the first season had so many important episodes that helped define characters and introduce long-running tropes. However, like Bewitched (1964-1972, ABC), I found myself appreciating the second season much more than I had in the past. Not only does this collection of episodes expand upon the developing characters in ways that are sometimes mind-blowingly impressive, but also the premises begin showing even more originality. And while I don’t think the show will truly become hilarious until sometime in the following year, I can honestly say that Season Two is an improvement on the first. So, 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode of this series is directed by Jay Sandrich, unless otherwise noted.
01) Episode 25: “The Birds… And… Um… Bees” (Aired: 09/18/71 | Filmed: 06/11/71)
When Mary produces a documentary about sex, Phyllis asks her to teach Bess about the facts of life.
Written by Treva Silverman
One of the best episodes given to Leachman’s unbearably kooky Phyllis, this slightly progressive installment finds Phyllis recruiting Mary into having the sex talk with her pre-teen daughter. The actual conversation is rather sweet, but there’s much humor mined from the buildup. (And I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Van Dyke episode with a similar premise.) Also, there’s lots of fun jokes about the character’s scores on last night’s documentary, “What’s Your Sexual I.Q.?” An amusing episode with truth and heart; good start to the season!
02) Episode 28: “Room 223” (Aired: 10/09/71 | Filmed: 08/13/71)
Mary decides to sharpen her skills in a class on television journalism, where she begins dating her professor.
Written by Susan Silver
The series always does itself a favor when it presents the Mary character as flawed or not perfect, because that’s the root of all comedy. In this installment, Mary and Rhoda take a class on TV journalism, and Mary is shocked when she gets a C+ on her first assignment (perfect Mary?), especially since (ooh — complication) she’s been seeing the professor. A smart episode with some laughs and a well-crafted premise, this one does a lot for deepening our understanding of Mary Richards. I’d give it an A-.
03) Episode 29: “A Girl’s Best Mother Is Not Her Friend” (Aired: 10/16/71 | Filmed: 07/02/71)
Ida Morgenstern returns to Minneapolis and makes an attempt to become her daughter’s friend.
Written by David Davis & Lorenzo Music
While last season’s appearance of Nancy Walker as Ida Morgenstern garnered its writers an Emmy, this is — hands down — the funniest MTM episode to feature Rhoda’s iconically overbearing mother. (It may actually be funnier than anything she ever got to do on Rhoda, but I’ll save that judgement for when I cover that series on this blog.) Ida tries to become Rhoda’s best friend, and taking a cue from Phyllis’ book, she gives the season its best sight gag, when she and Rhoda are revealed wearing identical dresses. Walker’s best moment on this series, and probably the funniest installment of the season.
04) Episode 30: “Cover Boy” (Aired: 10/23/71 | Filmed: 06/18/71)
Mary is called upon as Ted’s date when his handsome and super-competitive male model brother visits.
Written by Treva Silverman
The character of Ted Baxter was based upon Jack Cassidy’s character, Oscar North, in He & She (1967-1968, CBS), which I’ve covered on this blog, so it was brilliant casting to bring him in as Ted’s equally egotistical brother. Their rivalry sparks a lot of laughs, as they are just so believable in their competing hamminess. Mary is roped into the action when Ted pretends that she’s his girl. Cue the awkward double date with Rhoda. Highly enjoyable installment that I must admit is one of my personal favorites!
05) Episode 32: “Thoroughly Unmilitant Mary” (Aired: 11/06/71 | Filmed: 08/20/71)
Mary is forced to cross a picket line when the television newswriters union goes on strike.
Written by Martin Cohan
Like last season’s “The Snow Must Go On,” (which won my choice as the year’s MVE) this installment concerns itself with the inner workings of life at the newsroom. This week, the writers — and eventually the talent — go on strike, leaving the only people left in the newsroom as management: Lou and Mary. As Mary tries her hand at writing the stories (that class came in handy, huh?), Lou is forced to deliver the news. Asner does a nice drunk bit, and this is a brilliantly solid script that affords Moore and Asner some great moments.
06) Episode 35: “The Six-And-A-Half Year Itch” (Aired: 11/27/71 | Filmed: 09/24/71)
Lou and Mary catch his favorite son-in-law on a date at the movies with another woman.
Written by Treva Silverman
Truthfully, while I find Asner a superb actor, many of the episodes that center around his character’s personal life have the tendency to get too dramatic and devoid of comedy (see all the episodes about his separation in Season Four), but this episode is exceptional because of its high quotient of laughs. When Lou, Mary, and Rhoda go to the movie theatre, they are shocked to find Lou’s favorite son-in-law on a date… with a woman whom Rhoda knows. The awkwardness of the five of them sitting together in the theatre is brilliant. Great comedy writing.
07) Episode 37: “The Square-Shaped Room” (Aired: 12/11/71 | Filmed: 10/01/71)
Mary arranges for Rhoda to redecorate Lou’s living room as a surprise to his wife.
Written by Susan Silver
The writers have become cleverer in their attempts to blend Mary’s work life with her home life. The real trick is finding ways to involve Rhoda (and sometimes Phyllis) with Mary’s co-workers. In this episode, Mary sets it up so that Rhoda can redecorate Lou’s living room. Comedy comes from the build-up to the reveal, the reveal itself, and the expected development: how does Lou tell Rhoda that he hates it? Characters are used very efficiently in this not brilliant, but still very entertaining episode.
08) Episode 38: “Ted Over Heels” (Aired: 12/18/71 | Filmed: 11/05/71)
Ted is embarrassed when he finds himself falling in love with Chuckles the Clown’s daughter.
Written by David Davis & Lorenzo Music | Directed by Peter Baldwin
Ted Knight was reportedly dissatisfied with what he perceived as his character’s one-note personality and lack of dimensionality in the early years, and this episode, in which Ted looks like he’ll be given a recurring love interest, feels largely like a response to the actor’s complaint. Ted is allowed to be both funny and sympathetic here, and if you’re a fan of the actor or his character (which I am, of both), this is the episode for you. (And while we won’t see Betty again, the show strikes comedy gold next season with Georgette.)
09) Episode 45: “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Rhoda” (Aired: 02/12/72 | Filmed: 12/10/71)
Mary and Rhoda drive each other crazy when the latter moves in with the former following an apartment fire.
Written by Martin Cohan | Directed by Peter Baldwin
I’m drawn to episodes that find Rhoda and Mary at odds because, while quibbling friends is a tired sitcom trope that should be handled delicately, these two characters are so different from each other that it’s strangely shocking that they don’t clash more often. What makes this episode work, aside from its expectedly strong use of character as a source of humor, is that any conflict between the two friends is not only motivated, but handled in a completely realistic way. Another extremely solid excursion.
10) Episode 47: “Some Of My Best Friends Are Rhoda” (Aired: 02/26/72 | Filmed: 11/26/71)
Mary’s new friendship with the peppy woman she met in a car accident has Rhoda feeling left out.
Written by Steve Pritzker | Directed by Peter Baldwin
What will strike most fans about this episode is how similar it is to a third season episode of The Golden Girls in which Blanche and Rose feel replaced by Dorothy’s snobby new friend. The entire situation is pretty much the same here (well, done a little more delicately), with the snob revealing herself to be anti-semitic (just like in TGG). I actually think it’s more dramatically satisfying here, as the discrimination is against a regular herself, and Mary’s deliciously cold and justified handling of the woman is a rare occurrence for this series. It’s very exciting to see.
Other notable episodes that didn’t quite make the list above include: “He’s No Heavy, He’s My Brother,” in which Mary and Rhoda plan a trip to Mexico, “And Now, Sitting In For Ted Baxter,” in which Ted is forced to take a mandatory vacation, “…Is A Friend In Need,” in which Mary reveals herself to have a rotten side when Rhoda is out of work, “Baby Sit-Com,” a wildly popular episode in which Lou babysits Bess in Mary’s stead, “More Than Neighbors,” in which Ted hopes to move into Mary’s building, and “You Certainly Are A Big Boy,” in which Mary is shocked to learn that her latest beau has an adult son.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Mary Tyler Moore Show goes to…..
“A Girl’s Best Mother Is Not Her Friend”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Three! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!