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, GEORGIA ENGEL as Georgette Franklin, BETTY WHITE as Sue Ann Nivens, and CLORIS LEACHMAN as Phyllis Lindstrom.
TMTMS finally becomes brilliant about two-thirds of the way into its third season, and enters this, the fourth season, with all the vigor of a show that’s deserving of its honor as a television classic. That’s not to say that every episode is excellent, but there’s a consistency of scripting and characterization that’s truly awe-inspiring. Plot wise, the show continues to focus more on Mary’s life at the office, and the stories become increasingly centered on specific members of the ensemble. This is actually a smart move, as the cast is so incredibly talented. Leachman appears in only three episodes this season, while Engel, after brightening up the second half of Season Three, becomes a full-fledged recurring character. Meanwhile, the season benefits from the addition of Betty White as the deliciously nasty Sue Ann Nivens, who makes the most of her appearances (warranting an upgrade in quantity for next season). And as the last season before Rhoda leaves for her spin-off, Season Four stands as the only year of the series in which every single member of the ensemble regularly appears — even though they’re never all in the same episode. But, I have picked ten 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode of this series is directed by Jay Sandrich, unless otherwise noted.
01) Episode 73: “The Lars Affair” (Aired: 09/15/73 | Filmed: 07/20/73)
Mary learns that Phyllis’ husband is having an affair with Sue Ann Nivens, WJM’s “Happy Homemaker.”
Written by Ed. Weinberger
The episode that introduces the world to Sue Ann Nivens, this surprisingly contemporary script not only revolves around infidelity, but also manages to be one of the funniest installments that the series ever produced. It’s a treat to see Leachman and White working together (they only come face to face for a brief gag in one other episode), and the latter brings a hilarious bite to all of her scenes. Highlights include: the opening where the writers foreshadow the Grants’ upcoming separation, the scene where Ted accidentally spills the beans to Phyllis, and the moment in which Mary gets tough and lays down the law to Sue Ann.
02) Episode 74: “Angels In The Snow” (Aired: 09/22/73 | Filmed: 07/13/73)
Mary tries to make a relationship work with a man eight years her junior.
Written by Monica Johnson & Marilyn Suzanne Miller
Another hilarious effort by the authors of last season’s MVE, this installment takes its humor in the age difference between Mary and her new beau. The seemingly simple premise is blessed with a truly killer script that fires a barrage of hilarious lines and gags, making for a truly memorable excursion. Valerie Harper is excellent here — both at the clothing store where Mary tries to dress more youthful (and is afforded no help by the spacey salesgirl) and in the climactic scene in which Mary and Rhoda go to the brilliantly uncomfortable party. (The series is, by now, a definite comedic powerhouse!)
03) Episode 80: “Lou’s First Date” (Aired: 11/03/73 | Filmed: 09/21/73)
Mary’s attempt to set Lou up with a date for a banquet (that his wife plans to attend) backfires.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels
While the episode that introduces Lou and Edie’s separation is way too dramatic, this follow-up installment, in which Lou hopes to make Edie jealous by bringing along a date to a banquet that they’re both set to attend, is another one of the series’ all time funniest. Mary turns to Rhoda for help finding Lou a date, but there’s a mix-up and the woman that shows is old enough to be Lou’s mother. (She was a flower girl at Thomas Alva Edison’s wedding.) A great guest star, a strong performance by Asner, and a terrific script make this installment a true winner.
04) Episode 82: “The Dinner Party” (Aired: 11/17/73 | Filmed: 10/05/73)
Mary’s dinner party for a visiting congresswoman does not go as planned.
Written by Ed. Weinberger
Probably the textbook example of the series’ running gag about Mary’s disastrous parties, this episode benefits from its theatricality. Much of the action (well, the last third of the episode) occurs right before and during the ill-timed dinner (because if they waited, the Veal Prince Orloff would die, according to Sue Ann, in her second appearance). Limited space, professional ensemble (including a guest appearance by Henry Winkler as Rhoda’s feebish former co-worker), and electric chemistry: all things that make a great one act a great one act. And this is precisely like a great one act.
05) Episode 87: “Happy Birthday, Lou!” (Aired: 12/22/73 | Filmed: 10/26/73)
Worried that Lou will be alone on his first birthday alone, Mary throws together a surprise party.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by George Tyne
Another disastrous party installment, I featured this episode in a March Wildcard Wednesday post about birthday themed episodes. Here’s what I wrote then: “In this episode, Mary plans a surprise party for Lou, but is disheartened by his last-minute news: he hates surprise parties. This smart writing, with genuine character moments, never forgets its primary aim: to make us laugh. This episode certainly delivers.” The gag with the guests outside the door is particularly smart. (And incidentally, this is the last episode to feature John Amos as Gordy, until he returns for a final appearance in Season Seven.)
06) Episode 91: “Best Of Enemies” (Aired: 01/26/74 | Filmed: 12/07/73)
Mary and Rhoda feud when the latter reveals to the newsroom that Mary lied about being a college graduate.
Written by Marilyn Suzanne Miller & Monica Johnson
As you may remember from the last few weeks, I’m always fascinated by episodes in which the Mary and Rhoda characters are put into conflict because, not only are they rare (unlike Lucy and Ethel, who seemed to fight once every three months), but they’re always well-motivated. In this one, perhaps the best and the strongest of the Mary v. Rhoda scripts, Mary is angered when Rhoda lets slip to the newsroom that Mary lied on her job application about having a college degree. Justifiable premise, smart script, and a warm Mary & Rhoda ending.
07) Episode 92: “Better Late… That’s A Pun… Than Never” (Aired: 02/02/74 | Filmed: 01/11/74)
Mary is suspended from the newsroom after accidentally writing a humorously inappropriate obituary.
Written by Treva Silverman | Directed by John C. Chulay
Like a sixth season classic that will go nameless, this episode finds humor in the most grim: death. When Mary enlists the help of Rhoda while rewriting all of the newsroom’s prepared obituaries, their late night silliness inspires them to create a hilarious obit for Wee Willie Williams, Minneapolis’ oldest man. Unfortunately, he dies the next day and Ted reads the gag obituary on the air. Things take a more dramatic turn when Lou is forced to punish Mary, but the initial premise and the hilarious obituary is just brilliant. (“Wee Willie had no immediate plans for the future, but hoped to include traveling, gardening…and breathing.”)
08) Episode 93: “Ted Baxter Meets Walter Cronkite” (Aired: 02/09/74 | Filmed: 01/18/74)
Ted does everything in his power to win his first Teddy Award.
Written by Ed. Weinberger
The fourth season’s entry in the annual Teddy Award series of episodes, this installment focuses on Ted instead of Mary. (Later ones will focus on Lou, Sue Ann, and Murray.) His vote-getting attempts are riotous — especially when he prays on the air — and the series truly surprises us by having Ted actually win. However, the episode is most memorable for the guest appearance of Walter Cronkite, one of Ted’s recurring idols on the series. This is a smart, fun episode, excellent for fans of Cronkite (who is actually amusing), and a great showcase for Mr. Ted Baxter.
09) Episode 94: “Lou’s Second Date” (Aired: 02/16/74 | Filmed: 01/25/74)
Mary and the newsroom are surprised when Lou and Rhoda begin casually seeing one another.
Written by Ed. Weinberger | Directed by Jerry London
The last regular episode to feature Valerie Harper (she’ll return for two more cameos in Season Six and Season Seven), this brilliantly original premise finds Lou and Rhoda striking up a casual friendship. At first Mary thinks nothing of it, but when everyone else gets into her ear, she begins to question the nature of their relationship. What ensues is a funny, but very truthful, exploration about platonic dating in a great scene between Harper and Asner in Rhoda’s apartment. It’s a sweet send-off for Harper, even though it lacks the fanfare that modern audiences may expect.
10) Episode 95: “Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Writer” (Aired: 02/23/74 | Filmed: 02/01/74)
Ted joins Mary’s creative writing class and plagiarizes her assignment.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Nancy Walker
The first of the final two (Rhoda-less) episodes of the season, this installment also manages to be another one of the series’ funniest. Directed by Ida Morgenstern herself, this episode’s premise is reminiscent of an earlier Season Two entry in which Mary takes a writing class. But things are much funnier here, as Ted (instead of Rhoda) decides to join her. And instead of comedy coming from the relationship between Mary and her professor, the crux of the humor is Ted’s blatant plagiarizing of Mary’s sentimental prom night story. Ted’s mangled version is a comic tour de force that you have to see to believe!
Other notable episodes that didn’t quite make the list above include: “Rhoda’s Sister Gets Married,” in which Rhoda and Mary go to New York for an episode that TOTALLY contradicts everything we’d learn about the Morgenstern family in the Rhoda series, “Love Blooms At Hemples,” which centers upon Rhoda and her love life, “Almost A Nun’s Story,” in which Georgette considers doing what the title indicates, “WJM Tries Harder,” in which Mary dates an anchorman from a rival station, “The Co-Producers,” in which Mary and Rhoda find themselves at odds with two ginormous egos — Ted’s and Sue Ann’s, and “I Was A Single For WJM,” which finds the gang frequenting a single’s bar in hope of a news story.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Mary Tyler Moore Show goes to…..
“The Lars Affair”
(Tough choice. The two MVE runners-up would be “Lou’s First Date” and “Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Writer.”)
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Five! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!