The Ten Best THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW Episodes of Season Four

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Mary Tyler Moore Show goes to…..

“The Lars Affair”

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(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!

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7 thoughts on “The Ten Best THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW Episodes of Season Four

  1. Hi, Jackson!

    I cannot say enough about The Mary Tyler Moore Show and I’m delighted that you had covered it here! Indeed, it was a pioneer that revitalized and redefined what a situation comedy could be, right at 1970. It is a marvel to me how smart, modern, fresh, and mature it remains today, a few years shy of the 50th anniversary of its debut (woah!). A series that never underestimated the intelligence or sophistication of its audience — how refreshing!

    What I find particularly unique about the show is its trajectory. Though Rhoda and Phyllis move on mid-series, we get to know Georgette and Sue Ann as they come in to fill the empty spaces left. The characters are all so distinct from one another, yet equally lovable in their own respective ways — I don’t think I’ve ever felt such balanced dynamic in a cast. Each one a first-rate performer comprising a dream ensemble. What music they made together!

    The middle seasons are particularly strong for me, personally, as I found Mary’s home/personal life on the nights and weekends just as entertaining as her 9-5 at WJM. What’s frankly amazing about the series is how satisfying the entire run is — cast losses and additions, Mary moving apartments, and the shift to a pure workplace sitcom by the final three seasons (thus, fundamentally shaking up its original premise) could have all spelled doom for a lesser series. On Mary, however, the changes are handled so deftly that the evolution of the show feels natural and warranted. It feels real. A landmark series fully deserving of its reputation!

    Was sad to see that there are, at present, no comments for your season four review, a season upon my first complete viewing several years ago to be grooving just right in the pocket. The Lars Affair has *got* to be my favorite episode of the entire series (Phyllis and Sue Ann — THE SHOWDOWN!), though many do come awful close to holding the title (Once I Had a Secret Love, 1040 or Fight, Rhoda the Beautiful, My Brother’s Keeper, The Dinner Party, Toulouse-Lautrec Is One of My Favorite Artists, Sue Ann Falls in Love, Love Is All Around, I could go on).

    Sitcom writing — does it get any better than MTM? The show is so well done that I can’t even begin to pick a favorite season, though the comforting warmth and nostalgic charm of the first season always gets me, and I feel that the third and sixth have the highest number of memorable stories and the biggest laughs. I referenced your posts when reassessing the series recently; your analysis helped me to rediscover how truly special (once in a generation) the entire production is and rekindle my ardor for it. Thank you for honoring The Mary Tyler Moore Show in such a refined and thoughtful manner here on That’s Entertainment!

    • Hi, Izak! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I share your enthusiasm for this series’ consistently strong writing and were I able to write at any time and place in sitcom history, I would choose to be with MTM in the early ’70s (where in addition to Moore’s series, I could have also contributed to both THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and RHODA, in particular). Glad you’re enjoying these posts!

      • Jackson, I have no doubt that your keen sensibilities would have been a boon to the writing staff at MTM Enterprises. You would have fit right in with the team back then. I feel an almost otherworldly pull to that particular era myself, in a myriad of ways (music, film, fashion, etc.) I’m on a Rhoda marathon, first time watching and currently in the middle of season three. It’s so engaging, especially that first season (magic). I unjustifiably underestimated the series and kind of wrote it off as just another spin-off for so long that I haven’t given it a chance until now. Strange that it took me so long to get into it, as I’ve always loved Valerie Harper as Rhoda and missed her dearly in season five of Mary Tyler Moore. Whenever Mary was sitting in her apartment (glad she moved, too lonely!) I so wished she would pop in for a quick chat with her signature, “Hiya kid!” What a naturally gifted performer she is! I wholly believe every movement she makes and every word she says. Add in the adorable Julie Kavner and the unforgettable Nancy Walker and it’s a pleasure to watch. I’m sure I’ll be posting a reply on one of the Rhoda posts in the near future. (I also have Bob’s first season on my shelf — your site is my guide, haha!) Thanks, Jackson!

  2. Good list, but what prevented you from putting We Want Baxter on the list? I also would have put The Co-Producers on here. Then again, I think this is the best season of the series, so this had to have been a hard list to make.

    • Hi, Charlie! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, Season Four certainly has the greatest volume of highlightable candidates out of the entire series, but reflecting back — two years later — I am more pleased with my selections now than I even was at the time. All the classics are there, leaving just a bit of room for the other great episodes that I personally think most consistently work. However, this is a year boasting very little about which to complain — a treat for us, to be sure — but one that means good, solid, enjoyable episodes will get ignored and overshadowed.

      As for the episodes you mentioned, I like “The Co-Producers” and its exclusion wasn’t enjoyable; it’s a function of my only choosing ten. In hindsight, if anything were to have relegated it to the honorable mentions, it would be because I think the premise — Mary, Rhoda, Sue Ann, and Ted collaborating — is a goldmine of opportunity that’s not fully capitalized upon within the execution. In other words, the idea is so good, I think it promises more than it actually delivers. But that’s a nitpick that I hate having to make. “We Want Baxter,” on the other hand, I simply believe is among the season’s weaker half of offerings — but that’s no knock: this is THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, after all — the fourth season of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. We’re automatically operating on a higher standard.

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