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.
Minneapolis news producer and perennial single girl Mary Richards makes her own way in a male-dominated newsroom, which includes her gruff boss, Mr. Grant, cynical copy writer Murray Slaughter, and Tex Baxter, the program’s egotistical anchorman. Complementing the fun (and filling the gap following the departure of Mary’s neighbor and best friend) are Ted’s ditzy girlfriend, Georgette, and Sue Ann Nivens, the station’s lascivious Happy Homemaker.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show stars MARY TYLER MOORE as Mary Richards, EDWARD ASNER as Lou Grant, 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.
The departure of Valerie Harper’s Rhoda to New York and her own successful spin-off is a major loss for this series, and with Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis now only making three appearances per year, Mary goes through much of Season Five in desperate need of some female companionship. Fortunately, the roles of Georgette and Sue Ann are both beefed up, but because their connection to Mary is tied in with the office, Season Five marks the year in which MTM officially becomes a nearly full-fledged workplace sitcom. Additionally, the show evolves into more of an ensemble comedy, with Moore deflecting lengthy scenes and entire episodes to other members of the cast. (She even makes her directorial debut this year!) Meanwhile, though Season Five does feel like a transitional year for the series (and thus, is not often considered by most to be its absolute best) I personally feel like the show is at the top of its comedic form here — with a majority of episodes that are absolutely brimming with belly laughs. This IS the classic show that we all remember. And it’s breathtakingly brilliant (thus, there are a lot of really worthy honorable mentions). 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 Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode of this series is directed by Jay Sandrich, unless otherwise noted.
01) Episode 97: “Will Mary Richards Go To Jail?” (Aired: 09/14/74 | Filmed: 08/09/74)
Mary is thrown in jail after she refuses to reveal a news source.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels
Long regarded as a classic installment, don’t be fooled by the politics or the inherent drama of the premise; this is actually a hysterical episode. Though the idea of sitcom characters going to jail is often amusing, the machinations that writers use to get them there are usually forced. This episode sidesteps that development through credible plotting and some side-splitting humor. The episode really becomes brilliant when Mary is thrown in jail with two prostitutes, played by Mary Ann Chinn and Barbara Colby, the latter of whom is exceptionally brilliant. So many delicious lines and laughs in this one. Don’t miss!
02) Episode 98: “Not Just Another Pretty Face” (Aired: 09/21/74 | Filmed: 06/21/74)
Mary dates a gorgeous ski instructor with whom she has little in common.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels
One of a few of this season’s installments to take its premise outside of the confines of the newsroom, this episode once again finds its comedy in Mary’s dating life. Our perfect Mary, so smart and levelheaded, dates a pretty boy with whom she has nothing in common, begging the question: is Mary superficial? Whenever the series explores the character’s potential flaws, it’s usually comedic gold, and with every character putting in their two cents (including Phyllis, in one of her three appearances, and the only one that’s NOT centered on her character) this manages to be a very amusing and satisfying installment.
03) Episode 103: “A New Sue Ann” (Aired: 10/26/74 | Filmed: 09/20/74)
Sue Ann’s new assistant begins to usurp the Happy Homemaker’s power.
Written by David Lloyd
The addition of Sue Ann to the regular cast (she appears in over half of this season’s installments) is like giving the series a B-12 shot of straight humor. The character is so brilliantly ridiculous and played letter perfect by Betty White that her presence automatically brightens an episode. In the first episode centered around her character, Sue Ann finds herself in an All About Eve situation with a young assistant who, like her mentor, knows exactly how to work her influence with the Happy Homemaker’s producer (if you know what I mean). Very funny episode — great for Sue Ann or Betty White fans.
04) Episode 104: “Menage-A-Phyllis” (Aired: 11/02/74 | Filmed: 08/23/74)
Phyllis is jealous when Mary begins dating her platonic male friend.
Written by Treva Silverman
The last episode written by the very sharp and creative Treva Silverman, this refreshingly adult script explores some pretty lofty themes — namely, the idea of platonic relationships between men and women and the possible dissatisfaction one feels after years of married life (as is the case with Phyllis and Lars). But thematic constructs aside, this is a wickedly funny installment that gives a lot of great material to the out-of-this-world Phyllis, played, as always, to the hilt by Cloris Leachman. She’s just superb here, and the the stuff between Phyllis and Mary is both funny and poignant. Great writing and acting.
05) Episode 105: “Not A Christmas Story” (Aired: 11/09/74 | Filmed: 08/02/74)
A snowstorm traps the feuding newsroom at Sue Ann’s for an early Christmas dinner.
Written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels | Directed by John C. Chulay
Longtime blog readers may recall that I featured this installment in a December Wildcard Wednesday post on my favorite Christmas sitcom episodes. Another brilliantly written script, this holiday show breaks with tradition and sets the proceedings a month-and-a-half early, as Sue Ann has taped her Christmas special in advance. Couple this creative notion with the hysterical feud that develops between the entire news staff over a new closing line for the news (and the snow storm that traps them all together), and you have one dynamite installment. I’m not usually gaga over holiday shows, but this one is excellent! One of the series’ absolute bests!
06) Episode 106: “What Are Friends For?” (Aired: 11/16/74 | Filmed: 06/14/74)
Mary and Sue Ann bond at a broadcaster’s conference in Chicago.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Alan Rafkin
This is probably the installment where the writers decided to take the always joke-heavy Sue Ann Nivens and turn her into a multi-dimensional character by revealing some of her vulnerabilities. Despite the overwhelming feeling that above, plus the idea of establishing a better connection between Sue Ann and Mary, are the sole reasons for this episode’s existence, it’s enjoyable and satisfying to see the two characters play off of one another. And while it’s not as hilarious as some of Sue Ann’s past appearances, there are plenty of laughs, and I think the writers were wise to do an episode like this.
07) Episode 110: “A Girl Like Mary” (Aired: 12/14/74 | Filmed: 11/15/74)
Both Mary and Sue Ann try out for a female commentator spot on the news.
Written by Ann Gibbs & Joel Kimmel
After four-and-a-half years, Mary is finally promoted from Associate Producer to Producer of the news. But that’s merely a plot point (and that story will officially come in a few weeks.) This episode concerns Lou’s quest to find a female commentator for a recurring spot on the news. Though Ted is displeased with the idea of sharing his platform, both Mary and Sue Ann try out and fail — hilariously. However, the strength of this episode, in my opinion, comes during the scene between Lou and Mary where he tries to get her to agree with his casting decision by making her choose. (Naturally, it backfires!)
08) Episode 114: “Phyllis Whips Inflation” (Aired: 01/18/75 | Filmed: 11/08/74)
Economic straits force Phyllis into seeking employment.
Written by Stan Daniels & Ed. Weinberger
The final episode to feature Phyllis Lindstrom on TMTMS (excluding the cameo she makes with Valerie Harper in a scene during the finale), this installment is largely a showcase for Cloris Leachman and her talents. This one probably went hand-in-hand with her previous appearance as an extended pilot to convince CBS of the idea of spinning her off. (Especially since it was working so well for Rhoda.) Anyway, Leachman makes this a very funny episode, and sitcom fans will delight in the appearance of Doris Roberts as the woman at the employment office.
09) Episode 117: “You Try To Be A Nice Guy” (Aired: 02/08/75 | Filmed: 01/10/75)
Mary tries to help one of the prostitutes she met in prison get a respectable job.
Written by Michael Leeson
Barbara Colby returns as Sherry, the uproariously funny prostitute that Mary met while in jail during the season premiere. (Colby would meet a tragic demise six months after this episode filmed, and three weeks after production began on Phyllis, on which she had just earned a regular spot.) First, Sherry gets a job with Georgette at the car rental agency (she has Georgette calling the customers “tricks”), and when that doesn’t work out, Mary helps Sherry realize her dreams of being a dress designer. (The results must be seen to be believed.) All of this, plus the subplot of Lou fearing Sherry’s influence on Mary, makes for one absolutely hysterical — truly hysterical — episode.
10) Episode 119: “Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcaster’s School” (Aired: 02/22/75 | Filmed: 01/24/75)
A scam artist convinces Ted to open up a broadcasting school.
Written by Michael Zinberg
This episode has no business being as funny as it is! The story has a con artist convincing Ted to invest money in a broadcasting school. When the man leaves town, it’s up to the rest of the newsroom to rally and help Ted fulfill his obligations. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) only one student, played by Leonard Frey, shows up, and he refuses to accept a refund — insisting that they go ahead with the the class. The results are hilarious. Complicating matters is a blind date (Bernie Kopell) that Ida Morgenstern has arranged for Mary (all the way from New York). This is a laugh riot episode with a lot of rich moments.
Other notable episodes that didn’t quite make the list above include: “Lou And That Woman,” in which Lou dates a lounge singer played by Sheree North, “A Boy’s Best Friend,” which was directed by Moore herself and concerns Ted’s potential new father-in-law, “Mary Richards: Producer,” in which Mary produces the news all by herself for the first time, “Marriage Minneapolis Style,” in which Ted proposes to Georgette on the air, “You Can’t Lose ‘Em All,” which is the season’s annual Teddy Awards episode, and “Anyone Who Hates Kids And Dogs,” in which Mary’s dislike for her boyfriend’s son causes trouble with his family. (Those middle four I REALLY wanted to include on the above list.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of The Mary Tyler Moore Show goes to…..
“Not A Christmas Story”
(Tough choice. The MVE runner-up would be “You Try To Be A Nice Guy.”)
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Six! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!