The Ten Best RHODA Episodes of Season One

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from Rhoda (1974-1978, CBS), the first spin-off of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS). The first four seasons have been released on DVD, and, as of this writing, the 13-episode fifth season is available on Youtube. 

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Rhoda Morgenstern moves from Minneapolis to New York at the promise of new love, but can she handle life in the big city again, especially with her crazy Jewish family around every corner? Rhoda stars VALERIE HARPER as Rhoda Morgenstern, DAVID GROH as Joe Gerard, JULIE KAVNER as Brenda Morgenstern, NANCY WALKER as Ida Morgenstern, HAROLD GOULD as Martin Morgenstern, and LORENZO MUSIC as Carlton, the Doorman.

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The first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s first spin-off is the only one with a quality matching that of the flagship show. There’s a real excitement through these initial 25 half-hours, as MTM’s breakout character, plucky Rhoda Morgenstern, moves back to New York, falls in love, gets engaged, and walks down the aisle (in an hour-long episode that was seen by over 52 million Americans). Unfortunately, while the wedding becomes a moment of TV history, these developments all happen within the first two months, leaving the show to contend (seemingly for the rest of its run) with the iconically single Rhoda as a married lady. Because hindsight is 20/20, we know what a mistake this would turn out to be, but here in Season One, the show manages to make the premise work. As a result, almost every episode, even those proceeding the wedding, is a winner. In fact, the first season of Rhoda earned better ratings than TMTMS and garnered Valerie Harper another Emmy. This can be attributed to both strong scripts and a freshness of the premise — later described by Harper as the ’70s Mad About You — which does make the show seem unique and progressive.

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However, the show’s greatest asset, as it will remain, is the casting of the family. Harold Gould and Nancy Walker, both introduced on TMTMS, recur as Rhoda’s marvelously matched parents. Meanwhile, the series rejects the previous history and introduces Rhoda’s (only) sister, Brenda, played by the future Marge Simpson, Julie Kavner, who’s immediately described as an unevolved version of Rhoda herself (insecure, overweight), but decidedly less cynical. All three of these players, along with Harper, form a really believable and funny family, driving a lot of the comedy. And then there’s Rhoda’s new husband, Joe… Okay. It is possible to rationalize the casting of David Groh and the crafting of his character. Rhoda is a tough cookie; they needed someone who was equally strong, utterly New York (like Rhoda), and hyper-masculine, which would allow them to play up Rhoda’s femininity. On paper, it seems like a good match. Unfortunately, in the execution, he often comes across abrasive and nasty. (And it’s a problem that extends from the pilot to his third season departure.) Thus, although the scripts work because of the stories and the comedy, his character never really feels like a complete fit — even when the series is at its best. But again, it’s impossible to underplay the excitement felt by seeing Rhoda Morgenstern finally get her happy ending, and it’s understandable how decisions were made and things unfolded. Therefore, if you can overlook Joe, this is a fantastic year for Rhoda and for the situation comedy. 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.

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Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) All episodes this year are directed by Robert Moore, unless otherwise noted. Also, the one hour-long episode is treated as two individual installments.

 

01) Episode 2: “You Can Go Home Again” (Aired: 09/16/74)

Rhoda looks for a place to stay and ends up moving back home.

Written by Pat Nardo & Gloria Banta

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As one of the best episodes of the entire series, this installment explores a logical question one might have after seeing the pilot: Rhoda’s moved back to New York to be with a guy, but where is she going to live? Ida, of course, offers Rhoda her old room, and Rhoda, desperate for a place to stay, takes her up on it. This gives us the chance to examine the Rhoda/Ida relationship in a way that hasn’t been done since Nancy Walker’s first two appearances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The ladies share great chemistry, and their scenes — particularly the bedroom one (“Spill!”) — are easy highlights, loaded with wonderful character moments and delicious dialogue. Very funny!

02) Episode 4: “Parents’ Day” (Aired: 09/30/74)

Rhoda and Joe decide to meet each other’s parents on the same day.

Written by Charlotte Brown

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One of the strengths of Rhoda is the uniqueness of the storytelling. What could be a rather typical story about Joe meeting Rhoda’s overbearing folks, turns into an episode where the pair agrees to knock out meeting BOTH of their parents in the same day, so they can get the inevitable out of the way. First up are Joe’s parents (Robert Alda and Paula Victor), who, unbeknownst to Rhoda, share a perfectly amiable divorce. Then the lovebirds head up to the Bronx to meet the Morgensterns for the comedic centerpiece of the episode. But the script grounds everything in truth, so nothing goes exaggeratedly disastrous. Instead, it’s unpredictable and refreshing.

03) Episode 7: “The Shower” (Aired: 10/21/74)

Rhoda’s bridal shower is filled with old high school friends — and enemies.

Written by Gail Parent

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The beauty of this episode is the brilliant supporting cast that shows up as the guests — Rhoda’s old high school friends — at her last minute bridal shower. In addition to the adorable Barbara Sharma and the ever-pregnant Beverly Sanders (both of whom will recur throughout the Joe years), the crux of the story revolves around the surprise arrival of Rhoda’s old frenemy, played by the always nice/nasty Linda Lavin, who comes over to rub her fabulous lifestyle in Rhoda’s face. Again, it’s a funny, but consistently believable script, carving out several multi-dimensional supporting players with ease. (And Bob Newhart‘s Florida Friebus makes an appearance too!)

04) Episode 8: “Rhoda’s Wedding (I)” (Aired: 10/28/74)

Rhoda’s friends from Minneapolis come in for the wedding.

Written by James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, David Davis, Lorenzo Music, Norman Barash & Caroll Moore, and David Lloyd

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Both this episode and the one below, separated for syndication, were initially broadcast in an hour block during the original primetime airing. What can one say about the most watched sitcom episode of the ’70s? There’s a real “event” quality to both parts, likely due to the appearance of MOST (excepting Ted Knght and Betty White) of the Mary Tyler Moore cast. While the meeting of Joe and Mary is unpleasant, the airport sequence where Rhoda greets Mary and gets a trio of surprise guests — including the hilariously obnoxious Phyllis (at her peak) — is a highlight. However, Part I lacks the humor of Part II and is mostly set-up for what’s to come.

05) Episode 9: “Rhoda’s Wedding (II)” (Aired: 10/28/74)

Phyllis forgets to pick up Rhoda for her wedding day.

Written by James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, David Davis, Lorenzo Music, Norman Barash & Caroll Moore, and David Lloyd

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What’s always amazed me about Rhoda’s wedding is how important Phyllis is to the events that transpire. In addition to providing a lot of big laughs, her forgetting to take the bride to the wedding is the major second act conflict. (Were they already eyeing Leachman for spin-off? Probably.) This episode is special, with its on location footage of Rhoda running through the streets of New York in her wedding gown; it’s beautiful, with heartfelt moments between Rhoda and Mary, especially; and it’s hilarious, with Bella Bruck’s “What’s new?” as Rhoda stands in the hallway before her wedding — a comedic standout. This is Rhoda‘s highest moment, and it’s hard to argue that any episode is superior.

06) Episode 12: “I’m A Little Late, Folks” (Aired: 11/18/74)

As Joe’s business suffers, Rhoda worries she may be pregnant.

Written by Norman Barasch & Carroll Moore

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This is a mature premise for an MTM series, and perhaps the most sexually progressive episode the company had done to date. Although Norman Lear had already contended with similar stories, never was it done with as much straightforward truth. There’s no preaching or hysterics. When Rhoda and Joe discuss their simultaneous relief and disappointment over her not being pregnant, it’s a great moment of authentic humanity. Also, there’s a lot of comedy, particularly in the scene where Rhoda visits the doctor and cracks wise with the receptionist who asks her some loaded questions! (And the always amusing Cara Williams makes her first of three appearances.)

07) Episode 14: “‘S Wonderful” (Aired: 12/02/74)

Rhoda fears that Brenda’s new boyfriend is married.

Written by Marilyn Suzanne Miller

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Out of all the installments that made Season One’s list, this show features the least original premise. However, few episodes are as consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Although Brenda’s refusal to accept the truth that’s staring her plain in the face is a difficult story point, Rhoda’s resulting inability to contain her ire is unquestionably a hoot, and her character gets to drive both the narrative and the comedy (as it should be). The climax at the restaurant, in which the show gets broad for one of the first times, is the episode’s most memorable scene and features the biggest laughs. This is a great episode for comedy — one of my favorites for guffaws.

08) Episode 19: “Strained Interlude” (Aired: 01/20/75)

Rhoda debates whether or not to accept a dinner invite from an old beau.

Written by Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher

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Alongside the unpredictably sophisticated storytelling, the early seasons of Rhoda are divine at crafting scripts that allow their characters to explore modern and mature sensibilities regarding sex and relationships, all the while maintaining narrative integrity and truthful subtlety. This episode is the personification of this, as the premise has Rhoda planning to meet an old boyfriend for dinner. How do young marrieds deal with this? As it turns out, the old flame is nothing that Joe need worry about, but Rhoda and her  friend end up have a great and believable conversation. And that’s what makes Season One really special: some of the best dialogue in MTM history.

09) Episode 21: “Chest Pains” (Aired: 02/03/75)

Ida fears the worst when she has chest pains.

Written by Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher

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As one of a few episodes this season thrown to Ida, her hysterics about having chest pains (which thankfully never seem like a real threat, even though the characters fully commit to believing so) are both amusing and humanizing. But this episode is notable for being the year’s best exploration of the relationship between the three Morgenstern girls. While the doctor scenes are comedy heavy, the best stuff occurs as the three women await Ida’s results and she tries to be “a friend” to her daughters. Also, this episode is a treat for Three’s Company fans: Norman Fell plays Ida’s doctor and John Ritter plays Brenda’s nebbish and horny beau (in place of Lobo).

10) Episode 25: “Along Comes Mary” (03/10/75)

Mary Richards unknowingly pops in just as Rhoda and Joe have planned a vacation.

Written by Charlotte Brown and Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher

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Mary Tyler Moore crosses over in this, the fifth of her six appearances on Rhoda. Although it’s always great to see Mary and Rhoda back together for sentimental reasons, this episode is also surprisingly funny, loaded with big jokes and great character moments. Of course, Joe, although perhaps justified in his anger, comes across as an unmitigated jerk because of Groh’s playing (but that’s nothing new). Fortunately, there’s enough comedy to cover this obvious hindrance, and the script does indeed have him come around by the end. So it’s a strong conclusion to the first season, as Mary seemingly comes over to once more give Rhoda her blessing to continue.

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “I’ll Be Loving You, Sometimes,” in which Rhoda and Joe decide not to be exclusive, “The Honeymoon,” in which the Morgensterns gift the newlyweds with a geriatric honeymoon cruise (which most deserved to make today’s list), “Whattaya Think It’s There For?,” in which Joe asks the Morgensterns for a loan, and “Not Made For Each Other,” in which Rhoda’s friend Myrna flirts with Joe’s obnoxious friend Charlie.

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Rhoda goes to…..

“Rhoda’s Wedding (II)”

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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!

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11 thoughts on “The Ten Best RHODA Episodes of Season One

  1. Rhoda is prob one of the sitcoms that probably would have worked better if it didn’t rush a few things. Although I do like the show I feel it lacked a little direction

    • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      With our knowledge of what transpired, it’s clear that the decision to have Rhoda marry so early in the run of the series was a creative mistake. So many possibilities of their courtship/engagement squandered.

  2. Two sitcoms in TV history that I think are notable for spectacularly good first seasons before steadily sinking like a stone in every subsequent season: RHODA and THE COSBY SHOW. Rhoda’s Wedding is without a doubt the high point, because it plays exactly like a great episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW would.

  3. Thanks for your comments on season 1 and reminding me how consistantly funny the show was at the beginning. Aside from being, I think, the first sit-com to have a main character marry and divorce duirng it’s run; I also remember when catching re-runs in college that while I loved the characters that the show changed in ways quicker than any other. Is Rhoda married, seperated, single? Where is she working now; are Nancy Walker and Harold Gould on this season or not? Who is this supporting charter and where did the others go and when did Brenda get engaged? Very interested to see the reviews on the remaining 4 seasons

    • Hi, Bob! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You touch upon one of the most curious aspects of this series’ trajectory: the variations in stories and storytelling with each seasonal tweak to the format.

      So instead of discussing the average episodic quality of each season, adjudicating this series also requires comparing each year based on its design and the stories that each premise yields.

      I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts, as each new chapter of RHODA’s history is fascinating, regardless of where we come down on the quality of the comedy.

      Stay tuned next week for Season Two!

  4. The writers and creators could’ve left Joe in the show even after the divorce. They claimed they couldn’t do much with a married couple because of the “family hour” mandated by the federal goverment at the time, but they could’ve requested a switch from 8pm to 9pm if that were really the problem.

    • Hi, Sarah! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’ve heard the writers complain that the Family Viewing Hour hampered their ability to write Rhoda and Joe the way they wanted during the second season, which I’ll be covering here next week. Frankly, I don’t put much stock in the excuse, for I actually find the first half of Season Two to be quite strong, with several of the series’ finest episodes. And then in the middle of the season, the show slowly begins losing steam… But I’ll share more of my thoughts next week.

      As for seeing Joe post-divorce, although a one-time encounter during the fourth or fifth season could have made for an interesting story, once he and Rhoda were finished, there was no real reason to follow his character on a regular (or even recurring) basis. We were far less invested in Joe than in Rhoda, and since the separation poised him as the antagonist, it wouldn’t have been very comedic for the character to continue with the series after he and Rhoda parted ways.

      Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on Season Two!

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