Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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.
Rhoda Gerard negotiates married life in the big city, which is never easy — especially with her crazy Jewish family around every corner. Rhoda stars VALERIE HARPER as Rhoda Morgenstern Gerard, 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.
The second season of Rhoda begins with much confidence, as MTM’s highest rated comedy produces a handful of smart scripts that make good use of the principal players, particularly Rhoda and Brenda, the latter of whom begins to emerge as a reliable source of comedy. (She is, after all, what Rhoda was to Mary Richards.) In addition to more appearances by Walker and Gould, the show really cultivates an eclectic and delightful cast of recurring players including two of Rhoda’s high school friends whom we met last season, the chronically pregnant Suzie (Beverly Sanders), and Myrna (Barbara Sharma), who joined Rhoda at the window dressing company, plus Joe’s work associates, Scooey Mitchell and Candy Azzara (who replaced Cara Williams in the middle of the first season), and Brenda’s best friend and roommate, Melanie Mayron. Of course, while these players usually add some pep to the proceedings, their growing usage is endemic to the show’s inability to write for its heroine.
This becomes particularly noticeable after Season Two’s halfway mark, in which the episodic quality declines drastically and the show begins an assembly line of forgettable installments. To what can we attribute this dramatic shift? Joe. The writers don’t know what to do with him and, more importantly, they don’t know what to do with Rhoda while she’s with him. (And don’t allow them to blame this on the Family Viewing Hour either; this is all about character.) The writers made it through a year of married life, but now they’ve run out of ideas. The show’s attempt to rectify this comedic drought will become legendary. (But that’s for next week!) In the meantime, Season Two is like two separate entities. The good part (Fall 1975) and the bland part (Spring 1976). 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.)
01) Episode 26: “Kiss Your Epaulets Goodbye” (Aired: 09/08/75)
Rhoda gets Carlton fired when he lets burglars into their apartment.
Written by Michael Leeson | Directed by Robert Moore
This episode has the distinction of being the only episode centered around Carlton, Lorenzo Music’s chronically drunk doorman. Although his character, an easy and dependable source of laughs, sometimes feels like a one-joke bit that got out of hand, this episode really humanizes him, and the show benefits from this established pathos. Furthermore, the script is incredibly funny and well-written, and deserves praise simply for its ability to work in a guest spot for Ruth Gordon, who plays Carlton’s mother. Her scene with Rhoda is one of this series’ greatest, elevating an already good episode to great. A fan favorite!
02) Episode 27: “Rhoda Meets The Ex-Wife” (Aired: 09/15/75)
Rhoda meets Joe’s ex-wife for the first time.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by Robert Moore
This is the best episode of the second season for several reasons. First, there’s no shortage of comedy and the humor runs throughout the entirety of the episode (not a given with this series). Secondly, meeting the ex-wife is a story that the audience has been waiting for since we first met Joe, and it’s firmly rooted into the series’ core premie: Rhoda’s adjustment to life as one half of a couple. Thirdly, the episode isn’t predictable. Rhoda and Marian neither become friends nor foes, and it feels surprisingly realistic. And finally, there’s plenty of comedy for the marvelous Nancy Walker, who steals the show with her surprise re-appearance in the second act.
03) Episode 29: “Mucho, Macho” (Aired: 09/29/75)
Joe and Rhoda quibble on their anniversary when he takes on a lecher.
Written by Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher | Directed by Robert Moore
Mention must be made that this is one of only a few Season Two episodes (along with the installment below) in which the relationship between Rhoda and Joe becomes the primary focus of the story. The idea of Joe’s hyper-masculinity coming between he and Rhoda is interesting, because its manifestation through his temper is precisely what makes him often unlikable and difficult to place in stories. Furthermore, the fighting allows for some nice resolution between the pair, as their hitting each other with the pillows is shamefully cute. (And look for future regular Ron Silver in a guest spot.)
04) Episode 30: “The Party” (Aired: 10/06/75)
Rhoda and Joe feud while hosting a party.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by Robert Moore
Although it seems like this episode is largely a set-up to get a bunch of individuals in a room and engage them in silly psychological games in an attempt to garner easy laughs, it does hit upon deeper truths for the characters, and thus maintains a level of sincerity, despite the obvious manipulation. Also, this is really a theatrical piece with nice moments for members of the brilliantly cast ensemble, which includes: Richard Masur, Candy Azzara, Scooey Mitchell, Denise Nicholas, Beverly Sanders, and Stuart Margolin. So it’s a fun one to watch, and the smart script by Charlotte Brown makes it that much better.
05) Episode 33: “Somebody Down There Likes Him” (Aired: 10/27/75)
Brenda’s new roommate flirts openly with Joe.
Written by Pat Nardo & Gloria Banta | Directed by Howard Storm
As we’ve seen before on this series, this episode benefits from taking elements of a recognizable sitcom story (a hot guest flirts with a principal’s love interest, making the principal feel threatened) and keeping it from ever becoming predictable. In this case, Denise Galik, who was cast as Chrissy Snow for a brief week in December of ’76, moves in with Brenda and openly flirts with Joe. The scene sort of builds to a climax in which Rhoda (or maybe Ida or Brenda) is going to get into a big fight with the vixen, but instead, things are sort of deflated, in an abrupt, but non-violent way. It’s entertaining — not hilarious — but amusing and original.
06) Episode 34: “Call Me Grandma” (Aired: 11/03/75)
Brenda becomes fed up with Ida’s attempts to fix her up.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by Howard Storm
Ida Morgenstern’s desire to fix up her daughters (and anyone who will let her) is a common story that will be milked several more times before Rhoda goes off the air. This one, in which Brenda gets fed up after her mom sets her up with David L. Lander (whom you probably know better as Squiggy), is one of the most amusing. The script is tight with plenty of laughs, and there’s more than enough room for Nancy Walker to once again steal the proceedings. Also, the script is blessed with a nice non-telegraphed, but extremely fitting, twist at the end (that I won’t spoil here)!
07) Episode 35: “Myrna’s Story” (Aired: 11/10/75)
Rhoda is outraged to learn how Myrna has been acquiring new clients.
Written by Linda Bloodworth | Directed by Martin Cohan
Among Rhoda‘s many gems in its early days is Barbara Sharma, best known as a regular during the last two years of Laugh-In, who plays Rhoda’s co-worker, Myrna Morgenstein. This episode deals with a story that had been brewing in several past installments: Myrna’s use of her femininity, shall we say, to acquire and keep clients. Rhoda is shocked and decides to prove that she can win an account based on the quality of her work, leading to a hilariously disastrous scene in which Rhoda and her potential client get off to a terrible start. It’s a surprisingly funny installment that transplants the crux of the comedy on exactly where it should be: its namesake.
08) Episode 36: “Love Songs Of J. Nicholas Lobo” (Aired: 11/17/75)
Brenda’s acordian-clad beau plans to move away.
Written by Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher | Directed by Joan Darling
The character of Nick Lobo, Brenda’s obnoxious accordion playing beau, is always a hilarious addition to the show, even if he remains particularly unlikable. This episode gives him a lot to do, as the story focuses on his relationship with Brenda. The comedic highlight of the episode, and the reason it makes this list, is Nick’s serenading Brenda with a modified version of “Linda,” appropriately titled “Brenda.” There’s a great callback later on in the episode when Candy Azzara’s character comes out and sings “Alice.” Very funny installment, especially for those who appreciate the comedic presence of Masur.
09) Episode 37: “Friends And Mothers” (Aired: 11/24/75)
Rhoda’s friendship with an elderly neighbor makes Ida jealous.
Written by Pat Nardo & Gloria Banta | Directed by Bob Claver
What a remarkable episode! In addition to a fabulous guest appearance by the still hilarious Vivian Vance (and David “Larry Tate” White as her husband), this episode gives a lot to Nancy Walker, which, as we’ve seen, always improves an episode’s comedy quotient. The story is great, however, as Ida is jealous when Rhoda befriends Vance’s character, and then makes a fool of herself trying to act “hip” and “with it” at a dinner party where she invites the two new friends. It’s a riotous episode with believable character moments, for all of the Morgenstern women. But all that is secondary to the thrill of seeing Viv, who still knows how to put over a punchline.
10) Episode 42: “Attack On Mr. Right” (Aired: 01/12/76)
Rhoda teaches Brenda how to snag an arrogant man.
Written by Pat Nardo & Gloria Banta | Directed by Harvey Miller
John Ritter makes the second of his two (unrelated) appearances on Rhoda as a snob who asks Brenda for a date and blows her off when he gets a better offer. Rhoda agrees to help Brenda snare Ritter — but only if Brenda teaches him a lesson and drops him after she gets him. It’s a very funny idea, and one of the only times this series actually allows Joe to be a part of the comedic centerpiece, as he goes to the bank and pretends to be one of Brenda’s beaus. It’s satisfying to see Brenda get him, and even more satisfying to know that her character has grown from the experience. One of the few Brenda episodes that uses Rhoda and Joe properly!
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Ida’s Doctor,” in which Ida begins developing feelings for her doctor, played once again by Norman Fell, “With Friends Like These,” in which Rhoda’s friendship with Myrna is paralleled with Brenda’s friendship with Sandy (the best of these honorable mentions), “A Night With The Girls,” in which Rhoda spends time with Beverly Sanders and Barbara Sharma, and “Let’s Call It Love,” in which Rhoda and Joe try to spend some time alone (as the series seemingly recognizes how little they’re together).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Rhoda goes to…..
“Rhoda Meets The Ex-Wife”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!
The one thing that always irks me about Rhoda–after the whole Joe affair–is how small and inconsistent the ensemble that surrounded Rhoda was. All the most successful MTM shows find their strength in their assembled ensemble(e.g. The MTM Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and WKRP in Cincinnati); it’s their hallmark. After season 1, Rhoda already, organically, had developed other characters beside Rhoda’s family for her to play off. To me, Myrna and Susie had so much potential to be great sources of comedy in their own right, which they had proven in the first season and the second. It would have been almost hysterical to see Susie and her aloof husband try to buoy up Rhoda’s spirits after her separation; or, Myrna and Rhoda hitting the town together(especially since Myrna had begun to sleep around). Instead of utilising characters they had already developed, they make a new character in Sally, who only stays for half the season. Then in one episode, inexplicably, they trot out Susie in one episode in Season 3. Then with Nancy Walker and Harold Gould’s departure in Season 3, the comedy pool was truncated. Even though the MTM show had some upsets in its ensemble, they smartly used characters already introduced before to fill out (somewhat) the holes left after both Rhoda and Phyllis left.
Hi, David! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I don’t disagree with you, especially with regard to the show’s shortsightedness in dumping those two characters, particularly at a time when the series could have benefited from more familiarity and stability. I’ve never seen an official reason given as to why Sanders and Sharma stopped being used, but I have a few guesses.
In the absence of three performers to whom the audience had become emotionally invested, the show wanted a name — Anne Meara — to retain its audience. And with the Sally character, a modern divorcée who could give Rhoda advice and still remain a friend, fulfilling the gal pal position, it would be difficult to justify, financially, including the other two non-names. But, as you know, Meara was a bad fit for the series. The actress’ persona is inherently bitter, so her inclusion dragged down the show’s humor even more. Although it was Meara’s decision to leave, it was to the show’s benefit. “Pajama Party Bingo” was likely written to include Meara; Sanders was the last minute replacement.
Also, there was a general consensus near the end of Season Two that the show had become too overpopulated with other characters, while Rhoda ended up being pushed into the background. Part of the reason for dumping Joe, aside from the fact that they couldn’t write a married couple, was the desire to return focus onto its star. (You’ll notice that Brenda stories in Season Three do a better job of giving Rhoda something to play as well.) Sally was Rhoda’s friend and the show’s name, while Gary was the replacement male, a character crafted solely for laughs — of which the series knew it was in short supply. With these two new characters, RHODA wanted to embrace that it was a different show, and any reminders of the past had to be downplayed. (But this wasn’t possible; the show had a better chance for rebooting itself in Season Four, after Joe was officially history. Unfortunately, this reboot was also light on laughs.)
Now, I think the lack of continuity was one of many mistakes, but I kind of understand the thinking (especially because the audience at the time was furious at the recent developments). And while there were missed opportunities in playing both Myrna and Susan’s interactions with Rhoda following her separation, their regular inclusion wouldn’t have been enough to fix a show that had already made too many bad decisions.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my thoughts on the other seasons, particularly Season Three!