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 struggles to find herself following a surprise separation from her husband Joe. Rhoda stars VALERIE HARPER as Rhoda Morgenstern Gerard, JULIE KAVNER as Brenda Morgenstern, RON SILVER as Gary Levy, ANNE MEARA as Sally Gallagher, DAVID GROH as Joe Gerard, and LORENZO MUSIC as Carlton, the Doorman.
The show’s inability to write for Rhoda in Season Two provided a quandary. The heroine’s highly rated wedding and marriage had rendered her a difficult character to exist comedically. What to do? The painful answer: break-up said marriage. Thus, Season Three charts the really depressing course of separation, counseling, back and forth, and then fizzling out of the most important TV marriage of the 1970s. Perhaps hitting too close to home, this development was a turn off (literally) for the viewers who had put their faith in Joe and Rhoda, a character whom they’d seen evolve for over six years. Truthfully, there was no easy way out. Even though Rhoda the character was stifled in marriage, the alternative is clearly much bleaker territory, as laughs are hard to get in the midst of obvious heartache. While comedy comes from pain — and the show initially benefits from the serialized boost of narrative fodder — the absence of joy is really difficult to watch. But while Joe is phased out over the course of the season, the third year must also make due without Rhoda’s parents (Ida appears only in the premiere) as both actors were cast in shows of their own. (In Nancy Walker’s case, it would be two unsuccessful shows within the same season.) So all that’s left of the main cast are Rhoda and Brenda.
To compensate, the series brings in a handful of new players: Gary Levy (Ron Silver), a nebbish wannabe ladies man who hits on both girls but eventually becomes their friend, Sally Gallagher (Anne Meara), a bitter divorce who bonds with Rhoda, and Johnny Venture (Michael DeLano), an overbearing lounge singer who has the hots for Rhoda. While the men will make it past the season, Anne Meara makes it only to New Year’s Eve before she’s dropped (per her own request) without an explanation. Truthfully, none of them work as well as Ida, whose gigantic impact on the show’s humor isn’t really felt until her departure. For all these reasons, this may be the show’s least funniest collection of episodes. But, because the storytelling is forced to get more creative, there are a lot of interesting and unique installments (check the full list of honorable mentions for proof). 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 51: “Together Again For The First Time” (Aired: 09/27/76)
Now separated, Rhoda and Joe go on a date.
Written by Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher | Directed by Tony Mordente
The second episode in this extended arc about Rhoda and Joe’s separation is the funniest because it is the only one that successfully translates Rhoda’s feeling of “weirdness” into comedy. Also, it’s the only one that doesn’t feel tragic, as both Rhoda and Joe seem committed to making their marriage work. Comedically, the high point of the show is their dinner at Rick’s, when they’re paired at a table with an obnoxious couple on a blind date. (Michelle from The Bob Newhart Show is the gal.) It’s very funny, and for Rhoda, mature storytelling, indicating a wealth of possibilities (that unfortunately never seem to get explored). One of my few true favorites from the often mediocre third season, it’s the most comedic script of the year.
02) Episode 54: “H-e-e-e-r-e’s Johnny” (Aired: 10/18/76)
Nick Lobo arranges a blind date for Rhoda.
Written by Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher | Directed by Doug Rogers
As the first episode with Johnny Venture, a character who’s grown on me during repeated viewings (largely because of Rhoda’s response: she’s annoyed, but she sees something deeper beyond his persona), your enjoyment of this episode will depend largely on your sentiments toward him. But this is also an ensemble show, throwing moments to both Brenda and Nick Lobo, and two of the new additions: Sally and Johnny. More importantly, it’s the first one without Joe since early Season One. Thus, it’s a new Rhoda, with new faces and a new premise. Fortunately, there are still some laughs to be had, especially from the previously established characters, whose relationships with the newbies can be explored with fresh expectations.
03) Episode 55: “Two Little Words — Marriage Counselor” (Aired: 10/25/76)
Rhoda and Joe try counseling.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by Tony Mordente
It’s difficult to recommend this one without prefacing my praise by noting that this is not a hysterical episode. In fact, for fans of Rhoda and Joe, it’s a difficult show to watch. My initial list did not include this episode, but I decided to replace a mediocre installment for this one, which deserves watching — maybe more than any of the other dramatic separation outings — because of its unavoidable truths: Rhoda and Joe got married because Rhoda didn’t want to just live together. Joe never wanted to be married. Ouch. Yet, through all the pain of the premise, Brown’s script allows moments of comedy to creep in, elevating its merit and producing solid laughs — if you can dry your tears and find them. (It took a while for this one to earn my favor.)
04) Episode 56: “An Elephant Never Forgets” (Aired: 11/01/76)
Brenda graduates from her weight loss club, but Rhoda is forced to rejoin.
Written by Michael Leeson | Directed by Tony Mordente
Interestingly, this episode ends up being about Brenda and her inability to deal with her new thinner body image, as Rhoda had to do during the third season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But the installment initially sets itself up as paralleling Brenda’s graduation from the weight loss group (which upsets her, because she’s essentially been kicked out for meeting her goal) with Rhoda’s having to rejoin once she tags along to a meeting and gets on the scale, only to learn that she’s gained back her weight! It’s a hysterical beat, and Rhoda’s refusal to accept the scale’s number is probably one of the biggest laughs of the season. Hilarious first act, more sentimental second; great for Brenda fans. Always been a favorite of mine.
05) Episode 57: “Rhoda Questions Her Life And Flies To Paris” (Aired: 11/08/76)
Rhoda and Brenda decide to each do something daring.
Written by Michael Leeson | Directed by Asaad Kelada
Although this episode, admittedly, doesn’t draw its characters with the most logical or consistent brush, that’s part of the premise. Rhoda feels that her life has become too dull, so she decides to fly to Paris for the weekend on a whim. It’s not a particularly smart (or funny) idea, but the self-reflectivity on Rhoda’s part is an interesting and believable development. More comedic, however, is Brenda’s B-story about doing something she’s always wanted to do: calling Woody Allen. It’s a great, joyous moment when she tells Rhoda that he called her back. But in addition to the unique premise, this episode is most commendable for Leeson’s sharp script, which remains continuously punchy and gives us some of the year’s best Rhoda/Brenda scenes.
06) Episode 58: “Meet The Levys” (Aired: 11/15/76)
Rhoda pretends to be Gary’s girlfriend at dinner with his parents.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by Doug Rogers
With our standards lowered because of the decline in quality of the third season, this enjoyable episode becomes one of the year’s best. The premise of Gary asking Brenda to pretend to be his girlfriend in front of his parents is rather ordinary. (That is, it’s something we could see on any dime-a-dozen sitcom.) But another twist is added when Brenda can’t make it, forcing Rhoda to substitute not only as her sister Brenda, but as Gary’s girlfriend. The scene with Gary’s folks, played by Norman Burton and the always funny Doris Roberts, is the best part of the episode, as the latter begins dismantling the young “couple’s” farce. It’s surprisingly funny, and like a lot of episodes in today’s post, improves on repeated viewings.
07) Episode 63: “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” (Aired: 01/03/77)
Rhoda throws a depressing New Year’s Eve party.
Written by Pat Nardo & Gloria Banta | Directed by Tony Mordente
This is one of those cheaper (read: far less clever) outings in which, in the absence of an actual narrative, the writers decide to throw a party and make that the “story’s” main thrust. Of course, in true MTM fashion, it’s a rather depressing affair, and not surprisingly, given Rhoda’s headspace and the tone of the season, comedic only in its shockingly sad existence. But the episode makes the list because the party does give an excuse for some fine character moments (by folks like Sally, who makes her last appearance), and manages to end on Rhoda and Joe (in his penultimate appearance), who share a nice moment at midnight — comedically ruined by a drunk Carlton, who’s hiding under the coats on the bed. Always good to end on a laugh!
08) Episode 65: “A Night In The Emergency Room” (Aired: 01/16/77)
Nick Lobo accidentally breaks Rhoda’s toe with his accordion.
Written by Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher | Directed by Tony Mordente
Nick Lobo makes probably his funniest appearance from the entire series in this episode, in which he accidentally drops his accordion on Rhoda’s toe and breaks it, following his learning that she’s counseled Brenda against lending him money. The rest of the episode finds the trio heading to the emergency room, where Rhoda waits to be examined. Of all the episodes, this one most reminds me of the earlier seasons, in which a routine, ordinary story is handled in a rather fluid, unpredictable, and surprisingly fresh way. Masur is a clown and his character is always a guarantor of laughs, but the episode functions simultaneously and otherwise works because it’s grounded in a mundane, but (heightened) reality. Solid outing.
09) Episode 66: “Somebody Has To Say They’re Sorry” (Aired: 01/23/77)
Rhoda seeks an apology from a cop who falsely arrests her for soliciting.
Written by Martin Rips & Joseph Staretski | Directed by Tony Mordente
Installments that allow Rhoda to be the most active participant (and driving force) in the story often work the best, for they remind of her character’s pushier MTM roots. This particular episode is among the funniest of the season, featuring a story that automatically engenders comedy: Rhoda is mistakingly arrested for being a hooker. While most shows would do this idea and conclude either in prison or in court, this series lives up to its unique reputation by turning the narrative on its ear, as Rhoda’s quest for an apology from the cop leads her to his apartment, where she badgers him into caving (much to the delight of his wife, played by Valerie Curtin, best known from the TV adaptation of 9 To 5). Hilarious and unique installment.
10) Episode 70: “Nose Job” (Aired: 02/20/77)
Rhoda doesn’t approve of Brenda’s decision to have her nose done.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by Tony Mordente
Like at least one other episode on this list, this installment didn’t initially make the cut, currying my favor only after repeated viewings. What turns me off is the routine, predictable, and schmaltzy premise of Brenda wanting to get a nose job, only for Rhoda to convince her that it’s better for her to love herself as is. (Yawn.) Beyond all that, Brown actually gives us a funny script, especially for guess star David Ogden Stiers as the hilarious plastic surgeon. Once I got past my aversion to the story, I found myself recognizing that this is among the second half of the season’s most amusing. And, in Season Three, where comedy is something much rarer than it was in Season One, laughs become a precious commodity; this episode delivers.
Other notable episodes (and there are a lot — given the universally mediocre quality of the season) that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Separation” and “The Ultimatum,” the first and last episodes that deal with Rhoda and Joe’s separation (that simply can’t be hilarious) and their futile attempt to work things out (as Nancy Walker makes her only Season Three appearance in the former, and Mary Tyler Moore appears in the latter). While those are notable for their stories, these are more comedically commendable: “You Deserve A Break Today,” in which Brenda dates a man who owns three MacDonald’s franchises, “Man Of The Year,” in which Sally takes an interest in Joe’s obnoxious friend Charlie, “Rhoda’s Mystery Man,” the second of Johnny Venture’s Season Three trilogy, and “The Second Time Around,” in which Rhoda goes on a date with Brenda’s boss.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Rhoda goes to…..
“Together Again For The First Time”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!