The Ten Best RHODA Episodes of Season Three

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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-reflexivity 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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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

“Together Again For The First Time”

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

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6 thoughts on “The Ten Best RHODA Episodes of Season Three

    • Hi, James! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, Ida explains in the season premiere that they’ve bought a camper and are setting out to see America.

      • Jackson, now that you given your review of season 3, if not read of any of the 100 episode articles on shows that made it the syndicated mark, google Rhoda 100 episodes. the article is titled “how the producers kiled Rhoda by making it better”. you have a lot of similar howeverwould be interesting to hear you feedback on it

        • Hi, Bob! Thanks for reading and commenting.

          I read that AV Club article back when it was first written, and looked at it again just now after reading your comment.

          I definitely agree that the separation allowed for unique and more creatively interesting stories in Season Three, and also that the audience was, as a result, less satisfied — and even hurt by the heartbreaking trajectory. But I simply can’t agree with the notion that, despite the development proving a ratings (and thus financial) detriment, the series was artistically better for their split. And that’s not because I like Joe or was overwhelmingly invested in their relationship; it’s merely because there are few (if any) scripts that come close to matching the quality of those produced for the first season — wedding or not. Despite attempts to convince myself of any brilliance in the final years of RHODA (which undoubtedly did a more conscious job of writing for the title character), I find myself unable to deny that the show was better and FUNNIER during Joe’s tenure (and that’s saying a lot, considering I’ve never been sold on him). So I must ultimately disagree with the provocative title; the producers killed the show by TRYING to make it better. They got some fresh stories, but I don’t believe they ever actually succeeded — and my sentiments are independent of the show’s fall in the ratings.

          Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on the polarizing fourth season!

  1. This was actually my favorite season of the five — which happened only recently after growing up to revile the third season because of the break-up. But once I was finally able to watch it for myself, I recognized that “Rhoda” just became a different show with season three and appreciated it on that level. It was comparatively sad, but it was also real and a unique direction for a sitcom at the time with some very funny moments — even if not entirely funny episodes.

    • Hi, TV Talking Heads! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      It was certainly a BOLD decision! Be sure to check out our other RHODA posts, if you haven’t already.

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