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 Morgenstern puts her life back together post-divorce with the help of her family and friends. Rhoda stars VALERIE HARPER as Rhoda Morgenstern, JULIE KAVNER as Brenda Morgenstern, NANCY WALKER as Ida Morgenstern, RON SILVER as Gary Levy, RAY BUKTENICA as Benny Goodwin, MICHAEL DeLANO as Johnny Venture, KENNETH McMILLAN as Jack Doyle, and LORENZO MUSIC as Carlton, the Doorman.
Ida returns, Brenda has two competing love interests, and Rhoda gets a job at a costume company in the first officially Joe-less season. These developments, which help move the show away from the unshakably sad space it occupied in its third year, contributed to an increase in the ratings, an Emmy for Julie Kavner, and a general consensus among audiences (both then and now) that the show’s quality had improved. Truthfully, although more Nancy Walker automatically means more laughs, the costume shop contributes nothing great to the show (Jack Doyle, who’s often likened to Lou Grant, is neither gruff enough nor lovable enough to even earn the comparison) and the calibre of the storytelling isn’t perceptibly better than last year’s. In fact, this season trades last year’s stinkers for installments that can only be described as bland and forgettable. (In some ways, this is an even worse offense.) Part of the problem is that, after all the trouble that the series has gone to restore Rhoda’s single status, the writers still have a difficult time crafting viable stories for her (even though they’re obviously taking greater pains to do so). Yet regardless of preference for Season Three or Season Four, it’s clear that this year, though far from spectacular, features a fine collection of shows, most of which earn distinction due to interactions among the established trio of reunited Morgenstern women. 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 77: “One Is A Number” (Aired: 10/23/77)
Rhoda attempts to go out on the town alone for the first time.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by James Burrows
Of all the episodes produced after the separation, this is probably the most popular. (Part of this, I believe, is because, for the longest time, it was the only one available on home video…) But this installment really is special, featuring a guest appearance by the marvelous Anne Jackson and a mature premise that explores the complexity of the Rhoda character, as she tries to have an enjoyable evening out — alone — and ends up in a diner with a bunch of unique individuals. Unfortunately, despite some sophisticated dialogue and a powerful theme, the quality laughs are sporadic (at best), and that keeps it from ever being a true favorite.
02) Episode 78: “Ida Works Out” (Aired: 10/30/77)
Ida gets a job working alongside Rhoda at the costume shop.
Written by Dennis Koenig & Larry Balmagia | Directed by Tony Mordente
After a string of mildly comedic episodes that set up both the new characters and new settings that the fourth season will explore, this is the first installment that makes humor its first priority. Non-coincidentally, this episode revolves around Nancy Walker’s Ida, whose uncanny knack of aggravating her daughters, especially Rhoda, never fails to delight. The best laughs, however, come from the interplay between Ida and Jack, and their sparring (though unevenly matched — Ida easily bests him) yields continuous amusement. Surprisingly funny episode, especially for those (like myself) who adore Ms. Walker.
03) Episode 79: “Rhoda Likes Mike” (Aired: 11/06/77)
Rhoda becomes clingy after a date with Mike, a handsome restauranteur.
Written by Deborah Leschin | Directed by Tony Mordente
Judd Hirsch makes his first of two consecutive appearance as Mike Andretti, the first man with whom Rhoda is intimate following Joe. This episode isn’t quite as humorous as the one following, mostly because it has a fair share of emotional baggage (on Rhoda’s part, of course) with which to contend. But the final scene, in which Rhoda and Mike try to hammer out the parameters of their relationship is extremely well-written and well-played. It’s in moments like these that MTM’s reputation for high quality storytelling comes through; here’s another example of the unique character-driven beats that help make Rhoda special.
04) Episode 80: “The Weekend” (Aired: 11/13/77)
Rhoda and Mike plan to spend a weekend together.
Written by Earl Pomerantz | Directed by Tony Mordente
As mentioned above, Hircsh’s second outing is funnier than his first. The story hinges on Rhoda’s decision to spend a romantic (read: sexual) weekend with her casual boyfriend, Mike — much to the chagrin of Ida (who certainly helps to elevate the comedy quotient). Things truck along pretty lightheartedly until Mike admits that the only reason he asked Rhoda to spend the weekend with him was because he was hoping she’d say no and he could break it off. (Ouch.) Again, the final scene with the two of them is beautifully executed: a perfect coalescence of honest scripting and earnest playing. Season Four’s strongest offering.
05) Episode 81: “Home Movies” (Aired: 12/04/77)
Rhoda and Brenda dread dinner with their parents.
Written by Allan Katz & Don Reo | Directed by Tony Mordente
This is an indefensibly gimmicky episode that basically devotes its entire comedic centerpiece to “home movies” of the Morgenstern family through the years. They’re really easy laughs, and far beneath the skills of these talented writers and players, who are forced to don goofy period clothes and perform shtick. However, before the home movies come out, there’s a wonderful conversation between the family in which they each share one of their lifes’ ambitions. All four of their moments are completely in character and quite revealing, illustrating the wonderfully simple (and realistic) comedy that these rich characters engender.
06) Episode 84: “Blind Date” (Aired: 01/08/78)
Ida fixes Rhoda up on a disastrous blind date.
Written by Don Reo | Directed by Asaad Kelada
Although the series did a similar episode during Season Two in which Brenda is irked after Ida fixes her up with a dud, this episode is even funnier, as Rhoda is now the victim. This comedic strength may be because the story is more unique, shifting most of its focus away from Ida and onto Rhoda and the unattractive (and incredibly short) blind date, who turns out to be a real jerk when he reveals that he’s lowering HIS standards by dating Rhoda. It’s unexpected and supremely funny — as is the pairs’ verbal sparring over their painful dinner. Some good laughs in this solid Rhoda-heavy offering.
07) Episode 89: “Rhoda Cheats” (Aired: 02/12/78)
Rhoda is caught cheating in night school.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by Tony Mordente
Episodes in which Rhoda does something wrong and is exposed as a flawed heroine are wonderful because not only are imperfections the root of comedy, but this rendering also harkens her character back to those glorious unglamorous TMTMS days. In this case, Rhoda’s cheating on her exam, though certainly not commendable, is something at which we can laugh, because we understand what she’s doing and her accompanying motivations. Meanwhile, this installment also gains distinction for its great use of the usually disappointing Jack, who comes to class to smooth things over — with hilarious results.
08) Episode 90: “Gary And Ida” (Aired: 02/19/78)
Gary latches onto Ida when his parents move to Florida.
Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Bruce Chevillat
Again, this is an episode thrown to Nancy Walker, as Rhoda believes that she can help Gary become self-sufficient (following his parents’ move to Florida) by giving him a taste of the most overbearing mother in the world: Ida Morgenstern. The first twist, which isn’t really a twist, is that it backfires and Gary attaches himself to her. The second twist, from which the comedy comes, is that Ida, whom you’d think would love the attention, is dying to get rid of him. Thus, the installment is at its finest during the climax at Ida’s place, in which she reveals her annoyance to the girls and is forced to tell Gary how she feels. Hysterical.
09) Episode 91: “As Time Goes By” (Aired: 02/26/78)
Rhoda and Jack get locked in the bathroom during a party.
Written by Deborah Leschin | Directed by Tony Mordente
This is another episode, mining easy (and guaranteed) comedy from a tried and true premise: two characters getting drunk. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be so willing to give an episode like this, which doesn’t try as hard as it should and just expects the audience to enjoy it, much of my attention. However, in a season that requires lower standards, this installment automatically makes the grade, because it delivers laughs. And to be fair, Harper and McMillan, whose intoxicated duet is a highlight, do a perfectly fine drunk routine, which features believable performances by both (even if it’s nothing we haven’t seen before).
10) Episode 94: “So Long, Lucky” (Aired: 04/02/78)
Rhoda’s costume rack kills a policeman’s horse.
Written by Allan Katz | Directed by Tony Mordente
Hands down, this is the strangest episode of the entire series. But, it’s so original! Rhoda rolls a costume rack out onto the street and accidentally kills a policeman’s horse. (There are obvious shades of “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” as the episode routinely employs gallows humor.) She feels so bad about what’s happened that she goes overboard trying to make it up to the man, each time failing miserably and making things worse for both. It’s a classic premise except that Rhoda killing a horse is deliciously dark (and bizarre). It’s not explicitly hilarious, but funny in its sheer inventiveness. Surprisingly, this is a classic — among the most memorable.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Who’s Shy?” in which Brenda goes to a class to be more assertive (and does a divine Ida impersonation — great Brenda episode), “Ida Alone,” in which Rhoda and Brenda try to fix Ida up with new friends (a good Nancy Walker showcase), and “Happy Anniversary,” in which Ida anticipates a party for her and Martin’s anniversary. All three could easily stand alongside some of the lesser efforts that actually made the list, and for true fans, are definitely worthwhile.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Rhoda goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!