Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Following the start of Sitcom Tuesday’s coverage on the best from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS), I wanted to take a post to highlight Moore’s mid-’80s comeback vehicle, simply titled Mary (1985-1986, CBS). At the end of her seven season sitcom smash, Moore turned her sights to variety, trying two different formats under two different titles during the 1978-1979 TV season. They lasted a collective 14 episodes. She then found success on the big screen in Ordinary People (1980) and on Broadway in Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1980).
Her return to situation comedy lasted only 13 episodes, and having seen all 13, maybe I can shed some light onto why the series didn’t work. (CONTACT ME IF INTERESTED IN OBTAINING AN EPISODE.) First, the premise had Mary Brenner, a divorcee, working on a help column at a local Chicago tabloid, after the folding of the high fashion magazine for which she wrote. Her crass new boss, played by James Farentino, with whom she shares an attraction, often clashed with Mary over tabloid ethics. Others in the office included Katey Sagal as a chain-smoking columnist, John Astin as a quirky theatre critic, and David Byrd as a befuddled copy editor. Mary’s best friend and next door neighbors were played by Carlene Watkins and James Tolkan, who got engaged on a whim and are now living together.
Ken Levine, one of the creators of the series, who also wrote for Cheers and Frasier, among others, has an excellent blog in which he’s dedicated a few posts to his experience working on this series. They knew going in that the format of the series was too similar to her earlier sitcom, but CBS had insisted upon it. They got a deal for 13 episodes, and after an extraordinarily well received pilot, the order was upped to 18. But when the show failed to receive the ratings that Moore had anticipated (the kind she got the decade prior), creative clashes between producers and star were sparked. Finally, though a renewal looked likely, Levine and his writing partner, David Isaacs, decided that they would not return following the 13th episode. Frustrated, Moore decided not to continue as well. So, though the show lasted only 13 episodes, it wasn’t canceled. In fact, it did pretty well in the ratings (at least, in the beginning).
Here’s what worked (for me):
– The idea of putting Mary in a sleazier environment, forcing her to be bolder and harsher; essentially, whenever she acted differently from Mary Richards, it was exciting
– Farentino had an interesting chemistry with Moore, and though it seemed a little too reminiscent of Sam and Diane, it was a much fresher approach than Mary Richards had shared with Lou Grant
– The quirky and well-designed Ed LaSalle, played by John Astin, who always gave some laughs and seemed to inspire the most original stories
– And Katey Sagal, the show’s MVP, who, in her first television role, is the funniest of the series and as a character and an actress, worked the best with Moore
Here’s what didn’t work (for me):
– Premise does feel too much like Moore’s earlier and better series, and it’s impossible not to make comparisons between the two
– Not a lot of great story ideas, especially as time went on; aside from Astin’s, none of the characters seemed to spark any really creative or memorable plots
– Mary’s neighbors were not funny: they were dull and sometimes annoying, and it’s understandable why they were used less and less as the series continued
– The show loses steam after its fourth episode, and both the writing and Mary seem to be going through the motions, while all the recurring players fight an uphill battle
That last point is what struck me the most interesting about this series. The first four episodes are fairly original and funny, but after that, I did not find a single installment to be as good as it should have been. Judging from what Levine has said, this could be the direct result of backstage strife, or, perhaps, the already tired premise just couldn’t sustain itself any longer. But, as I found the first four episodes promising, I thought I’d highlight them in today’s post:
01) Episode 1: “From Pillar To Post” (Aired: 12/11/85)
In the series opener, Mary tries to prove that she’s tough enough to handle her new job as a consumer help-line columnist.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by Danny DeVito
The pilot sets up the characters nicely, and allows Moore to play a person that, while sharing some characteristics with Minneapolis’ Mary Richards, is more mature and realistic. Mary’s interaction with the hooker may be the episode’s funniest moment, but Sagal, Astin, and Farentino all look to be amusing characters that Mary can (and hopefully will) clash with for the sake of comedy. The neighbors scene is the low point, but on the whole, this pilot looks good.
02) Episode 2: “Make My Day” (Aired: 12/18/85)
Mary is chided for being too soft on a shady businessman, so Jo harangues the man—using Mary’s name; Susan accepts a date with Frank.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by Danny DeVito
The premise of this episode hinges on Mary’s ability to be tough when it comes to her job, and, with the fusion of her neighbor’s story to make the fiance jealous, her home life as well. This cohesiveness is appealing, and clearly takes a page from the The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show stories. Sagal is the funniest, and, as this is probably the best representation of the series, I’ve decided to share the episode with you.
03) Episode 3: “Chicago Hi-Lo” (Aired: 12/25/85)
Mary accepts Jo’s invitation to play in the office poker game, hoping to gain acceptance as one of the guys.
Written by Dennis Koenig | Directed by Ellen Falcon
This is a very important episode because its the first time we really get to see the ensemble function as a collective entity. Much like Diane was the outsider in Cheers, this episode’s mission is to set up that Mary is (obviously) an outsider in the office, and then to find a way to ingratiate Mary into this circle of co-workers. The poker game is a clever idea, and there are a few laughs as a much-needed camaraderie is established.
04) Episode 4: “Everyone’s A Critic” (Aired: 01/01/86)
Mary’s vague comments about a play she was supposed to attend—but didn’t—appear in Ed LaSalle’s theater column as the basis for his review.
Written by Tom Straw | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Astin probably gets his best showcase in the series with this installment. The story is very original (and I’ve only seen a variation of it in one other series — The Odd Couple). The theatre critic has been getting other people to see the plays for him and using their ideas to formulate his column. Unfortunately, when he gives his tickets to Mary, she isn’t much help because she didn’t attend the show either. Really clever writing, even though it’s not a laugh riot. Strong episode, nonetheless.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!