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The Mary Tyler Moore Show at 50

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was Evolutionary Rather than Revolutionary

I always remember this one comment made by an indie filmmaker in an interview I read quite a few years ago.  I don’t recall his name, and this isn’t an exact quote (as I said; it was a loooong time ago), but it went something like, “You can only be avant-garde so long before you become the Old Guard.”  Makes sense; once some revolutionary change has been around long enough to become the norm, and the next generation grows up with that norm, it becomes hard, especially over time, to recall why the revolutionary had ever been considered revolutionary.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show wasn’t so much revolutionary as evolutionary, and I doubt anybody at the time would’ve ever have described the show as “edgy” (I don’t even think programming people were using that word yet).  But MTM certainly surfed the crest of a breaking wave in how women were presented and portrayed on television.

To understand how big that change was, we need to climb into the ol’ Wayback Machine and take a look at how things were in the painfully long disenfranchising Before Time.


While John Adams and the rest of the Continental Congress were wrestling with the issue of independence from England in 1776, his wife Abigail wrote to him foreseeing that, at some point, rules for the new country would have to be drawn up.  She cautioned him that in that process he and the other Founding Fathers should “…remember the ladies.”

He didn’t and they didn’t.  As far as the Constitution was concerned, the ladies didn’t exist.  It would be another 150 years before the 19th Amendment passed and women were given the right to vote.  Up until then, not only could they not vote, but in many parts of the country they couldn’t own property, they couldn’t serve on juries, in fact they typically had very little standing at all in the eyes of the law.  They could work; they could be school teachers, work in mills, be seamstresses, and do other similar kinds of low-paying grunt labor, but the woman who, Heaven forbid, chose to follow an honest-to-God career – like, say, be a doctor or lawyer – was looked on as some kind of aberration, an anomaly usually confined to the Western frontier where civilization had yet to take root at which point women would be shoved back into the home to pop out babies.  Wife and mother wasn’t an option for women, but practically a societal decree.

Getting the vote got women the right to vote…and not much else.  They were still generally second-class citizens and had neither the social standing, political, social or economic muscle of men, nor, for the most part, access to the professions.  So it would remain, more or less, until the latter part of the 20th Century.

Popular culture being what it is, this male dominated status quo was reflected in books, then movies and radio, and eventually television.  In her 1990 book Prime Time, Our Time:  America’s Life and Times Through the Prism of Television, Donna McCrohan makes the point that –

The most successful series begin as myths made popular by the force of wishful thinking…  Top shows – some more than others – fulfill an element of wishful thinking, crystallizing whatever the prevailing American Dream…  

Ahhh, the “prevailing American Dream”!  That meant a bad deal for American women on the tube because the prevailing American Dream didn’t include independent, empowered women.  Cruise your way through the TV series of the medium’s first decade or so, and, well, five-time Emmy-winner Bill Persky, in his memoir My Life Is a Situation Comedy, nails it:

In television’s beginnings in the 50s, the role of women was limited to adorable daughters (Gale Storm in My Little Margie), elegant hostesses (Loretta Young in her eponymous show), and the dutiful, understanding, second-class citizen-wife (Marjorie Lord in Make Room for Daddy, Donna Reed in The Donna Reed Show, Jane Wyatt in Father Knows Best, and Barbara Billingsley in Leave It to Beaver); all Moms waiting in full make-up, with proper dress and apron preparing dinner along with the problem of the day for “Him” to get home and make everything right with “His” wisdom.

Oh, there were some exceptions that weren’t particularly exceptional.  Women could be teachers (Our Miss Brooks) and secretaries (Perry Mason’s dedicated Della Street), but they couldn’t be the principal and they couldn’t be the lawyer.

The closest thing to a rebel, according to Persky, was Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy:  “She wanted equality, recognition, and everything her (nightclub star husband) Ricky had…”

But she never got it.  Lucy’s antics were always viewed as an intrusion on the male preserve of being the bread winner, the careerist, and episodes invariably ended with Desi Arnaz’s reproving “LuCEE!” and a chastised Lucy returned to her “proper” role of housewife.

“I’ve had the fame and the joy of getting laughter—those are gifts.”

Mary Tyler Moore

In the 1999 Showtime documentary, The 20th Century:  Yesterday’s Tomorrows, a slew of commentators look at how pop culture had predicted (and often mis-predicted) the future during each decade of the 20th Century.  Included was a clip from a promotional film from the 1964 New York World’s Fair showing the projected kitchen of the future.  An attractive young woman, immaculately dressed in puffy skirt and heels, flitted about the gleaming hideaway hi-tech (or what 1960s speculators thought would be future hi-tech).  The observation is made that while the makers of all those gadgets weren’t far off about the technology, what had never occurred to them was that women might not be in the kitchen, but at a job.  One hundred and eighty-eight years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and over four decades after they’d gotten the vote, women were starting – but only just starting – to declare their own independence.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show

In 1959, Carl Reiner, a veteran writer/performer from the Golden Age TV classic Your Show of Shows, was pitching a sitcom pilot starring himself called Head of the Family.  Sheldon Leonard, who’d transitioned from an acting career playing snarly hoods to becoming one of the powerhouse producers of TV comedy, liked everything about the pilot but the head of the family himself:  Reiner.  Reiner would continue on with the show as a producer, but Dick Van Dyke would now head up one of the all-time classic TV families in the now re-christened The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Cast as his wife:  26-year-old Mary Tyler Moore.

Moore had been performing professionally since she was 17, first as a dancer in commercials for Hotpoint kitchen appliances and then in small parts on TV, the one probably most talked about in her bios being the switchboard girl on the private eye series, “Richard Diamond,” where only her legs were ever shown.

Superficially, The Dick Van Dyke Show seemed like most sitcoms of the era:  there was a working husband/dad (although he did have the less-than-typical job of being the head writer for a TV variety show), and a housewife/mom.  In her book, Donna McCrohan makes the point that TV – at least back in the days when the broadcast networks owned the audience – tended to run a bit behind the cultural curve, waiting to see that a sizable audience for the new and different existed before rolling the budgetary dice.  Says McCrohan:

As long as the number-one and number-two shows are voted in by the majority, those shows will never be ahead of their time.  They will be of their time…Watch any top-rated show.  It’s a mirror.  Watch a rerun of one from an earlier decade.  It’s still a mirror, but it doesn’t reflect what’s in front of it any more.  It reflects what was in front of it when it first ran in prime time. 

Van Dyke recognized postwar changes in the American social fabric in a subtly perceptive way missed by most sitcoms of the day.  Rob and Laura Petrie (Van Dyke and Moore) lived in one of the new commuter suburbs in a rather modest house; not like the mini-mansions of My Three Sons or Leave It to Beaver.  Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie was neither the buffoon hubby of sitcoms like The Honeymooners and Life of Riley, nor the sage pipe-smoking paterfamilias of Three Sons and Beaver.  According to Rick Mitz, in his The Great Sitcom Book:

Van Dyke’s Rob was important in the development of the male on TV.  He was the first man on television to admit that he wasn’t always strong, that he had problems, that he was insecure. He was television’s first neurotic.

In short, he was the life-sized reflection of the average postwar white-collar suburban male; a sitcom version of the guys from Mad Men.

And as for Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura…  Well, now, this is where it gets interesting and where the acorns that will grow into MTM first find fertile ground.

Yeah, sure, Laura was a housewife who occupied her time with housewifey things:  taking care of the house, cooking, looking after their son Ritchie, and hanging out with her neighbor Millie.  But Laura, well, like her husband, she was a bit different from the other women on the sitcom block.  Sometimes she was the one who had all the answers, and she had her insecurities, too, and sometimes – unlike the other saintly wife/moms on TV – she was allowed to put her foot in it.  One of the funniest episodes of the series (and a favorite of Reiner’s) is one in which she’s on a game show and inadvertently blurts out that her husband’s boss, star of The Alan Brady Show (played by Reiner in a recurring role), is bald and has been wearing a toupee for years.

Writes Bill Persky who was a writer on the show:

The Dick Van Dyke Show was a step forward with the wife as a peer.  Although Laura was afraid of upsetting Rob, he was equally afraid of upsetting her, and he was hardly an authority figure in the relationship…the public loved the show and the role of women on television started to change.

This humongous digression is relevant for a couple of reasons:

In Van Dyke you can already see the iconography of the pristine, passive, serve-the-man housewife is beginning to show cracks;

The developing idea of the workplace comedy (the series split its time between Rob at home and Rob at work), with the workplace providing a sort of second (or, in the future, alternative) family;

And that Mary Tyler Moore could be funny as hell.  She could be sweet, loopy, fumbling, sexy, and land a punchline as well as anybody.  Van Dyke may have had top billing, but she showed enough performing muscle on the show to prove that, come the opportunity, she could carry a show.

The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air August 1966.  That following fall, Van Dyke writer Bill Persky and his writing partner Sam Denoff introduced “That Girl,” a sitcom about small-town wannabe actress Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas) making her way in big ol’ hard-hearted New York City.

This was the mid-1960s, and American women felt that, after almost two centuries, men still weren’t listening and maybe it was time to make some noise.  In that same letter where Abigail Adams had asked her husband to “remember the ladies,” she had warned “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion…”  By the ’60s, the rebellion had arrived.

Feminist writers like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were going at the male-dominated status quo, and by the latter part of the decade, women were out in the streets, burning bras and protesting right along with the other myriad placard-waving protest groups that were a signature of the era.  That Girl – a gentle, genial comedy by today’s standards – plugged into that revolutionary fervor.  Writes Persky, “Ann Marie was not so much declaring her independence as asserting her right as a person to create her own path in her own way.”

Still, even as Women’s Lib had become a street rallying cry, the ladies – both in TV and at home – had a long way to go.  Persky:

The biggest fight we had with the network (ABC) was the executives’ insistence that Ann Marie and her boyfriend, Don, get married on the last episode.  Marlo refused and fought passionately, feeling that saying at the end, It’s all about getting married, was not what the series was about.  Supported by countless letters of admiration, and the addition of a couple of young women to the program department…(Thomas) flattened the opposition.

The last season of That Girl overlapped with the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  It was almost as if the baton was being passed.


“The kinds of shows that seem to work now, the comedy shows, are those which require very little attention. They’re superficial and I like articulate comedy.”

Mary Tyler Moore

Moore hadn’t fared particularly well after The Dick Van Dyke Show had closed down.  She’d appeared in a couple of movie duds, and then starred in a stage musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s about which the less said the better.  Then Bill Persky got the idea of marking the fifth anniversary of the end of Van Dyke with a variety special, Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman, which would reunite the two stars of the series.  The special went over well enough to bring CBS calling, asking Moore to try to develop a series for herself.  With her husband Grant Tinker, a former Universal and NBC West Coast development exec, she formed MTM Enterprises, and their first series was, naturally enough, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Moore played Mary Richards who, recovering from a break-up, moves to the big city (Minneapolis being what passed for the big city in her part of the country) to – as the show’s theme song proclaimed – “…make it after all.”  She gets a job as associate producer (although it’s more like a glorified secretary) on a local news show.

There’s a hot-straight-and-true evolutionary path from Laura Petrie through That Girl’s Ann Marie to Mary Richards:  from wife as husband’s partner instead of a servant; to young girl striking out on her own; to a mature woman (Mary is 30ish at the start of the series) forging a self-sufficient white-collar life for herself that didn’t require husband or boyfriend.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show, wrote The New York Times’ Robert D. McFadden, was “…one of the first series to feature an independent career woman as the central character.”

There was, smartly, no attempt to make Mary some sort of paragon of the feminist ideal.  Instead, she was wonderfully, lovingly, adorably flawed.  She was conflict-averse and while she didn’t fold under pressure, she could be comically awkward in facing off with her hard-nosed, Old School journalism boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner).  She had her insecurities, and out of them could do dumb things.  In an episode where she asks for Lou’s critique of a short story she’s written, she responds defensively to his critique by lying about the story having been accepted by Reader’s Digest.  Later, when admitting to the falsehood, blowhard anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), who has been writing a mammoth and mammothly boring autobiography, interrupts to get Lou’s opinion on his weighty tome, and Lou spins a fawning lie about how great it is.  After Ted leaves, Lou confronts Mary, asking if that’s the kind of b.s., empty compliments she wants.  Her gasping reply:  “Oh, God, yes!”

She was also legendary among her friends for her horrible parties.  In one hysterical episode, played partly in total darkness, Mary is ready to pull off a party coup:  her guest is going to be the superstar of late-night television at the time, Johnny Carson.  But just before he arrives, there’s a power failure in Mary’s building.  Carson arrives but all we – and Mary’s guests — get of him is his voice.

There was also something of a meta quality to the series (“meta” being another word nobody was using back then) in which the show took advantage of the by then long-standing Moore image of wholesome sweetness and niceness.  Mary Richards’ sunny qualities were often the target of brutally droll skewering, particularly in later seasons when Betty White was added to the cast as the acerbic, condescending, hump-anything-in-pants cooking show host Sue Ann Nivens.

That tone was set early in the premier episode when Mary interviews for the job at the station.  “You got spunk!” Lou Grant grins.  As a self-conscious Mary begins to babble her way through an embarassed thanks, Lou’s grin turns into a snarl:  “I hate spunk!”

Mary may have come off as squeaky clean (the network even nixed the original idea of her being a divorcee), but it was suggested in the first episode that she might have been living with somebody back home.  As the series grew more assured and producers more confident in pushing back at the network, it became clear that Mary was, well, “active,” and it came out in one of the funniest single lines in the series.  Mary’s parents have come to visit, and as her mother leaves for some reason or another, she stops in the door, turns back to her husband and says, “Remember to take your pill,” to which Dad and Mary simultaneously reply, “I will,” followed by a wonderfully awkward exchange of glances.

She was not without ambition.  Over the course of the series’ seven seasons, Mary was promoted, became an honest-to-God producer, becoming Lou Grant’s de facto #2.  She pitched ideas for stories and even for new shows on her station.  She argued, in her uncomfortable-with-confrontation way, for more money.

She was, in fact, Donna McCrohan’s reflection of the day, of the prevailing American Dream; in this case, the prevailing American Dream of a new generation of young women coming into the workplace.  Mary liked men but didn’t need them.  She was independent, committed to her profession, sexually liberated.  She showed that there wasn’t anything women had to be, but a day had come when they could explore what they could be.


A few months after The Mary Tyler Moore premiered, CBS debuted producer Norman Lear’s All in the Family.

Family was the very definition of “edgy,” at least for its time.  It was intentionally in-your-face confrontational, tackling head-on the hot-button issues of the day – Vietnam, Nixon, the youth revolt, racism, et al – and its central character was an unabashed, unapologetic bigot:  Archie Bunker (played to perfection by Carroll O’Connor).

Although not an immediate success, once Family broke out, it became a launchpad for a slew of Lear-produced spin-offs – The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, and others – all with the same kamikaze approach to what was roiling a society going through one of its greatest periods of social upheaval, so said Life, since the Civil War.

In terms of tone, All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were poles apart, but MTM was not nearly as innocuous as it might superficially seem.

As bold as Family was, what were supposed to be family arguments were often dueling extreme political points without much shading.  Watched today, the Lear shows are so topical, a younger viewer might need something like Cliff Notes to figure out what everybody is fighting about, and why they are fighting so viciously.

MTM – while not nearly as overtly political as Family – also touched on sensitive topics, not as a camouflaged political debate, but through the eyes of very average people struggling (if in comic fashion) with the kinds of bumps and hurdles that might naturally come anybody’s way:  professional and economic parity for women, finding out a loved one is gay, divorce.  Mary even wound up in jail, sharing a holding tank with hookers for refusing to give up her sources on a story.  Unlike Family, these episodes were never about the topic; they were always about this ad hoc family of characters supporting each other, arguing with each other, but ultimately always loving each other.

And along with its portrayal of women, that idea of the alternative family also struck a chord in the 1970s.  Boomers were flooding into the workplace at the same time divorce rates were climbing and the traditional family was coming apart.  In his milestone TV history, Tube of Plenty:  The Evolution of American Television, Erik Barnouw writes about the rise of workplace sitcoms in the 1970s as a reflection not of the prevailing American Dream, but of the growing American Longing for connection:

…the people of the workplace had become a kind of family…The success of such series had led to speculation that, with the erosion of family life, the workplace had for many people become the real center of “family” life…

The idea of an alternative family would run from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to today, in one variant or another from workplace comedies like Barney Miller and MASH to The Office and Parks and Recreation and different-but-the-same ensembles like Kate & Allie, Cheers, and Friends.

Mary Richards said as much to her newsroom buddies in the series last episode:

“I thought about something last night:  what is a family.  And I think I know.  A family is people who make you feel less alone and really loved.  Thank you for being my family.”


The Mary Tyler Moore Show The Last Show
The last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show titled, “The Last Show”.

The success of MTM led to no less than three spinoffs from the mother ship:  Mary’s upstairs neighbor would move to New York and her own show with Rhoda; her obnoxious landlord moved to San Francisco and Phyllis; and in one of the most unique spinoff concepts ever, Mary’s boss was tempered a bit, then sent off to Los Angeles to be the editor of a newspaper in the one-hour drama Lou Grant.

Over the course of the 1970s, MTM Enterprises became a programming powerhouse with titles ranging from sitcoms like The Bob Newhart Show and WKRP in Cincinnati to dramas like Hill Street Blues and The White Shadow to delicious fluff like private eye series Remington Steele.  MTM’s glowing reputation for combining quality with popularity led NBC to bringing Grant Tinker back to the network in 1981, and for the next five years, he took the Peacock from the rating’s toilet to top of the heap with an impressively consistent line of thoughtful, intelligent, critically-lauded and entertaining programming.

As for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it ended in a way that today’s hit-starved environment would never tolerate:  despite still being a top-rated show, Moore and Tinker decided to pull the plug on the series while it was still at its peak instead of flogging it to death. 

Earlier, I called MTM evolutionary rather than revolutionary.  With its soft touch, Rick Mitz described it as “a quiet revolution.”  Bill Persky maybe describes the show’s place in the TV firmament best:

I look at That Girl and Kate & Allie (of which Persky was executive producer and often director) as bookends in the changing role of women on television, with Mary Tyler Moore in the middle.

There were the tentative first steps by Marlo, to the strides by Mary, and the no-holds-barred sprint of (Kate & Allie stars) Susan (St. James) & Jane (Curtin).  I think the clearest way to show this evolution is with the episode of the clogged sink.

Each series had one and the way the story went in each case clearly illustrates my point:  On That Girl, Ann Marie called her father; Mary called a plumber; Kate & Allie tried to fix it themselves, flooded the apartment, then called a plumber and Kate had an affair with him for eight shows, breaking it off when he wanted to get married.  From there, Murphy Brown was an unwed mother, and on Friends, everybody had sex with everybody.

It was a revolution a long time coming, and an evolution that’s not over yet.  Still, I think Abigail Adams would be pleased.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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