As with most of PBS’ “Pioneers of Television” specials, “Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration” is a warm, nostalgic trip down memory lane tempered by minimal perspective and sins of omission. Fun to watch if only for the abundant clips, it’s a once-over-lightly approach to TV history, paying tribute to its subjects in a manner that doesn’t allow much room for anything that might detour from lionizing them. Timed to the 45th anniversary of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the one-hour project is breezy and watchable, but comes closer to an evening at the Paley Center than a true documentary.
Defined by its well-chosen highlights, this “Celebration” dutifully works through Moore’s early roles before her discovery by Carl Reiner to play Laura in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” That includes the familiar but still funny story about how Reiner grabbed her by the head, mid-audition, and walked her down to producer Sheldon Leonard’s office, saying he had finally found the right gal.
“She did everything so naturally and so gracefully,” Reiner recalls, later dubbing her “the Grace Kelly of comedians.” There’s also an amusing bit about how Moore mastered her famous crying scenes by watching Nanette Fabray, subsequently cutting to the two breaking down together when the latter played her mother on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
As the producers note, Moore actually struggled for a time following “Dick Van Dyke,” before appearing in a variety special with Van Dyke that helped put her back on the networks’ radar. That eventually resulted in her CBS show, which dominates the hour here, garnished with interviews from many of the participants (Gavin MacLeod keeps getting teary-eyed singing her praises), as well as admirers like Tina Fey and Oprah Winfrey.
Yes, it’s great fun to see the “Chuckles the Clown” episode again, and hear that the first pass actually ran several minutes short until the raucous audience laughter filled in the time. What’s less admirable is how this documentary keeps glossing over significant biographical details, fleetingly mentioning Moore’s marriage to legendary TV exec Grant Tinker and the tragic death of her son in a 1980 gun accident.
Granted, nobody expects these productions to be hard-hitting, but they diminish the historical value by presenting it all wrapped in a big haze of glowing testimonials and violin music. The same goes for the lack of third-party voices, other than celebrity fans, to put Moore’s achievements in context.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” premiered on Sept. 19, 1970, so this commemoration actually comes a little late. While the actress and the show are clearly deserving of the tribute, “Pioneers’ ” hagiographic style just doesn’t turn the world on in quite the way that it should.