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How Mary Tyler Moore Paved the Way for Complicated Women on TV

Betty White
CBS-TV/REX/Shutterstock

If the only credit on the resume of Mary Tyler Moore, who died today, had been “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” that would still be enough to put her in the company of entertainment industry legends.

The word “iconic” gets thrown around a lot, but that long-running show truly merited the word. It was a recognizable and reliably pleasurable workplace comedy, but “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was also a lot of other things. It was a showcase for a cast of character actors who created one of the greatest ensembles in TV history; each character was memorable in his or her own right, and the performers found the complicated human beings underneath the tics, flaws, and insecurities of these messy, amusing people.

Of course, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was also a referendum of sorts on what a woman could be, on TV and in real life. Mary Richards was a career woman who remained single throughout the run of the show. Sex, death, birth control, adoption, infidelity, divorce — many of the issues that society wrestled with during that tumultuous decade — were all dealt with on the show, which also managed to spin off a trio of other programs (“Lou Grant,” “Phyllis,” and the mega-hit “Rhoda”).

That landmark show wasn’t Moore’s only claim to fame, of course. Her first notable accomplishment was playing the effervescent Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” She not not only held her own among a coterie of comedy legends, she filled out Laura’s personality with deft wit and intelligence. There were limits on the kind of woman that TV would feature in the early ‘60s: She usually had to be white, at least middle-class, thin, and impeccably dressed, and the odds of her having a job outside the home weren’t high. But thanks to the show’s exceptional writing — often experimental for its time — Laura was the kind of complicated, witty wife who remains a gold standard for TV spouses. The magical combination of Moore’s tremulous, energetic performance and the show’s sharp writing made Laura and her Capri pants unforgettable.

But even if those landmark roles hadn’t hit as big as they did, Moore would still be a legend. In 1969, she and her then-husband, Grant Tinker, founded MTM Enterprises, which went on to produce a roster of shows that helped define the television industry for the next two decades. Though Moore wasn’t a hands-on manager at the company, it reflected the humane worldview present in so much of her work. MTM produced the kind of warm-hearted, sharp, observant comedy that she excelled at, and TV would be so much poorer without the shows that the company put on the map, among them “The Bob Newhart Show,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and “St. Elsewhere.”

It’s also worth noting that her performance as a brittle mother in “Ordinary People” allowed her to show a number of colors and modes less available to her in her TV work. But on the small screen, she routinely excelled — and told stories that mattered. In 1978, when many people were still unwilling to say the word “cancer” out loud, she starred in “First, You Cry,” a TV movie about breast cancer.

For those who care about women’s representation on TV, about publicizing matters that are important to women’s health, and about the importance of women occupying positions of authority behind the scenes in Hollywood, Moore’s loss is felt acutely. She had wealth, fame, and prominence, and she used those assets to create a body of work that she could be proud of.

In less than a year, we’ve lost a number of TV legends who told stories on a warm, human scale: Garry Marshall and Grant Tinker predeceased Moore, and the shows these icons made had a deep understanding of human foibles and a kind attitude toward an individual’s willingness to change and be vulnerable.

But Moore’s shows had a special resonance for women. Whether women were navigating workplaces that could be — and still can be — scary and unsympathetic, whether women were dating or in relationships, Moore’s characters signaled that it was OK to be uncertain. Making mistakes wasn’t the end of the world on her shows; that was often the beginning of a good story or joke, and yet all different kinds of women were allowed to be resilient, decisive, idiosyncratic, and unpredictable on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

One of my least-favorite phrases is “strong female character,” because it implies that the ideal kind of on-screen woman is some kind of monolith, an inhuman being who is endlessly resourceful and impervious to all kinds of slings and arrows.

Nobody’s like that, least of all Moore’s women. I’m grateful that Mary Richards cried at work on occasion. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, or hasn’t wanted to at least once or twice. And yet Mary’s tears were not held up for ridicule. She cried, she complained, she moved on, she got promoted, she got her work done, and she tried to take care of herself and her friends. She displayed a level of complexity and maturity that many TV shows on right now struggle to attain for their female characters, and Moore made that look effortless. 

Though she’ll be missed, Moore’s legacy lives on, in Jane Villanueva of “Jane the Virgin,” in Penelope Alvarez of the smashing new “One Day at a Time,” in Rainbow Johnson of “Black-ish,” in Issa Dee of “Insecure,” and Kimmy Schmidt of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

As dark and unsettling as these days can be, Moore’s legacy — and her TV progeny — allow me to hope that, like the song said, we’re going to make it after all.