“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” wasn’t quite as overtly political or socially conscious as “All in the Family,” “Maude” or other shows of its era. But Mary Richards, the character played by Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday, was an influential feminist icon who helped shape public perceptions about career-minded single women in the 1970s.
“It was never a stand on the soapbox and shout show,” Moore said during an interview with the Archive of American Television in 1997. “It pioneered but it pioneered without self-consciousness.”
“Mary Tyler Moore” creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns famously wanted to have Mary Richards be coming off a divorce at the start of the show. But that was a non-starter for CBS. Instead, Mary’s backstory had her moving from another town in Minnesota to Minneapolis after being dumped by the fiancé who she supported through his medical residency.
“Love is All Around,” the first episode, depicts Richards finding her apartment and securing her job at the WJM-TV newsroom. The maiden “Mary Tyler Moore” episode ranks as one of TV’s most finely crafted series pilots, establishing a firm foundation for the premise and the characters for seasons to come.
Richards’ first encounter with her prospective new boss, Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, is comedy Hall of Fame material. (“You’ve got spunk,” Grant tells Richards. “I hate spunk.”) Grant later turns up at Mary’s apartment, drunk and flirtatious. But the most significant moment of episode 1, which borrowed its title from the theme song “Love Is All Around,” comes at the end, when Mary’s ex-boyfriend Bill shows up at her studio apartment in an effort to reconcile. Excited to get started on her new life, Mary turns him down. “Take care of yourself,” Bill tells her on his way out. “I think I just did,” she replies.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the first venture from the MTM Productions banner that Moore launched with her husband Grant Tinker (who died in November), was commissioned by CBS with a big series commitment rather than the typical pilot process. That was fortunate because the first episode tested horribly, Moore recalled, with the audience reacting badly to the elements that made the show a classic.
The first episode bowed Sept. 19, 1970, a few months before “All in the Family” also began to break new ground for primetime. “Mary Tyler Moore” ran seven seasons and delivered an equally memorable finale, “The Last Show,” that aired March 19, 1977.
Among the many notable episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”:
“Chuckles Bites the Dust” (1976): WJM’s beloved Chuckles the Clown host is killed in a freak accident by an elephant while dressed as a peanut. Moore recalls having to bite her cheeks to get through the episode without laughing until the scene at the end where she can’t control her guffaws. A great showcase of Moore’s ace comedic timing.
“Good-Time News” (1973): Mary realizes that she’s earning less than the man who previously held her position as associate producer of WJM-TV news. She pushes hard for a raise but she also backs down some when Grant tells her that her predecessor had three children: “I loved that about her,” Moore said of her character.
“You’ve Got a Friend” (1972): The show makes an oblique reference to the birth control pill when Mary’s mother cheerily reminds her daughter: “Don’t forget to take your pill” as she’s heading out for a date.
“My Brother’s Keeper” (1973): A gay male character is depicted honestly and openly. Phyllis tries to set her visiting brother up with Mary but he seems more interested in Rhoda. Phyllis is distraught but Rhoda finally assures her: “He’s gay.” To which Phyllis replies: “Thank God.”
“Lou Dates Mary” (1977): Moore made a point of ensuring that Mary and Lou’s relationship remained platonic, even over pressure from the writers and producers. The two finally go on a date and attempt an awkward kiss in the penultimate episode of the series. But as in the beginning, Mary is single when the show comes to a close, and she and Lou are just friends.
“Put on a Happy Face” (1973): Moore cited the episode where everything goes wrong for Mary as her personal favorite. Mary gets sick, can’t tame her hair and is forced to borrow a dress from Rhoda on the night she winds a “Teddy” award for her work at WJM. As she stumbles her way to the stage, she tearfully tells the crowd: “I usually look so much better than this.”