As thousands of impassioned, personal and emotional memorials pour in, we can agree that Mary Richards was much more than a sitcom character.
She was a mirror and a walking Rorschach test (with a great set of L’Eggs) for one generation of TV-focused Americans — and the next.
As such, it was a little brutal to see Oprah monopolize the CBS hour-long MTM remembrance special. The seemingly unending middle portion included a (never-before-seen!) moment from Oprah’s own show back in the 1990s when, after meeting Mary in the flesh (her producers surprised her), she went backstage and confessed to the camera about her sudden streaming of armpit sweat.
Really, who needed to see or hear that? Not everything that pours out of Oprah is gold. Nor did we need to re-watch Oprah’s recreation of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” opening.
That’s because every memorial so far is in some way a hat toss to that iconic hat (actually, a pom-pommed tam) toss in Minneapolis.
An inspired opening graphic that at first seemed a little heavy-handed and even corny, it uniquely embodied the spirit of universal independence and possibility. The opening belongs in the history books, and to us all.
Then again, to be honest, I guess we all want to be the chewy centers of our own narcissistic reveries over what Mary meant.
What struck me most was that “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” came just four short years after “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” (It never occurred to me the title and the whole concept of the show could have been intended as a 180 response.)
MTM was just 23 when she started on "DVD," and while she played a dutiful wife and stay-at-home mother, the show did portray a new kind of marriage: a union of equals who relied on each other, who were not at war, and clearly loved “getting into mischief” together, as Carl Reiner so charmingly put it.
As such, Rob and Laura were also a mirror image of the sheer, exuberant beauty and style of JFK and Jackie Kennedy, who offered the country a 180 from Mamie and the General.
An additional corollary: The idea that the culture for women could change so much in one decade is also embodied in Jackie’s own life. In the famous “Camelot” tapes with a journalist that were the basis of the screenplay for the movie “Jackie,” she confesses to not understanding the need for women to have power — and seems to abhor those who go in search of it. She talks about wanting to have everything “calm and perfect” for when Jack came home, and not bother him with questions.
Still, after she was widowed, Jackie had her own Mary Tyler Moore years in New York City: single, dating, dressing in perfect, iconic 1970s-flared pantsuits and separates, while working as a book editor at a publishing house. The visions of her in her iconic shades, with the sweater tied around her neck, hailing a cab, could conceivably pass for an image from the "MTM" show.
As MediaPost TV blogger Adam Buckman pointed out in a recent post, there’s no doubt that part of the success of the show was due to the surrounding crew of brilliant, pitch-perfect actors, writers and producers. It was a powerhouse set-up, strong enough to support the spin-offs of Lou, Rhoda, and Phyllis into their own shows. Those met with varying degrees of success.
But no character was more tied to the moment than Mary.
And, as such, I think part of the profundity of the character was that she evolved week to week before our eyes at a revolutionary and fractious time for women in the culture. (So fractious that Moore refused to label herself a “feminist.”) With each episode, she grew into the job and her life, doing all that tough and awkward work, just as the women watching were doing.
When "MTM" debuted in 1970, it was a revolution in itself to base a sitcom around an attractive successful character in her 30s who was not married or a mother. Looking back, it seems especially preposterous that CBS didn’t want the character’s back story to be a divorce. Instead, it had to involve a “broken relationship with a doctor” so that Mary could still seem somehow virginal.
Things started slowly, but gradually “you might just make it” turned into “you’re gonna make it” with every comic, human turn. That included everything from fighting with “Mr. Graaant” for equal pay, to being “liberated” and going on “the Pill,” to fighting for freedom of the press in her job as news producer. And doing it all with grace, determination, vulnerability and hard-won self-confidence.
Mary was breaking boundaries, but she did it in a way filled with delicious humor and nuance. As such, she was also the only journalist character who, after being thrown in jail for refusing to give up a news source, worried about not having a toothbrush.
Speaking of that hat toss to independence and freedom, it is a particular head-scratcher that Moore’s death comes at a time, during the first week of the Trump presidency, when many of the most revolutionary issues depicted on her show — women’s reproductive rights, equal pay in the workplace, freedom of the press — are being tested again.
But let’s focus on how the show ended, with that hilarious moving clump of humanity: Mary’s office mates, whom she considered to be her family. They moved in a group to get a tissue, and then out the door, when a cold corporate merger left them without jobs.
Mary — who had been initially thrilled just to be there, and then grew into her role as uber-producer, never lost her sense of going the extra mile, being the responsible worker and friend. She went back to turn off the light.
It was a poetic double gesture. Mary Richards was detail-oriented, and could be counted on to do the job — no matter her title or pay.
But Mary Tyler Moore was also showing that she owned the place — and that it did make a difference.
Thanks for the moving, insightful and so timely piece. It's a swell analysis of an iconic show and actress.
What a beautful tribute! Mary was all class, with intelligence, wit and humor. I am who I am because I had her as a role model. I thought your article pointed out something else interesting too: the workplace was also a safe place, a more familial place, where people worked hard but valued relationships over financial rewards. They were misson driven. The boss didn't make 100 times (or much more!) than what the rank and file employees made. In that respect we were actually a lot farther along in the 70s, and maybe that's what made workplace comedies so enjoyable and relatable.
That's a great point, Anne Marie, about the pay scale and the boss. I was mostly trying to point out that some women then expected to be assistants and work their way up, and on the way were qualified for the top jobs and did most of the work, without the title and power.
What a lovely, thoughtful and smartly written piece. It evoked memories that I forgot I even had. I realized after reading this that I must have been a regular watcher of the show in the early 70s and was a little too young to realize what a game changer 'Mare' was
This was one of my favorites of your always well written columns. MTM had the same quality that Jennifer Lawrence seems to embody today. Each is likeable to both men and women. Sadly, that is not oftent the case for a beautiful and smart woman. It also seems notable that while The Office is somewhat of an update of the MTM Show, women held much higher positions of power in the later office than in the former, though it followed 30 years later. One can only imagine the MTM show 30 years hence...
Thanks for a beautiful piece, Barbara.
Many memories came to the surface as I read it.
I don't remember being conscious of Mary being a role model, but she was, nevertheless. In addition to everything you mentioned, Mary was funny, in a real way. I think this was one of the reasons she was so watchable.
i don't remember her going on the pill . I think I'll look for that episode .
it's in the one episode in which her parents come to visit. (so different from twentysomethings and their parents now!) the mom leaves and tells the dad to "remember to tak your pill." both Mary and her dad look up and say, "I will" at the same time.
Thanks Barbara for a wonderful piece that summed up her impact on various aspects of real life. Some of the paralells are uncanny. You hit on all of them!
Mary was a total role model for me - how she interacted, how she dressed, how she grew in responsibility. She was the woman against whom we measured ourselves and our progress. Great remembrance Barbara. Glad I didn't watch the Oprah special.
I think that is still sadly the case for many women doing the work without the title or power. Thanks for your comment back Barbara, I enjoy all of your articles!