At the crest of a wave of groundbreaking sitcoms in the early 1970s, alongside “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was among the first to violate the sitcom’s unspoken rule that each episode would only delicately rattle the status quo in an eternal alternation of chaos and order. Plot lines stuck on “Mary Tyler Moore,” and the audience responded accordingly. “Fans could find themselves genuinely depressed after watching Lou and his wife separate,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong reports in “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.” They could be “elated when Rhoda won a beauty contest, or uncomfortable when Mary had another one of her lousy parties.” The emotional attachments formed between audiences and later sitcoms like “Cheers” and “Friends” would have been impossible without the stylistic innovation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
In the fall of 1965, Grant Tinker approached two young writers named James L. Brooks and Allan Burns with a suggestion: Why didn’t they come up with a sitcom idea for Tinker’s wife, former “Dick Van Dyke Show” star Mary Tyler Moore? Brooks and Burns went away, and came back with a concept. Moore was now divorced, newly arrived in the big city, and working as a stringer for a gossip columnist. They approached CBS with the idea, and were resoundingly rejected. “Our research says American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a lead of a series,” said a representative of the network’s research department, “any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.” (There goes “Seinfeld” and “Magnum P.I.”!) Another executive was equally flummoxed: “The audience will think she divorced Dick Van Dyke!” Brooks and Burns adjusted the show, and Moore was now Mary Richards, recently emerged from a long-term romantic relationship, and newly arrived in Minneapolis for a job at a third-rate television news program. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was born.
Armstrong’s history of “Mary Tyler Moore” is warm and funny and rife with juicy details about the show’s production, but what it is, more than anything, is a group portrait of the talented, ambitious young women who maneuvered, wangled, and pleaded their way into writing for the show. It is about secretaries who transformed themselves into writers, and helped to transform Mary Richards into the closest 1970s television came to a feminist icon. Brooks had once expressed his belief that there was a world of comedy trapped inside his wife’s purse, which he could neither access nor entirely understand. But he was wise enough to recognize that limitation and bring in a team of mostly untrained female writers for Mary Tyler Moore who could.
Armstrong, a former Entertainment Weekly reporter, claims that “Mary Tyler Moore” was the “first truly female-dominated sitcom,” which is not exactly correct; whither the show’s male creators, or its male-dominated workplace cast? Armstrong may be overstating her case, as she does about the supposedly wilting lilies that characterized sitcom women before Mary Richards (Lucy Ricardo? Molly Goldberg?), but she is right in finding the show’s most alluring drama in the stories of women like Treva Silverman, who eschewed the shorthand course suggested by her mother and instead won over the show’s producers by breathing life into its characters.
“Excuse me,’’ she famously had Rhoda tell one of Mary’s besotted suitors, “I’m another person in the room.” The female writers granted their characters some of their own experiences, like Sybil Adelman’s imagined wedding announcement, with her parents “relieved to announce the wedding of their daughter.” They were reacting to a culture that still treated feminine professional accomplishment as somehow second-rate. Mary was their mouthpiece, their stand-in, and their embodiment, and the force of their dedication turned her into America’s, too.
Saul Austerlitz’s “Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes, from
I Love Lucy to Community” will be published next year by
Chicago Review Press.