Arguably, television is culture. And I’ll add, television, good and bad, reflects culture. We turn on the tube to feed our obsession with cop shows and law enforcement, terrorism and shadow governments, health care and the drama of the emergency room, and of course, our voyeuristic need to look in someone’s window and observe “reality,” which in reality, is often not even close. But the glass tube has been cracked open; cable channels own the monopoly on the most interesting work being done in T.V. land right now while networks keep commissioning false reality and scripted fare in the vain hope that the lonely hearts on the other end of the digital signal will find romance with The Bachelor or take the stage as the next American Idol. Meanwhile, viewers have moved on to computer screens and tablet pixels, and the old school Nielsen ratings are ancient history. We DVR our shows now and watch them wherever and whenever we like, and some of the best are not on television at all. They come straight from the internet a season at a time so that we can sit on our couches and watch 24 hour marathons, bingeing like gluttons at Hometown Buffet.
Television runs the gamut from trash to art. Occasionally, a Matthew Weiner or a David Simon gets it right, and we sit in our living rooms with the blue glow of a magical story and enjoy the ride. And if the current season doesn’t work for us, well, we live in the age of Netflix and DVD box sets, so we can journey into the past and rediscover old favorites. The best part is that we can consume years’ worth of programming without commercial interruption, just episode after episode of Hill Street Blues, The X-Files, and The West Wing.
In appreciation of classic situation comedies of yesteryear, two recent books delve into all the behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off, Rhoda. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster, 2013) by journalist Jennifer Keishin Armstrong examines this classic sitcom of the early 1970s while Valerie Harper entertains readers with her memoir, I, Rhoda (Gallery Books, 2013), published recently when news of her battle with a rare form of brain cancer broke in the media.
Armstrong’s book adopts a third person objective approach, treating those who worked behind the camera as equals with the stars who portrayed the lovable characters. She also spends time analyzing the role the show played in the rise of feminism in the 1970s. Mary Richards remains one of the shining examples of strong female leads inhabiting sitcoms of this era. Paralleling the rise of Mary Richards were the female writers who gave her voice. Previous to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the writers’ room was a man cave, but MTMS changed all of that. Armstrong begins her tale with Treva Silverman, a woman at ground zero for the birth of Mary Richards. She also gives ample credit to the forward-thinking duo of James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, who worked together on Room 222 before moving into the creator/showrunner chairs for MTMS. These two men actively sought women writers for their show, and solicited a number of female freelancers to round out the writing staff.
A fan of the show will find the tidbits about the production interesting. Armstrong tells us that the character of Ted Baxter was based on a local L.A. news personality; Ed Asner blew his initial audition and asked to do it over again; and Gavin MacLeod originally tried to be Lou Grant, but really wanted the part of Murray. One of the strengths of the series is the cast. Mary Tyler Moore herself is only one of the talented actors in the ensemble. She surrounded herself with an excellent group of supporting players, and they inspired each other and their writers to new heights of success. Armstrong details the battles with the network—CBS balked at making Mary Richards a divorcee, as well as early attempts by Brooks and Burns to place her with an evil boss, a female gossip columnist. The suits from the network were concerned that people would think Moore’s character had divorced Dick Van Dyke, remembering her only as the character Laura Petrie from that earlier sitcom. The hero who stepped in to save the day was Grant Tinker, Moore’s husband at the time and a network executive. The start of MTMS was also the start of one of the most influential television studios in the history of the medium: MTM. Out of those writers’ rooms and production offices came The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere, to name just a few of their successes.
One of the most interesting things about a book like this is to hear the way the vision of the creators, producers, writers and directors was revised and reworked, often on the spur of the moment, resulting in a classic television show. No one realized at the time that they were making television history, or that the good times and success would not last forever. There is a certain sadness to these enterprises when the run is over, and Armstrong manages to create that feeling when she recounts the declining days of the show. The producers and actors decided to go out while the show was still on top and not let it decline and drift away like All In The Family, another sitcom from that time produced by Norman Lear. It is clear that the working experience for those on the show would not be duplicated again. It was seven years of Nirvana and once it was over, nothing was ever the same for the cast of characters involved in the production.
Armstrong is a little heavy handed with the purple prose. When she writes about Treva Silverman’s love of old movies, she says the writer studied the films and “wanted to soak up every last bit of them, the way her movie-house popcorn soaked up melted butter.” In another paragraph, she describes Brooks and Burns’ pitch meeting to CBS. “The producers were now trapped in one of the upper floors,” she writes, “surrounded by black-paneled walls and network executives, as the lights in the ceiling burned into the tops of their heads.” I guess this is the reason why Brooks today is nearly bald.
Valerie Harper’s book is more about her and her career than MTMS or Rhoda, although ample space is given to both. Her book makes for interesting reading because of her insights and experiences living the actor’s life. However, don’t expect a lot of dirt. Harper seems to get along with everyone, and she speaks negatively only about Lorimar Television, the studio that fired her from the show bearing her name in 1987. Harper sued the company for wrongful termination and won. The show became The Hogan Family and was cancelled in 1991. Harper’s career, however, continued to flourish both on television and the Broadway stage.
Harper’s voice is consistent throughout the book and she is an excellent storyteller. She is one of those celebrities who seems like a regular person, someone you could have a drink with and listen to for hours. She has a funny, lighthearted style that pulls the reader in. I was bothered at one point when she identifies the author of the play Fences as Langston Hughes. The playwright is the late August Wilson, who drew much inspiration from the poetry of Hughes, but wrote the play by himself.
Both books give great insight into television, the hit shows, the actor’s life, and the milieu of 1970s America. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Valerie Harper give us a snapshot of the era, a time when women struggled to achieve equality with men, especially in the workplace. In both shows, there is a sense of optimism. Considering that America went through the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a difficult economy during the production of both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, the scene in the opening credits where Mary Richards throws her hat into the air in the middle of a busy Minneapolis intersection was a sign of hope that yes, we could make it after all.