Pros: Incredible cast; witty writing; a strong end to the series
Cons: It had to end
It’s a great part of television history that the iconic Mary Tyler Moore show, known for its great writing and acting, had a hard time getting off the ground. When it first began to air in 1970, critics and television executives were not at all sure that the show would last past mid-season, and it took a while for the network to pick it up for a complete first year. After winning critical acclaim and audience hearts during that season, however, the show took off and never really looked back.
After six strong seasons, the writers and producers of the show decided they wanted to go out on a high note. Season 7 would therefore be the last. While some shows might rest on their laurels or limp to the end, not so with Mary Tyler Moore. If you think of the talented cast as runners, and the show as a marathon, then season 7 is a beautifully and strategtically timed sprint to the finish line. There’s hardly a tired moment in the entire 24 episodes.
With Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) exiting after seasons 4 and 5 for their own spin-offs, season 6 was a little uneven. There were some wonderful episodes, and the deeper inclusion of characters Georgette (Georgia Engel) and Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), but the writers and cast seemed to be trying to find their way forward to a new creative synthesis. By the beginning of season 7, they’d found it.
More than any other season, this one cements Mary’s place as a producer in the WJM newsroom – and her place within the community of colleagues who have become her family. That means she spends more time than ever with the “guys”: fellow newswriter Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), insecure anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), and curmudgeonly but lovable boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner). Her friendship with these three continues to grow and change, and especially deepens with Lou. Lou becomes so important, in fact, that in the series’ penultimate episode, “Lou Dates Mary,” the writers give the characters a chance to see what romance might look like between them.
Although more time than ever is spent in the newsroom setting, many important moments occur in Mary’s high-rise Minneapolis apartment. The season kicks off with “Mary Midwife,” in which Georgette goes into unexpected labor and gives birth in Mary’s apartment. This seems especially fitting since Ted and Georgette had gotten married in Mary’s apartment too! Mary and Lou help deliver the baby (off-scene) and Ted and Georgette reciprocate by naming their infant girl Mary Lou. It’s a fitting tribute to the closeness of the WJM family, a closeness celebrated through the rest of the season.
That closeness is celebrated in moments both silly and profound – sometimes seemingly both at once. In “Ted’s Change of Heart,” the whole newsroom crew is taken aback when Ted has a heart attack. The all reevaluate their perspectives on life, feeling grateful for the world and each other, only to find that once Ted is fully recovered, he’s the one that slips most easily back into taking everything for granted. We also see Ted tempted toward infidelity in “Ted’s Temptation,” a funny but ultimately touching turn for Ted Knight, who did so much to deepen the slapstick character of Ted Baxter over the years.
Murray and Ted, always good-natured antagonists, have squabbling moments this season that nevertheless deepen into something akin to real respect for each other. In “Murray Can’t Lose,” the whole WJM family is devastated when Murray loses the coveted local Teddy awards once again (perhaps a subtle nod to the fact that MacLeod’s performance, among those of all the main cast members, was entirely overlooked by the Emmys for the show’s seven year run). In “Murray Ghosts for Ted,” Murray writes an article for Ted that gets praised and picked up by major news outlets, leaving vain Ted unsure if he should reveal the identity of the author.
The whole WJM staff bands together in their disgust over a newly hired and highly snobbish critic for the news show. They also band together (sort of) to find Sue Ann a job in the news room when her “Happy Homemaker” show is cancelled, and they support Mary through a tempestuous time when her case (from an earlier season episode when she wouldn’t reveal a news source) finally makes it to court.
Moore, as the show’s star Mary Richards, gets some truly funny moments this season, a few of them wonderfully over-the-top. I’m thinking especially of “Mary and the Sexagenerian,” when Mary falls for Murray’s father, “Mary’s Three Husbands” which gives us the series’ only fantasy sequences (involving all three WJM newsmen wondering what it would be like to be married to their colleague), and “Lou’s Army Reunion,” when Mary has to fend off the advances of an old army buddy of Mr. Grant’s.
Lou and Mary clash several times this season, though they always manage to find their footing and their friendship again. In “Mary the Writer,” Lou doesn’t know how to let Mary down gently when she writes a story that he thinks is awful, though Mary is trying to sell it to a magazine. He thinks it’s a tribute to their friendship that he’s honest, and all Mary wants is some encouragement. Their friendship is also tested in “One Producer Too Many,” when Lou tries to stave off Murray’s departure from the station by making him a co-producer with Mary, a situation that makes no one happy. But Lou and Mary are also there for each other through thick and thin: when Lou proposes to Mary’s brilliant journalist Aunt, only to be turned down flat; when Mary gets briefly addicted to sleeping pills; and of course during the newsroom shake-ups that ultimately lead to the firing of (most of) the newsroom staff.
That firing, so funny and yet so sad, launches the memorable final episode “The Last Show,” in which this flawed and funny family we’ve followed for seven years realizes they’re going to have to go their separate ways. The episode brings back Leachman and Harper to reprise their roles as Phyllis and Rhoda. It’s an exquisite episode that can still bring tears and laughter more than 35 years later, making your realize how far this show had come (Mary definitely made it, after all) and making you wish it had gone on for another seven years.
Celebrating a great show that lasted a long time after getting off to an uncertain start felt like a great way to celebrate my 10 year anniversary here on Epinions. I had no clue, a decade ago when I posted my first review, that I’d still be writing here ten years later. What an adventure it’s been – how much I’ve learned and how much I enjoy this community!
Previous MTM seasons: