(E)Book Talk: MARY AND LOU AND RHODA AND TED, by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
Jennifer K. Armstrong (Twitter)
Simon & Schuster (2013), Hardcover (ISBN 1451659202 / 9781451659207)
Nonfiction: popular culture, 336 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (iBooks edition)

Book discussion on The 3 Rs Blog: MARY AND LOU AND RHODA AND TED by Jennifer K. Armstrong

Kids, there was a time when people had to watch television shows at the time the TV stations (of which there were as few as three and as many as eight, if you were lucky and/or lived near a big city) chose to put them on, and one of those times was Saturday night. If you wanted to watch TV on Saturday night, you had to stay home to do it. And when the Saturday-night TV schedule was All in the Family. MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show, people stayed home. Granted, I was ten years old at the time–where else would I be but home on Saturday night? I was watching those shows from beginning to end (or till I fell asleep on the couch) and my allegiance to any one of them as my “favorite” tended to shift…although, to be honest, it never really was All in the Family. Despite my youth, it frequently was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s history of the show, helped me remember why that was–and gave me more reasons to appreciate it.

The fact that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was centered on an unmarried thirty-year-old woman whose work and personal relationships were equally important to her life was groundbreaking, even controversial, when it premiered in 1970. The fact that the show’s protagonist, Mary Richards, was single rather than divorced was a compromise between the show’s producers and the network. Once the show found its footing–and the accompanying critical and popular acclaim–there would be little need for compromises, but the groundbreaking continued. Producers Jim Brooks and Allan Burns eagerly recruited women to write for the show, ensuring that its prominent female characters– Mary, her neighbors and friends Rhoda and Phyllis, coworker Sue Ann, and the wives and girlfriends of the men Mary worked with–would speak and act in ways that reflected the women in its audience. This was the “women’s lib” era–we refer back to it as “second-wave feminism” these days–and this character-driven sitcom was both mirroring and modeling it.

However, while it was socially conscious, The Mary Tyler Moore Show rarely tackled hot-button social issues head-on (that was All in the Family‘s thing). It also never forgot that, despite having its star’s name in the title, it was first and foremost an ensemble comedy; it had to develop its characters and their relationships, and it had to be funny. Its success at both makes it an enduring example of “quality television;” the fact that it gave a new voice, both on- and off-screen, to women is what makes it a genuine classic.

I’ve been finding myself drawn to reading about the 1970s for a few years now. Part of my interest may be nostalgia for the popular culture of my childhood, but when I revisit it, I discover how my worldview was shaped by a time period during which I was not terribly aware of the world at large. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted offers the fun of revisiting some classic episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, along with anecdotes from its cast that illustrate just how much impact genuinely liking your work, and your coworkers, can have on the end-product. However, Armstrong is equally interested in the story of what went on behind the scenes, and the creative, modern-thinking team who crafted that end-product and put it into the hands of that cast. That story is what really held my attention. I enjoyed discovering that the people who created and developed Mary Richards were as progressive as she was…and gratified to learn that so many of them were women. It’s made me even fonder of a show I’ve always loved, and a little bit prouder of loving it.

Rating: 3.75 of 5

Book description, from the publisher’s website:

When writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns dreamed up an edgy show about a divorced woman with a career, the CBS executives they pitched replied: “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series’ lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.”

Forty years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the most beloved and recognizable television shows of all time. It was an inspiration to a generation of women who wanted to have it all in an era when everything seemed possible.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted tells the stories behind the making of this popular classic, introducing the groundbreaking female writers who lent real-life stories to their TV scripts; the men who created the indelible characters; the lone woman network executive who cast the legendary ensemble—and advocated for this provocative show—and the colorful cast of actors who made it all work. James L. Brooks, Grant Tinker, Allan Burns, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Gavin MacLeod, Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel—they all came together to make a show that changed women’s lives and television itself. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is the tale of how they did it.

Opening lines (Chapter 1):

“There is a certain trajectory your life takes when you create a classic book or movie, song or television show. It’s a path followed by all those who accomplish this rate feat…and yet they never know they’re on it at the time. And thus they never know if the vision they’re fighting for is valid, much less great. They don’t know of the accolades, or the difficulties, that are to come. They don’t know how hard it will be to move on from such a rarefied experience, not how hard it will be to duplicate it, but they will try, because, let’s face it, they won’t have much choice. Most of them will find out that comebacks are hard to come by. Then they will, if they are lucky, come to accept that even one classic in one’s life is quite enough, and they will sit back and enjoy all the glory that gives them before their time is through.

“It is not, all in all, a bad life. But it’s not as easy as it looks, either.

“Jim Brooks was on his way to such a fate, though he never would have guessed it, when he was spending his days writing copy for CBS News in New York—reports on the Bay of Pigs, Andy Warhol, Beatlemania, anything and everything that came though on the clanging wire service machines.”

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