Okay, so who didn’t love The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Just as I thought: no one. The iconic 1970s TV program was must-see TV back in the day, and for good reason. It starred Mary Tyler Moore in a role that would redefine her (after her first defining role, that of Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show).
The featured the likes of Ed Asner and Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, and it stood on the shoulders of creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. The show started out as a way to showcase Mary Tyler Moore’s talent, then quickly became a showcase for many issues of the day (as well as a springboard for other shows produced by the fledging MTM studio, including Newhart and the Rhoda spin-off). And though the show’s voice was never as sharp or in-your-face as that of Normal Lear’s All in the Family, it held its own for five years and became one of the greatest achievements in TV history.
Now the program’s creation has been captured in a book by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster). I pretty much tore into this book, hungry for all the juicy secrets, and I suppose they’re all here. Read it and you’ll learn about how the show was born, how it developed, some of the tensions that threatened the show and then helped to shape it, and much more. You’ll read about casting. You’ll read about certain episodes in depth, notably the pilot, the last episode, and the one about the death of Chuckles the Clown, in which Mary can’t stop herself from laughing at the funeral. You’ll read about the show’s number one fan — and how its creators embraced him.
To gather all this material, Armstrong spoke with Asner, Harper, Gavin MacLeod, Leachman, Brooks, Burns, and many others, including script writer Treva Silverman. The one person she did not speak with is Mary Tyler Moore. Now, biographies are written every season without any direct interview material from the subjects themselves, but somehow the missing voice and perspective of Mary is a pretty obvious hole in this narrative, and it left me hanging and frustrated.
While fascinating, I found the book only an okay read. Armstrong, a well-known entertainment journalist, obviously put this book together with all kinds of care, but she should have paid closer attention to her writing. I mean, how many times do we need to be told that Valerie Harper was married to Dick Shawn? (You’ll read that many times in this book.) Beyond what comes across as just sloppy writing, the tone is much more reportage than insight. I wanted more of the latter, not just a bullet list of facts. I wanted more sizzle, more punch, more passion. It’s clear that the author loves this subject, but her love doesn’t come across in her treatment of it. Unfortunately, her style here is a lot of “this happened, then this happened, and finally that happened.”
Nevertheless, the story behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show is worth telling and worth reading. The show itself was groundbreaking, and it held the attention of a nation at a time when virtually everything in the culture was changing. While All in the Family covered the issues of the day with anger and controversy and by stepping out of the accepted bounds much of the time, Mary Tyler Moore covered them through the eyes of an almost innocent character, a young woman simply trying to find her place in a world. It stayed within the accepted bounds, yet found ingenious ways of nudging beyond them before anyone thought to notice.