The rise of video streaming services has opened up a vast array of TV series’ back catalogs, and with it a debate: Just because we can mainline older shows, does that mean we should? There are more than enough new viewing options being produced (including an endless parade of reboots and revisionist remakes for the nostalgia-inclined) to keep anyone entertained. So why are Gen Z teenagers who weren’t alive in 1994 bingeing Friends on Netflix? And should someone stop them?
A lot of the widely cherished shows that have enjoyed renaissances or extended lives through streaming seem culturally out of touch in some ways now — even those that are just 10 or 20 years old, like Friends and Sex and the City. Sensibilities have changed quickly in that time, especially in comedy. What might have passed for funny a couple decades ago (Monica gets cornrows in Barbados! Chandler’s father is a transgender woman played by Kathleen Turner and literally no one can stop saying wildly offensive things! Carrie Bradshaw doesn’t believe in bisexuals!) doesn’t look so good now.
But while we battle it out on Twitter about whether we can sensibly enjoy some older shows while keeping their historic limitations in mind, one thing is for sure: If you’re looking for a safe port of funny — and progressive — comfort viewing in the storm of peak TV and cancel culture, you can’t do better than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977 and will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, is still one of the best things you can watch, by any method, at any time. (It’s now streaming on Hulu, and available for purchase on Amazon Prime and Apple.) That’s a tribute to the show’s quality and charm, but also to its politics. Unlike a lot of other comedies in the “vintage TV” category, the show does not mine jokes from sexual harassment, gay panic, or race and gender stereotypes. The Mary Tyler Moore Show churned out great episodes through most of the 1970s that are not just inoffensive, but feel right at home in today’s more inclusive, forward-thinking culture — and will still make you laugh. That’s a remarkable feat for a show that’s now middle-aged.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is still one of the best things you can watch, by any method, at any time.
Created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the series stars Mary Tyler Moore in her iconic role as the single, thirtysomething TV news producer Mary Richards. She shared the screen with one of the greatest TV casts ever assembled: Ed Asner as Mary’s boss, Lou, Valerie Harper as her best friend, Rhoda, Ted Knight as self-obsessed newscaster Ted Baxter, Cloris Leachman as Mary’s neurotic neighbor Phyllis, and Gavin MacLeod as her coworker Murray. And that was all before Betty White — at the height of her powers — joined the cast in Season 4 as Sue Ann Nivens, the TV network’s Happy Homemaker host. Burns described Nivens in my book on the show as “cloyingly sweet on the surface and something of a dragon underneath, with a tinge of nymphomania.” (White put it more succinctly: “She’s a bitch.”)
From the beginning, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had a feminist sensibility that was downright radical when it premiered in 1970. In the pilot, Mary has left an ex (a doctor, no less!) in search of a better life as an independent professional in the big city (of Minneapolis). At a job interview with the local TV station WJM, her future boss asks about her marital status, religion, and age. She wavers, but she also chides him that it’s illegal to ask such questions. The moment is as relatable now as it was then. And throughout its run, the show was a sharp commentary on the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated workplace — and world. Mary struggles to overcome what we’d now call “imposter syndrome” when she takes charge of a team at the office and asks to be paid as much as her male predecessor; she’s held up as a token woman hire at WJM as she moves up the management ladder.
Mary dates, but never makes men her priority; she grows into a true boss lady (with fantastic suits to match). The plot focuses more on her work life as it progresses, providing a finale for the ages that shows no concern for whether Mary will end up “happily ever after” with a man. (There is a bit toward the end where she tries dating her boss, and now friend, Lou, that could cause minor concern among HR professionals of 2019, but that fizzles quickly.) In the meantime, other characters deal with issues such as gender equality in relationships, infidelity, and divorce — all with nuance, depth, and humor.
The accuracy of those plotlines wasn’t an accident. In the TV industry, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a pioneer in gender diversity behind the scenes. It was among the first shows to have multiple women writing for it, rather than just one token woman (who was often, on other shows of the era, paired with a male writing partner). That started with Moore, whose production company, MTM Enterprises, oversaw the series. That allowed her to set the tone on the set and to make decisions about hiring, creative direction, and production.
Once Mary Richards was conceived as a single professional woman in her thirties, co-creators Brooks and Burns — more perceptive than a lot of male producers — realized they had no idea what it was like to be a single professional woman in her thirties. So they went looking for women who could relate, and who could write.
They first hired Treva Silverman, who had experience on The Monkees, as well as another of Brooks and Burns’ shows, Room 222 (a high school series notable for its racial diversity, including a black lead, Lloyd Haynes). They took chances, however, on some less experienced hires, like Susan Silver, who was just starting her writing career after working in casting on the sketch comedy show Laugh-In, and Pat Nardo, who started as a secretary but kept interjecting jokes as she typed up scripts.
Because Brooks and Burns favored realistic details in their scripts, they felt it was worth mentoring these women writers, who would go on to create and write for other shows and serve as executives. Media outlets swarmed to do stories on this “trend.” (One TV Guide piece on Silver came with the indelible headline “The Writer Wore Hot Pants,” which Silver riffed on for the title of her recent memoir. Sexism was far from dead, after all.) In 1973, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had 25 women writing as freelancers or staffers out of 75 total. By comparison, at the time, only 411 of the Writers Guild’s nearly 3,000 members were women; the show with the second-highest percentage of women on staff, The Partridge Family, had seven women among its 76 writers.
A few seasons into The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s run, young women were constantly sending Brooks and Burns scripts, or finagling meetings with them through, say, a mutual friend or even a shared dentist. It was the place for women comedy writers in the 1970s. And the results of more women in the writers room were palpable. The women writers would tell the men when a line was just off; they would also tell the men when a joke needed to be cut or rebuked. Silverman, for instance, insisted that if Ted quipped about filing his dates’ phone numbers under simply “blonde,” “brunette,” or “redhead,” Mary either couldn’t be in the scene, or, as she later told me, “She’s got to have a rejoinder.”
Nearly every successful sitcom that’s been on the air since owes some debt to The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s unique qualities.
It’s hard to overstate the lasting cultural impact of Mary Richards and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As a character, Mary showed us for the first time on television what it looked like when a woman prioritized herself and her career over romance or family. She has served as the model for generations of single-woman characters to come: Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal, Carrie Bradshaw, Liz Lemon, Leslie Knope. One could even trace The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s lineage of liberated, unapologetic, and flawed women characters straight through to Girls and Fleabag (Lena Dunham called Moore a “profound influence” after she died in 2017), though Mary Richards herself would likely be shocked by her cable- and streaming-era descendants.
Nearly every successful sitcom that’s been on the air since owes some debt to The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s unique qualities: combining pathos and humor (The Office, Orange Is the New Black), depicting a professional woman and her workplace family (The Mindy Project, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and exploring strong friendships between women (Living Single, Sex and the City, Broad City). Friends co-creator David Crane cited the show’s pitch-perfect finale as an inspiration; Jerry Seinfeld has called it one of his favorite shows, which he’d often catch in late-night reruns after making the rounds in comedy clubs in the 1980s.
Some of the most progressive moments in the series were genuinely shocking for their time, even if they aren’t now. In one episode, Mary’s mother calls out to her and her father: “Don’t forget to take your pill!” Mary and her dad respond simultaneously: “I won’t!” (Everyone got that this meant Mary was — gasp! — on birth control.) At one point, Mary leaves for a date at night and we see her in the same dress coming home the next morning. (This was such a big national deal that a different show, Maude, commented on it: “All night?” Bea Arthur’s Maude quipped sarcastically. “Our little Mary?”)
In other regards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was merely in step with — rather than ahead of — its time. From 1970–73, there was only one major black recurring character, weather reporter Gordy Howard, played by John Amos. Then Amos left to star on the excellent all-black family sitcom Good Times, a sign of how TV worked in the 1970s: There were several great shows with mostly black casts, including The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, and white audiences watched them, but few shows were truly integrated onscreen. The Mary Tyler Moore Show remained overwhelmingly white for the rest of its run.
But in most ways, the series measures up to (or exceeds) present-day audiences’ expectations. And some episodes stand out for such thoughtful handling of delicate cultural issues — without being cloying or trite — that they look right at home among today’s offerings (as long as you take the 1970s setting into account).
In one 1972 episode called “Rhoda the Beautiful,” written by Silverman, Rhoda is doing a Weight Watchers–like program when she’s cajoled into competing in a beauty contest at the department store where she works. She spends most of the episode defensively pooh-poohing her odds of victory. The twist comes when she wins, a fact she at first keeps from Mary and Phyllis as she processes her complicated feelings. The result is a nuanced look at the pressures buffeting women’s self-esteem and body image. The episode also led to an Emmy for Harper, who thanked Silverman in her speech “for writing a perfect episode.” Silverman, watching the awards broadcast from a health resort where she was trying to lose weight, burst into tears.
A 1973 episode tackled an issue that became a notorious danger zone for the likes of Friends: Rhoda befriends a gay man. Even more dicey: The reveal of his gayness would be the crux of the episode. And still, it works even by 2019 standards; not once is the character, portrayed by gay actor and director Robert Moore, played for laughs or stereotypes.
In the episode, “My Brother’s Keeper,” Phyllis’s brother Ben comes to visit her and hits it off with Rhoda, with whom Phyllis has something of a rivalry. Phyllis hopes to set Ben up with Mary, but he instead spends the entire episode going to cultural events with Rhoda, who at one point even wears a fire engine–colored Courrèges dress when he says red is his favorite color. Toward the end of the episode, Phyllis confronts Rhoda, terrified the two will get married.
“He’s not my type!” Rhoda protests.
Now offended, Phyllis snaps, “What do you mean, not your type? He’s attractive. He’s successful. He’s single.”
Rhoda adds, matter-of-factly: “He’s gay.”
Phyllis pauses for just a beat before hugging Rhoda and sighing, “I’m so relieved.”
Like any work of art, The Mary Tyler Moore Show won’t be for everyone, and it’s not perfect. But scene for scene, it’s about the closest you’ll get for a vintage TV comedy. Mary has, as her famous theme song says, made it, after all — all the way to 2019, five decades later, to streaming services that she and her creators could never have fathomed at the time. And, against all odds, she looks better than ever. ●
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia: How the Show About Nothing Changed Everything; Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show; and Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love. She's also written for BBC Culture, Vice, Vulture, Billboard, the Washington Post, and others.