MTM. These letters stand for the initials of television legend Mary Tyler Moore, her eponymous television show, and the production company that she founded with her then–husband Grant Tinker, MTM Enterprises. But most importantly, they stand for the legacy of how The Mary Tyler Moore Show set new precedents and standards for women.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show centers on Mary Richards (Moore), a woman who has recently left a serious relationship and moved from her small town of Roseburg, MN to Minneapolis, where she starts a job as an associate news producer at WJM–TV. There, she's supported by a group of quirky personalities that comprise her “work family”—a concept that MTM practically invented—as well as her other friends. These include:
- Lou Grant (Ed Asner): Mary’s hard talking and sometimes hard–drinking boss with a hidden warm and fuzzy side.
- Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper): Mary’s neighbor, best friend, and the yin to her yang.
- Ted Baxter (Ted Knight): the "star” news announcer at WJM–TV, whose complete idiocy is only matched in level by his narcissism.
- Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod): A sarcastic, quippy news writer who helps guide Mary into her new role.
- Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman): Mary’s eccentric and egotistical landlady, often at odds with Rhoda.
- Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White): The seemingly sweet host of a homemaking program at WJM, who turns out to be sexually voracious and snarky.
- Georgette Franklin Baxter (Georgia Engel): Ted’s ditsy girlfriend, and eventual wife.
Simply put, this is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. It’s classic, iconic, and extremely entertaining, featuring some of the sharpest writing to ever hit television screens. Exiting the 1960's, The Dick Van Dyke Show (Moore’s previous gig) had set pratfalls and goofy faces as the sitcom standard. But MTM entered the new decade with realism and wit, drawing in a more adult audience to create connections to the truly human characters—three of whom got their own spin–off series.
If MTM's technical excellence isn’t enough to convince you, consider the show’s social impact. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is exemplary in its representation of second–wave feminism. Mary, its protagonist, was a single woman who was content with focusing on her career and spending time with her friends. Sure, she hoped to get married eventually, but Mary’s boyfriends were never her top priority. One episode centered on Mary confronting Lou Grant about not receiving an equal wage to her predecessor as associate producer. Another subtly revealed that Mary was on the pill, just months after it was legalized for unmarried women in 1972. Other episodes implied that despite her unmarried status, Mary was sexually active.
The series was progressive in less obvious ways as well—writers such as Treva Silverman and Pat Nardo created episodes that dynamically portrayed the emotional life of a woman in the ’70s, giving Mary and Rhoda well–rounded personalities and empowered stories. The show also hired Ethel Winant as their vice president of talent casting, making her the first female executive in network television history. Even in its 9:00 p.m. airtime Saturday night air time MTM was making waves, as it sent the subtle message that it was okay not to have anywhere to go out on the weekends—sometimes Mary, a role model to many, didn’t have plans either.
MTM wasn’t thought of as an aggressively feminist show, however. Gloria Steinem herself criticized the show for having Mary refer to her boss as "Mr. Grant" while her male coworkers addressed him as "Lou." It contrasted greatly with other series being produced by Norman Lear at the time, which taught more intentional lessons relating to social justice. Despite this, the more subtle, yet inherent nature of MTM’s feminism allowed it to almost sneakily subvert norms and create positive incremental change. It's because MTM was willing to take such brave steps that its legacy is so impressive. Its influence is visible in nearly any series with a strong female lead, a working woman, or a bachelorette who's content with her life. This legacy is just one of the many reasons why you should watch it.
Ultimately, MTM still remains relevant. Even 50 years later, viewing it remains an empowering feminist experience. As I watched MTM this summer, what surprised me most was the degree to which I felt understood as a young adult coming of age during a difficult time in history. MTM aired in the 1970s, a time often remembered for the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, gas lines, and the 1973–1975 economic recession. The negatives of the time are visible in the show with occasional Nixon jokes or references to the effects of the recession. But the positives of Mary’s outlook on life are overwhelming—she has amazing friends, an interesting job, and a legendary smile. Despite living amid turmoil, Mary Richards thrives as she enters the professional world, and because of her strong work ethic and charm, she’s “gonna make it after all” as the theme song states. Her example makes it seem possible for my generation—one that is currently striving against another tumultuous time—to begin our independent lives.
If we can find and appreciate the love that is all around us, we too might just make it after all.
Five episodes to watch:
1. “Love Is All Around” S1 E01
Were it not for the fact that MTM was ordered straight to series, it probably wouldn’t have made it past this pilot, which was hated by the studio audience and critics alike. Luckily for us, the show moved forward, and the climax of this episode remains quintessential in its establishment of Mary’s happiness not depending on a man.
2. “My Brother’s Keeper” S3 E17
The first episode of a network television series to use the word "gay" to refer to a homosexual man—one that included a non–negative portrayal of a gay man whose sexual orientation is accepted by those around him in a time when queer representation in the media was normally negative or nonexistent.
3. “Put on a Happy Face” S3 E23
The favorite episode of MTM from Moore herself! Notable for being one of the rare occasions when Mary was the true comic relief.
4. “Chuckles Bites the Dust” S6 E07
You might recognize this title from lists of the greatest television episodes ever (it normally holds a spot near or even at the top)!
5. “The Last Show” S7 E24
Don’t just take my word on this one. Take that of David Crane, co–creator of Friends, who described this as the finale “gold standard.” The influence of this excellent episode has been visible in many subsequent television series finales.