Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review - "The Mary Tyler Moore Show": Season One

A review of the first season of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" after the jump:

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is one of the most acclaimed sitcoms to ever air. In my never-ending quest to catch up with all the classic programs I missed (due to the fact that I wasn't born yet), it seemed like a solid choice. I expected it to be hilarious from the start, which perhaps was a foolish assumption. Most comedy shows need some time to figure things out. Look at "Parks and Rec". However, there's no getting around this: the opening season of "Mary Tyler Moore" really isn't all that good. And I have a hard time seeing it getting good without some big changes. We'll get to why in a minute, but first let's talk about what does work.

And that would be the supporting characters, who prove to be the show's saving grace even during many of the season's weakest installments. There's Lou Grant, who has quickly become one of my favorite characters in TV history. The stereotypical "tough boss who's really a pretty nice guy when you get to know him", Ed Asner and the writing staff together succeed in turning him into a surprisingly layered character by season's end. The writers are not quite as successful with anchorman Ted Baxter, who starts as a self-deluding egotist and remains a self-deluding egotist throughout the entire season. But that's kind of the point, and he's so funny that it doesn't really matter. Murray is also a very entertaining creation, particularly when he's reacting to something Ted says or does.

The biggest problem is with the character of Mary. She's just not very interesting, and spends most of her time reacting to what the other characters say and do without doing much of anything herself. In the office-centered episodes this is still an issue, but one that's masked by how entertaining characters like Lou and Ted are. Where it really causes problems is in the episodes set mostly outside the workplace environment, which unfortunately comprise an overwhelming majority of the season. It also doesn't help that her friends Rhoda and Phyllis are equally forgettable characters, though Rhoda at least gets a few choice one-liners in many of the episodes. And they, alas, are the people we spend most of our time with. They either need to get a lot funnier, or else the show needs to start spending a lot more time in the office. Until that happens, I don't see how this show even becomes a solid sitcom, let alone one of the best of all-time.

That said, there are a few highlights, among them the pilot (a solid introduction to these characters and their world), and the Christmas episode (which is both sweet and funny). But the only episode that is legitimately hilarious is "The Snow Must Go On", in which Mary attempts to produce an election night special during a snowstorm. Not surprisingly, this is an episode in which little time is spent in Mary's apartment, and one which features a heavy dose of the newsroom characters who are the most consistent source of laughs in these early installments. It's also true that very few of the episodes are legitimately bad, although "Hi!" and "A Friend in Deed" (among others) are definite low points.

Mostly, the show seems kind of stuck in that middling C+/B- territory where many sitcoms languish. It's moderately enjoyable, and it's certainly capable of delivering laughs. Its main character is holding it back right now, though, as well as some rather lackluster writing. I've also heard from several sources that it doesn't get really good until season 3, so I'm sticking with it until then. But were this a new show without the acclaim that "Mary Tyler Moore" has received, I highly doubt I'd be continuing with it. But then, the first season of "Buffy" wasn't all that great, either. And that turned out okay, didn't it? So I remain optimistic. After all, this is the show that produced "Chuckles Bites the Dust", a classic episode that deserves all the accolades it's gotten. Still... it's not off to a great start.

Season Grade: C+

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