Television humor is often underrated. Great sitcoms, for example, are as much an art form as great frescoes, living indefinitely in reruns, their creators destined to be recalled as the genius old masters of the TV age.
Yet even the best, most durable of these comedies are very much of their time.
For “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” that was 1970 to 1977, when at one point it joined “All in the Family,” “MASH,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show” in a CBS Saturday night that may have been the single most hilarious evening of TV comedy ever--from top to bottom greater even than those NBC Thursday nights anchored by “Seinfeld” in the 1990s.
Like Michelangelo scouting for another ceiling to paint, here again now is “The MTM Show,” in a fashion, with Mary Tyler Moore resurfacing as a widowed Mary Richards at age 60 and Valerie Harper as her best friend Rhoda Morgenstern, a divorcee in her upper 50s.
When they bump into and bear hug each other in Manhattan, Mary is still impeccably tailored and proper, and Rhoda still schlepping after all these years. Why, then, does tonight’s ABC movie, “Mary and Rhoda,” feel like a hologram with no center?
Not that it isn’t quite sweet, or that you don’t get a bit misty watching MTM and VH struggle valiantly to reconnect in another city and century without the old juiced studio audience laughter responding to their occasional one-liners. Only that the tone here is much less witty than wistful, and re-bottling magic is difficult, perhaps even impossible, especially 25 or so years afterward.
“Seinfeld,” the funniest of all sitcoms, found that it couldn’t do it eventually even from one year to the next, its atrophied final season falling yadas and yadas short of its previous eight, despite continued huge ratings.
The New York of “Mary and Rhoda” is another solar system.
These former Minneapolis neighbors open on a note of melancholia with Mary in her comfortable-chic digs still sad about her missing congressman spouse, and Rhoda back in town eyeing a new career and life after splitting from her second husband, Jean Pierre. He’s the skirt-chasing Parisian she married long after divorcing Joe on her “Rhoda” spinoff.
And would you believe it, Mary and Rhoda run into each other on the street?
Both have loving but rebellious daughters, Mary’s Rose (Joie Lenz) leaving college to become a stand-up comic, and Rhoda’s Meredith (Marisa Ryan) a premed student critical of her mother’s ambition to become a New York photographer with virtually no credentials.
What are two mothers to do? Share an apartment, of course. And pursue careers.
It turns out that Mary followed her Twin Cities stint at WJM-TV with a master’s in journalism and a top producing job at ABC News, where she was “successful and respected.” Faced again with making a living, she’s hired as a news producer at WNYT-TV in New York, where the new Lou Grant in her life is Jonah Seimeier (Elon Gold), a corner-cutting hotshot who views her attempts to “nice up the news” as heresy.
As Moore told Rosie O’Donnell last week, Seimeier is “one of those executives in television who are convinced they can do things their way without any responsibility.”
At 33, he’s also young enough to be Mary’s son.
Hence, the message. Two of them, in fact. Unlike “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” whose ambition never went beyond entertaining through comedy, “Mary and Rhoda” is a movie with a mission, tackling the ills of both ageism and journalism while now and then sliding in a joke.
Before landing at WNYT, Mary repeatedly gets rebuffed because she’s “too old for the job.” And as Rhoda kvetches later after suffering her own rejections: “We’re at the age now where we’re invisible.”
On another front, Mary faces an ethical crossroads when collaborating on a story with brittle and self-absorbed anchor stereotype Cecile Andrews (Christine Ebersole). Katie Ford’s script even has Cecile doing reversals--retaping her questions in front of the lens after an interview, a common TV news practice when one camera is sent on a shoot. The shady potential? The interviewer can inject his or her responses, and the interviewee won’t be replying on tape to questions as asked. Good to point out.
Love the messages, not the messengers.
At least not here, in a generally light milieu where resolutions are so swift and facile on all fronts that they trivialize the crises that precede them en route to a preachy, smugly self-righteous ending.
And how’s this for irony? While promoting journalistic integrity, the movie itself injects sentimental music to sway our response to a human interest news story that is presented as pure and manipulation-free.
If this were “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s, who would even care? James L. Brooks, Alan Burns and their fellow producers made the WJM newsroom and newscast an outrageous joke, and their show was all the better for it. Anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) was a buffoon, Lou (Ed Asner) laughable (until changing skins as a serious newspaper editor in “Lou Grant”), Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) just marginally more sane as WJM’s cynical news writer, and even Mary herself was ill-equipped for her job.
The wonderful cast and writers created comedy that will resonate indefinitely. And what did they ask in return? Not much, really. No more than Chuckles the Clown--eulogized in the signature episode of “The MTM Show’s” long, rollicking run--was said to have asked in return for providing so much laughter before dying in his peanut costume when shelled by a rogue elephant.
“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”
Well, look, “Mary and Rhoda” is a decent enough little movie that dishonors no one, nor stains any memories. What it lacks, though, is what it and its protagonists are no longer capable of delivering all these years later.
A little of that seltzer.
* “Mary and Rhoda” can be seen tonight at 8 on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).
Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.