There are many things to say about Mary Tyler Moore and her influence on television, the culture and the actual lives of at least a couple generations of women. And a few of them do get said in the course of "Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration," a new documentary made from old parts that premieres Tuesday on PBS.
The subtitle is key: This is an hour of praise and clips. It's as if they took the lyrics to the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" theme and used them as a shooting script: It's you, girl, and you should know it. Love is all around.
Fans of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," her seminal sitcoms, will find much to like — because what's not to like? (It's nice to glimpse her less well-remembered work as well.) At the same time, and even including commentary from many old castmates — this is a thinner, flimsier piece than her work and her place in history demand, content to skim the surface with only an occasional glance into deeper water.
Most of what's worthwhile in the hour, then, comes from the clips and the production stills; they remind us on the one hand that great work was done and on the other that it also was work. "Dick Van Dyke" creator Carl Reiner may have glimpsed Moore's special something when he put his hand on her head and marched her into producer Sheldon Leonard's office — a story told here by both Reiner and Moore — but it is one thing to possess a quality and another to know how to use it. She didn't just show up and let the cameras adore her.
Moore's off-screen life is barely acknowledged. "On the dance floor, everything was perfect for young Mary Tyler Moore," the narrator begins, as a blurry figure practices her steps. "She could forget about her alcoholic mother, her distant father, the abuse by a family friend" — and that's the end of that subject.
Later in the hour, a parade of newspaper headlines nods toward her struggles with alcohol; her failed marriage to producer Grant Tinker, her partner in MTM Enterprises; and the death of her son from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound, and passes on without comment. (By contrast, in her written memoirs, Moore has been quite frank about her disappointments and shortcomings.)
She had the good fortune to star in two comedies that fit her talents and defined their time. As Laura to Van Dyke's Rob Petrie, she was very much a housewife — he was 11 years older, and though this registered only subtly, it did register, subtly.
But they seemed very much partners; their on-camera relationship bristled with physicality and, separate beds notwithstanding, sexuality. That the Petries had one child and were not having more, something of a rarity in TV families of that time, made them appear modern, the sitcom embodiment of the Kennedy era. (The series premiered in 1961.)
But it was Mary Richards, whose world-igniting smile was Moore's own, who made the more lasting impression; "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" premiered at the dawn of another decade, in another world. Smart, single and fine with it, more interested in her work and friends than in any man who might Take Her Away From All This, Mary was the soft face of feminism — a term Moore sort of pedals away from in the not-new interview footage used here, and the producers are happy to pedal with her.
It's a slightly conservative look at a world-changer. That Moore was not just attractive and funny but also feminine is regarded here as a plus, but the usefulness of that term, not to say its meaning, is less settled now.
Still, you can draw a line from Lucy and Ethel to Mary and Rhoda and on to Amy and Tina, who modeled "30 Rock" on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and Abbi and Elena and Lena and Amy. (Fey, whose sound bite seems to have been flown in from another documentary, is around just long enough to say, "That show was a big deal.") It might have been nice to bring some of them in on this.
'Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)