Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Love Is All Around

Mary Tyler Moore died last week, and her passing merits a word or two even if no millennial has the slightest clue who she was.

I am the child of Christian parents who went to the mission field in the sixties with me in tow and came back just in time for Abba, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Get Smart and the tail end of the Guess Who’s first incarnation. Pop culture in the seventies blew me away, and it fascinated my mother in her own way, or so it appeared to me. When we finally got a TV, she watched her share of then-current fare, flipping channels whenever the content became inappropriate for family viewing. I watched with her to the extent I was allowed — and sometimes from behind the couch when I wasn’t.

And boy, did I LOVE those early seventies sit-coms.

The Quintessential Emancipation Statement

The Dick Van Dyke Show, which introduced most of us to MTM, was a comparatively innocent effort in which, if I recall accurately, Mary’s job was to play straight-woman to Dick’s familiar and very successful comedic shtick. I have permanently etched in my mind that unique about-to-burst-into-tears look Moore employed whenever things were going south in a hurry. I’ve never seen a real woman actually do that, probably because most people’s faces are not made of rubber. But Laura Petrie was also a stay-at-home mom like my own (assuming anyone remembers when women actually did that).

MTM’s solo show a few years later was another thing entirely — at least so I am now advised. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the quintessential emancipation statement of its day, and I suspect neither did most of its audience. Sure, it was hard to miss the fact that Mary was a thirty-ish single career woman in the big city, but in my youthful naïveté it never occurred to me that she was out to “define her happiness and success by things other than husband and children”. It just seemed like she hadn’t quite gotten there yet.

Breaking Ground and Flaming Out

I knew lots of single women from church and especially from the mission field. Mary being on her own seemed quite unremarkable to me, though I’d never really thought much about what the unmarried do with their time when they go home, and I’d certainly never thought about careers as potentially “fulfilling” (come to think of it, I still don’t). I was definitely never conscious I was watching “a television breakthrough”. MTM was the first show to feature a never-married, independent career woman as the central character.

The Mary Richards character dated, naturally, but whatever went on between Mary and her boyfriends was rarely too explicitly spelled out for the viewers. Love American Style, which debuted a year earlier, was much more frank about unmarried sexuality. If “love” was “all around” in the Twin Cities, Mary never quite seemed to find it. As she put it in one episode:
“I’m hardly innocent. I’ve been around. Well, all right, I might not have been around. But I’ve been nearby.”
I remember finding it a bit odd and sad whenever Mary’s latest stab at romance would flame out, but of course a more suitable guy was, no doubt, right around the corner. I was too inexperienced with TV scripting to recognize that her permanently single status was an integral part of the concept: had Mary ever met Larry and shuffled off to tie the knot, it would’ve been an explicit repudiation of the show’s very intentional metamessage, not to mention game over for much of its audience.

I can’t bring myself to watch sitcoms these days. I haven’t for years. I consider most of them abysmally pointless and vacuous. But if the actual content of most TV lacks substance, there’s still a fair bit to be gleaned about the current values of our society from the inadvertent “tells” dropped by the writers.

Making It?

So what was The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s epic metamessage?

Well, “You’re gonna make it after all,” went the immensely hummable theme song, without ever really spelling out what “making it” might actually entail. The show didn’t spell it out either; it was light comedy after all. Consider:
  • Mary Richards’ career trajectory is unremarkable. She is at first the associate producer of WJM’s six o’clock news show and in later episodes its producer, but none of her actual onscreen work registered with me as much more than putting out an endless series of perfectly preventable fires. In the series finale, she is summarily canned by the new station manager along with most of the staff. So much for “making it” at work.
  • Her love life? Seven years of flailing strikeouts. The memorable penultimate episode finds Mary down in the dumps and so convinced she will never meet a good man that she actually asks out her boss, Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner. Needless to say, that does not fly. So much for “making it” in relationships.
  • Moore’s character evolves little during the seven years of the show’s run and spends minimal time in any sort of serious reflection. We are never in danger of watching Mary spiral into existential angst or struggle with the issue of God’s presence or absence in the universe. She remains, for the most part, a defiantly cheery presence to the end, despite not always having a great deal to cheer about. So much for “making it” in the self-awareness department.
Our takeaway, intentional or otherwise, seems to be that “making it” involves little more than not having been officially declared dead yet. Sounds like the lives of far too many of my unsaved friends and neighbours.

The Twist Ending

Oddly for someone who portrayed a feminist icon, real-life Mary never had much interest in promoting the feminist agenda. Infogalactic has this nugget:
“Moore says that she was ‘recruited’ to join the feminist movement of the 1970s by Gloria Steinem but did not agree with Steinem’s views. Moore said she believed that women have an important role in raising children and that she did not believe in Steinem’s view that ‘women owe it to themselves to have a career.’ ”
This despite having had a very successful career herself.

This was not the only way in which the real-life Moore failed to resemble the perky Mary Richards. She was an alcoholic, politically conservative (especially in later years) and married three times. Her only son died from the accidental discharge of a firearm at age 24.

I Have No Pleasure

The book of Ecclesiastes advises us:
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’ ”
Those evil days Solomon talked about came for Moore in the end. She was a chronic diabetic and as of 2014, was said to have heart and kidney problems and be almost totally blind.

Of course none of that is evident when we watch the reruns. Both Mary Richards and her late alter ego turned the world on with a smile, but it appears there was little real, lasting joy behind the dazzle, onscreen or off.

Perhaps defining one’s happiness and success by things other than husband and children is not everything it’s cracked up to be. And maybe “making it” involves more than just hanging around to celebrate your eightieth birthday.

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