In light of the recent passing of the great Ed Asner, I decided to give The Mary Tyler Moore Show a watch (I had seen a decent amount of episodes prior, but this is my first full watch-through). Mr. Asner played the rough but lovable Lou Grant in the show and was one of many of an incredible cast, sadly most of which have passed at this point. I was reminded just how enjoyable this show was, so I thought I would add it to the list of shows that I sometimes take a look at.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran from 1970-1977, and while it never quite reached the level of “All in the Family,” it is lauded as one of the comedies from the time that used its humorous identity to tackle some pretty serious issues. Due to the nature of the cast and Mary Tyler Moore herself, a lot of these were centered around feminism. The show follows Mary, a single woman in her 30s (already a bit out there) who moves to Minneapolis after the man she was supposed to marry keeps dragging his feet over the issue. She goes for an interview with Lou Grant (Ed Asner), who decides to give her a try as associate producer of his news show. It’s not immediately clear why, as he is a gruff and angry sort, but by the end of the episode, you see that underneath the curmudgeon shell is a decent guy, something Asner excelled at playing.
Other characters include the news anchor Ted Baxter who is not very bright but incredibly egotistical. Rhoda and Phyllis (Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman) as Mary’s good friends. Murray, writer for the show who is hard-working but a bit resentful of those around him. And Sue Ann (Betty White) a nice Susie homemaker type with a mean streak and man-hungry ways. The cast is all truly brilliant, and even when the premise of episodes seems a bit standard, they really do make it shine, like most good sitcoms.
Most of the episodes center around Mary struggling to find her way in her new job and also with dating, pretty standard sitcom fare. However, the show is not afraid to tackle more serious issues, from Mary being jailed to protect a source, homosexuality, and even pre-marital sex, which, while hinted at throughout the show, has a few episodes that completely lift the veil. Remember, this is not long after audiences weren’t allowed to see married couples sharing a bed on screen. But even when the show wasn’t tackling tough issues, it is still downright hilarious.
As is the case with season 4, episode 10, The Dinner Party. The episode starts with Mary getting a call from Congresswoman Geddes, who she recently interviewed. Mary invites the Congresswoman for dinner and proceeds to attempt to pull off the perfect Dinner Party in her own fashion. It has to be limited to exactly 6 people because that’s all the room Mary has, and Mary has a reputation for bad parties.
Lou Grant, for instance, is delighted to hang out with just Mary, but when he finds out it is a dinner party proceeds to inform Mary that he is busy, finally confessing to not wanting to come due to her poor hosting skills. On the reverse side of struggling to get people to agree, Mary accidentally invites Sue Ann when she is just hoping to get cooking advice, although Mary eventually concedes that it’s for the best since Sue Ann can cook. Ted Baxter doesn’t make the “six people only” list and is completely devastated and attempts to make Mary feel guilty. Eventually, Mary is able to get six people and prepare.
While she and Sue Ann are getting ready, Sue Ann informs her that dinner will be ready at exactly 8 o’clock and demanding that Mary serve it then, her “mean niceness” coming out once again. Rhoda shows up with an extra guest, Henry Winkler, who was fired and needs everybody to know it, and Mr. Grant is not the best guest.
Still, Mary feels like she manages to pull it off, and the Congresswoman expresses that she’s had a lovely time. When Ted Baxter shows up.
This is 100% one of the many episodes of the series with a simple plot carried by a stellar cast. It’s something that happened a lot and is part of what made the show so golden. It only needed a simple premise, Mary is not a good host, she has to balance her guest list, and then just allow the nature of farces and, more importantly, the skill of the cast carry it. From Mr. Grant trying to “gently” explain to Mary that some of the worst times in his life have happened at her parties. To the saccharine surface behavior of Sue Ann while she’s being angry and mean, wanting someone’s head because they messed up her show but delivered with a smile. The guests all behaving just a bit poorly, forcing Mary to constantly try to keep up with each of the difficulties they add. Finally, to Ted Baxter’s over-the-top pity me moments while still drowning in what an ass the character is.
The episode doesn’t come along with a message as others did or even notable one-liners, but each exchange that Mary has with her counterparts is filled with laughs. It also begs the question of how much Mary is a terrible host as much as she has some of the worst guests.
I also picked this episode to start us off because Lou Grant, Ed Asner, is a treat in it. He and Mary really did have great chemistry, and the two characters are just delightful. Lou is only missing from a few episodes for the entire series, but this is one where he has more of a spotlight. He was a great character, and Ed Asner did a wonderful job with him.
So bottom line. Give this whole show a watch, honestly. Of course, not all of it has aged perfectly, but even some of the plotlines that are a bit aged – such as Mary struggling to date a short man – often still manage to bring it forward with their conclusion. The Dinner Party isn’t going to make you think, but it will make you laugh. And it shows off the great interplay that most of the characters had with each other. And rest in peace to all the amazing talent that made this show what it was that we have lost.