Examines Women’s Roles

The Mary Tyler Moore Show further established television situation comedies featuring independent women and helped develop shows that blended socially relevant situations with simply comedic ones.

Summary of Event

The Mary Tyler Moore Show began airing on September 19, 1970, and went off the air on September 3, 1977. It was one of the most literate and lasting situation comedies of the 1970’s. More important, it was one of the pioneers of the “independent woman” television genre. Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) is the idealized single career woman. She moves to Minneapolis, Minnesota, after her fiancé leaves her, then gets a job as assistant producer of the local news show on television station WJM-TV. She moves into an old apartment building and finds friendship with Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), an interior decorator for a local department store. Rhoda also is single, but unlike Mary, she desperately seeks a husband. Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman Leachman, Cloris ) is Mary’s busybody landlady. Mary Tyler Moore Show, The (television program)
Situation comedies
Women;representations of
[kw]Mary Tyler Moore Show Examines Women’s Roles, The (Sept. 19, 1970-Sept. 3, 1977)
[kw]Women’s Roles, The Mary Tyler Moore Show Examines (Sept. 19, 1970-Sept. 3, 1977)[Womens Roles, The Mary Tyler Moore Show Examines]
Mary Tyler Moore Show, The (television program)
Situation comedies
Women;representations of
[g]North America;Sept. 19, 1970-Sept. 3, 1977: The Mary Tyler Moore Show Examines Women’s Roles[10900]
[g]United States;Sept. 19, 1970-Sept. 3, 1977: The Mary Tyler Moore Show Examines Women’s Roles[10900]
[c]Radio and television;Sept. 19, 1970-Sept. 3, 1977: The Mary Tyler Moore Show Examines Women’s Roles[10900]
[c]Women’s issues;Sept. 19, 1970-Sept. 3, 1977: The Mary Tyler Moore Show Examines Women’s Roles[10900]
Moore, Mary Tyler
Tinker, Grant
Brooks, James L.
Burns, Allan
Asner, Ed
Harper, Valerie

At the office, Mary finds another family to rely on. Her boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), is a cantankerous and mildly sexist man, soft underneath his gruff exterior. Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod McLeod, Gavin ) is the head newswriter at the station. He is happily married and has a positive attitude about work and life, along with a snide sense of humor, especially when it is aimed at his colleague Ted Baxter (Ted Knight Knight, Ted ). Ted is the “pretty boy” anchorman who is less than average in intelligence but makes up for this lack with an inflated ego. Ted has a long courtship with Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel Engel, Georgia ), a vacuous blond whom he eventually marries.

The program had a cast of other recurring characters, including Bess Lindstrom (Lisa Gerritsen), Phyllis’s daughter on the show from 1970 to 1975. John Amos played Gordy Howard, WJM-TV’s weatherman, from 1970 to 1973. Sue Ann Nivens, played by Betty White White, Betty , arrived at the station in 1973 with her “Happy Homemaker Show.” Sue Ann is a foil for Mary’s role as the independent woman. She is in her late forties and very man-hungry, spending the bulk of her time outlandishly pursuing men. Joyce Bulifont portrayed Murray’s wife, Marie, from 1971 to 1977, and Priscilla Morrill played Lou’s wife, Edie, in 1973 and 1974. Robbie Rist played David Baxter in 1976 and 1977. Along with the cast of regulars, The Mary Tyler Moore Show often employed guest stars for specific episodes, among them Nancy Walker as Rhoda’s mother, Slim Pickens, Michael Constantine, Jack Cassidy, Jerry Van Dyke, Louise Lasser, Penny Marshall, and John Ritter, along with Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite playing themselves.

Although Moore was the star, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had no single perspective. Moore’s role often was to react to others, to play within the framework of a solid ensemble to sharpen and define herself and the other characters. James L. Brooks, a coproducer of the show, believed that its success stemmed from its plausible characters. Where Norman Lear Lear, Norman would have made a big point of Mary’s sex life, Brooks and coproducer Allan Burns decided to deal with issues more subtly. Rather than facing large issues, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was more interested in dealing with small problems of daily life.

Brooks also stressed that the show was more attuned to verbal comedy than were Lear’s programs, which dealt more with situations than with subtlety. Even though The Mary Tyler Moore Show theoretically did not take on problems of magnitude, it did tackle issues within an individual framework. One episode dealt with Rhoda coming to terms with one of Mary’s friends who is prejudiced, and another focused on Phyllis trying to get her brother interested in Mary, not knowing that he is gay. Others dealt with Lou’s divorce and Murray’s thoughts of infidelity. These big issues were treated on a small scale, but they were big issues nevertheless.

Mary Tyler Moore as an actor was not new to television success. She played Laura Petrie, wife of television writer Rob Petrie, on the highly successful The Dick Van Dyke Show
Dick Van Dyke Show, The (television program) (1961-1966). She won an Emmy Award Emmy Awards for her work on the series in 1964 and 1965. Having the popularity of The Dick Van Dyke Show under her belt, she wanted to branch out into something different. In 1963, she married Grant Tinker, who became corporate vice president of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and then founder of MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) Enterprises MTM Enterprises , the production company responsible for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ironically, Moore intended Mary Richards to be a divorcée, but CBS complained that the public would never accept a divorcée as a funny heroine. This resulted in a compromise making Richards a jilted lover, ambitious and ready to make a new life for herself.

Grant Tinker was married to Mary Tyler Moore from 1963 until they divorced in 1981. MTM Enterprises was founded by Moore, Tinker, and Arthur Price Price, Arthur . Tinker’s philosophy for MTM was to maintain a high standard of quality and creativity. This idea remained evident as he took the helm as president of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) from 1981 to 1986. Tinker tried to stay within his standards for quality programming during his tenure as president of NBC but found he had to make compromises for the sake of profits.

Tinker was very influential in making The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but the writers who created the series also deserve credit for being the driving forces behind the new type of television series pioneered by the program. Writers Allan Burns and James L. Brooks had been successful with the popular television series Room 222 in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, so they were seasoned and ready to take on the responsibilities of creating a new program for CBS. Brooks was executive producer and cocreator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Later he cocreated Rhoda, sharing the title of executive producer for that show as well as for Lou Grant. Brooks would also become known for writing and directing Broadcast News (1987).

A shift in viewing habits in the early 1970’s caused television executives to seek innovative types of programming. Demographics were coming into use, breaking down audiences by age, sex, income, and other sociological variables. These data described networks’ target audiences. The Brooks and Burns concept for The Mary Tyler Moore Show fit into this new mold, appealing to upscale audiences with more refinement and sophistication than previously seen on network television. Programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show set the tone for prime-time entertainment for decades to come.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show did not magically appear on the airwaves without having had some formidable influences. That Girl, That Girl (television program) starring Marlo Thomas, was the prototype for the influx of the “independent woman” series. It ran from September 8, 1966, until September 10, 1971, and was a huge success. Marlo Thomas played Ann Marie, an eager actor who left the comfort and stability of her parents’ home for the bright lights of New York City. Don Hollinger (Ted Bessell), a junior executive for Newsview Magazine, was her steady boyfriend. Don and Ann Marie finally got engaged during the final season of the program, but they never married. The series ended with Don’s stag party.

Like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl dealt with different aspects of a woman’s life by looking at her family, work associates, friends, and neighbors. For the first time, television audiences got a glimpse of a working woman’s life. Even if it was often a rather shallow representation, just the idea that a woman could have a happy and productive life outside her roles of wife and mother was a startling image for television. The Doris Day Show (1968-1973) also helped establish the marketability of the “independent woman” genre.

Another popular series that debuted soon after The Mary Tyler Moore Show began its run was All in the Family
All in the Family (television program) (1971-1983). Norman Lear’s series was the foundation for television’s format for the domestic comedy, while Tinker’s MTM Enterprises pioneered the format for the workplace series. Programs produced by MTM concentrated more on showing an alternative to the nuclear family, while Lear simply worked within that framework. Together, Lear’s Tandem Productions and MTM Enterprises dominated programming in these areas, for years offering many programs in the top ten spots in ratings.


As a direct result of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s popularity, a cascade of spin-offs, television’s answer to the sequel, populated the screen. Valerie Harper won three Emmy Awards as supporting actress (1971, 1972, and 1973) for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Harper left the show in 1974 for her own spin-off series, Rhoda, Rhoda (television program) which aired until 1978. Many scripts for her program were partly or wholly written by women, making it a more consciously feminist-focused program than The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Phyllis, based on Cloris Leachman’s character as Mary’s landlady, spun off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1975. The Nancy Walker Show, a short-lived spin-off airing in 1976, revolved around Rhoda’s meddling mother, played by Nancy Walker. The last in line was Lou Grant, Lou Grant (television program) starring Ed Asner reprising his role as the tough yet vulnerable boss.

Lou Grant ran for five seasons, from 1977 to 1982. It was, along with Rhoda, the most popular of the spin-offs. Asner played Lou Grant, formerly Mary Richards’s boss at WJM-TV, and now editor of the city desk at the Los Angeles Tribune, a family-owned daily newspaper. The series strived for realism, paying close attention to the details of journalistic life. The program dealt with relevant social and political issues such as rape, environmental pollution, exploitation of migrant workers and illegal aliens, and corruption of big business and corporations. Like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant relied on its ensemble cast as a vital element of its success. Through the responses of individual characters, political issues were made relevant, bringing the problems and possible solutions to a personal level.

The impact The Mary Tyler Moore Show has had on viewers and on television itself is enormous. The series probably is one of the most influential in television history. The success of the show itself and of the MTM production company established a nurturing environment for the writers, producers, and actors dedicated to this particular style of presentation, mixing comedy and drama. That influence remained evident into the 1990’s in series ranging from Cheers to Alf to The Cosby Show to The Tracey Ullman Show to Family Ties. All these programs had MTM offspring as members of their production teams.

Not only did members of MTM Enterprises continue personally to influence production values of television series, but the subject matter introduced by The Mary Tyler Moore Show also remained of vital importance to later programming. Shows about women such as Murphy Brown, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Designing Women, and The Golden Girls; ensemble shows such as Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law; and even Charlie’s Angels owed their opportunity to have women in central roles and show alternative lifestyles for women in part to the success and influence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Tyler Moore Show, The (television program)
Situation comedies
Women;representations of

Further Reading

  • Bathrick, Serafina. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Women at Home and at Work.” In Critiquing the Sitcom: A Reader, edited by Joanne Morreale. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Examination of the representation of gender in the public and private spheres in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Harris, Jay S., ed. TV Guide: The First Twenty-five Years. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978. Interesting collection of articles about and photographs of television programs and personalities from 1953 through 1977. Includes color reprints of TV Guide covers and essays by performers and personalities about their work in television. Wonderfully dated material gives the reader a taste of the journalistic style of the time. Contains critical arguments about the impact of television upon society as well as information about a wide variety of personalities and programs.
  • McCrohan, Donna. Prime Time, Our Time: America’s Life and Times Through the Prism of Television. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima, 1990. Good collection of essays on different phases of television history. Deals with individual programs within a larger framework. Cites interesting trivia and top-rated programs for past years. No photographs.
  • Newcomb, Horace, ed. Television: The Critical View. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. This collection of essays on various themes in television delves into specific programs as well as more abstract criticism of television’s effects on its audience. Included in this edition are essays on soap operas, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley; the politics of Lou Grant; and television’s aesthetics, ideology, and role in popular culture.
  • Settel, Irving, and William Laas. A Pictorial History of Television. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969. Good pictures combined with commentary on the history of television. Combines facts about television in general mixed with stories about the stars.
  • Taylor, Ella. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. A feminist-oriented discussion about the portrayal of family life on television. Fascinating cultural and social analysis, featuring chapters on episodic series (1946-1969), entertainment programming in the 1970’s, television’s changing families (1970-1980), and television families in workplace settings, along with a section comparing and contrasting television families of different eras. Cohesive and intelligent analysis of its topic. Each chapter is placed in historical context for a broader understanding of the driving forces behind particular modes of programming.

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