When it was originally on: 1970-1977
Original network: CBS
Where you can stream it now: Hulu
Had I seen it before: No
What IMDb says: The lives and trials of a young single woman and her friends, both at work and at home.
Why I picked it: The Mary Tyler Moore Show has the distinction of being the oldest pilot on The List, premiering in 1970. I put it on there because I not only wanted some vintage television, I wanted vintage television that changed the course of television that came after. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the first sitcom to ever focus on a woman who wasn’t married. That’s a stamp on television history that no one else can ever take away from it. I’d never seen an episode before and it was time to rectify that.
What I liked: Mary is an all-around great character. I love how this pilot gives her chances to be a strong woman who stands up for herself but also gives her chances to be weak and vulnerable. It makes her relatable and aspirational all at once. Which version of Mary we see is varies widely based on who she’s interacting with, and what’s particularly interesting to me is that Mary is at her strongest when she’s confronting men. She stands up to Lou when he asks inappropriate questions in a job interview. She bravely tells her ex-boyfriend to get out of her life. There’s this chilling moment after she kicks him out of her apartment where tells her to take care of herself, and she just says “I think I just did.”
In 22 minutes, Mary goes from a victim of circumstance forced into her life of single-ness to deliberately choosing this new single life in Minneapolis. That transition happens so naturally, and it’s so important. (I’ve written about passive v. active protagonists before, check it out here). The whole story has been reshaped now. It’s no longer about a man rejecting her and condemning her to this single life, it’s about how Mary chose this life for herself because it’s better than being with a man who doesn’t appreciate her. She’s not an object of a pity, she’s an object of admiration.
Mary’s interactions with men are made even more interesting by how they contrast with her interactions with women. The closest we really get to seeing someone bully Mary is her neighbor, Rhoda, who wants to move into Mary’s apartment. When Rhoda and Phyllis (a childhood friend of Mary’s) are fighting with each other, Mary is typically the one willing to make compromises to make people happy. She offers to give up the apartment before learning that Rhoda lied to her to get it. When in the presence of Rhoda and Phyllis, we see this people-pleaser side of Mary that we don’t see when she’s with Lou or her ex (whatever the hell that dude’s name was). She’s happy to stand up to men who might appear to have the upper hand, but damnit she’s not gonna pick a cat fight with any of the women in her life.
What I didn’t like: I wish we could’ve gotten to see a little bit more of Mary in a professional setting than we do here. She answers phones for like a minute, but that’s about it. I get how they only had 22 minutes, but did we really NEED so much talk with the Phyllis’s daughter? I honestly don’t even know why this character is here, other than to give Phyllis and Mary an excuse for overly expository dialog.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: 100% yes. The pilot was genuinely entertaining, and I’m excited to see what kinda DNA it shares with more modern iterations of the spunky-young-woman-takes-on-the-world show.