Appreciating Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM Show Performance 40 Years Later

By

In honor of Mary Tyler Moore’s SAG Lifetime Achievement Award, I took a look back at the show she’s best known for, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and MTM’s charmingly well-rounded portrayal of Mary Richards.

It’s been widely noted that The MTM Show show is the spiritual predecessor of 30 Rock, Mary being the original girl who “can turn the world on with her smile.” Like Liz Lemon, Mary Richards is in her 30s, single and works in TV. And on both shows, the actual work the protagonists do is a secondary topic to their workplace relationships, particularly with their mentors (Lou Grant and Jack Donaghy, respectively).

I was surprised and impressed to find, though, that Mary Richards is sort of a more believable version of Liz Lemon. Obviously the two shows are very different in tone and occupy drastically different spots on the wackiness scale. But while much of Liz Lemon humor comes from the idea that Liz is unceasingly awkward and grotesque, Mary is allowed to have attractive qualities - which gives her embarrassing moments more weight. A lot of the humor of her character comes from her sincere attempts at confidence and the backtracking that follows when she realizes she can’t quite walk the walk. She seems like a real person! And that makes her foibles and struggles (to take command of the newsroom when her boss puts her in charge, for example) all the more relatable.

Take this scene from the much-touted episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” in which Mary attends the funeral of a clown. In the span of about a minute, we get Mary’s sincere attending-a-funeral face, her involuntary peal of giggling, an attempt to cover it with a cough and regain her so-serious-she’s-practically-bored composure, a gradual giving way to laughter at the ridiculousness of the event, and then right when laughter is expected, cathartic weeping. MTM’s layered performance makes the scene more than a one-note joke about laughing at a clown funeral.

And if that theme song doesn’t make you want to buy a hat just to throw it into the air out of exuberance about being a spunky lady making it in the big city, I just don’t know.