TV can be an electronic time machine to another era. A perfect example is The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The ’70s sitcom is among several, including its old CBS Saturday night schedule partner, The Bob Newhart Show, currently on view several times a day on the CTV-owned specialty channel Comedy Gold.
The station, launched this summer, offers sitcoms from the ’70s, ’80s and ‘90s like Murphy Brown, Night Court and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, as well as the Canadian comedy gold standard, SCTV. How much you are attached to each show often depends on how old you were when you first saw them.
What is fascinating about The Mary Tyler Moore Show today is that it is seldom laugh-out-loud funny.
The appeal of the show, about a single woman trying to “make it on her own” in a TV newsroom, completely eludes my 17-year-old raised on The Simpsons — curious since executive producer James L. Brooks helped create both series.
Brooks, 70, gave those shows something other sitcoms often lack — heart. The lesson for producers hoping to create shows that can be enjoyed decades after they were produced is that turning the world on with a smile may be more important than edge, daring or sizzle.
The grip MTM still has on Boomers runs deep, and much of that is due to the cast.
For viewers who grew up with the series, watching it today is like flipping through an old family album. Mary Richards (Moore), Mr. Grant (Ed Asner), Murray (Gavin MacLeod), Rhoda (Valerie Harper), Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), Ted Baxter (the late Ted Knight) and, later in the series, Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) seem more like old friends or even family members than sitcom actors.
Comedy Gold seems to be re-running only the first season right now, where the emphasis was on Richards and her gal pals Phyllis and Rhoda back at her Minneapolis bachelorette pad. Richards is seen driving to snowy Minneapolis in a cool new white Mustang in the opening credits so life must have been good back then for single working girls.
That first season was often uneven as the series struggled to find its feet. Knight eventually emerged as the go-to comedy star as the show evolved more into a workplace comedy — but still with that family feeling.
Almost four decades after it began, many in the cast are still working in television.
Eight time Emmy-winner Leachman, 84, is a regular as “Maw-maw” on Fox’s Raising Hope. Asner, 81, is shooting the new comedy Working Class for CMT. White, 88, has had the greatest late career renaissance of all, with Moore, 73, joining her for a guest stint in the New Year on White’s comeback comedy Hot in Cleveland.
Even Mary’s tight sweaters and slacks and her apartment’s earth tones and shag carpets seem to be coming back.
What isn’t in vogue is the pacing. Scenes on MTM or Newhart go on for five or six minutes at a time. There are very few set changes, with almost all of the action taking place either in the WJM newsroom or at Mary’s apartment.
TV moves faster today. With more commercials per half hour, the average sitcom is three minutes shorter, running 22 minutes or less instead of 24 or 25. While that doesn’t seem like much, it cuts out any scenes that are not essential to that week’s main storyline.
A scene on Moore’s previous series, The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), illustrates the point. Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie, was offered some cake by his wife Laura (Moore).
Trouble was, they were out of milk; Rob passed on the dessert, explaining eating cake without milk was a deal breaker.
It had nothing to do with the story at hand, and wasn’t all that funny, but it was very relatable. The creator of the show and head writer, Carl Reiner, heard for years about that “milk cake” scene, how it rang true in living rooms across North America.
Those are the moments lost today. Mark Farrell, executive producer of CTV’s Dan For Mayor and a showrunner for years on Corner Gas and 22 Minutes, says servicing the A-, B- or sometimes C- storylines leaves little room for “texture” on today’s tight TV schedules.
Farrell feels “simplifying the stories by having less stories,” may be the answer, noting shows like The Office often stick to a single plot.
The game-changer for Farrell and others was probably Seinfeld, a sitcom that could juggle four stories at a time with speedy scenes lasting as little as 30 seconds each. Shows like Dan for Mayor, How I Met Your Mother or Men With Brooms employ a similar quick-change technique.
The quickness seems tailor-made to suit today’s shorter attention spans. If you don’t like what’s happening in a certain scene, don’t reach for the remote, wait 20 seconds.
What can be lost, however, are those little moments that stick in your mind years after a show has gone off the air.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show found a way to take a nothing day and make it all seem worthwhile — a comedy blueprint that never seems to go out of style.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.