Monday, June 10, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

I knew, from quite a young age, what I wanted to be when I grew up: a doctor. But there was something else to consider–there was who I wanted to be. Deeply embedded in my psyche, a role model lurked. I may not even have been aware of how influential this person was, but I know I’m not the only woman of my generation to feel this way.

I wanted to be Mary Richards.

I grew up watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s out on DVD now and I’m a little afraid to watch it because I suspect I’ll find it dated. I’m afraid that it won’t be what I remember. I’d hate to tarnish the image of a hero from my past.

I bring this up because I read a recent review in our paper of the book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and all the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. (That title is way too long.) Overwhelmed by nostalgia and a strong curiosity, I bought the book. And read it in a couple of sittings.

For someone who doesn’t even watch TV anymore, reading a history-of-television book is a strange undertaking. But this book is so much more than a TV fan book. Armstrong puts the making of the Mary Tyler Moore Show into the context of its time. It’s social history. She tells a fascinating story of the people behind the scenes, the writers, producers, the woman in charge of casting. The show was groundbreaking not only in its portrayal of women, but in its actual employment of women. Eager to get the details right, the producers hired female writers in unheard-of numbers. The show reflected society and pushed boundaries for women.

Readers meet each of the cast members when they were still little-known actors. (Mary Tyler Moore was well-known, but her career had taken a nosedive after The Dick Van Dyke Show.) Armstrong shows the struggles the creative team had in convincing the network to get behind the show and how close it came to being killed by being put into an unwatchable time slot. Finally, the book reassured me that the warmth displayed on-screen was real. The caring in Mary’s on-screen life was mirrored by an off-screen environment of friendship and mutual striving for excellence.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is an interesting look at seventies television and at seventies society. But I mostly enjoyed the book for the insight it gave me into why, even after all these years, I’m still a little awed by Mary Richards.