Fox // 1975 // 624 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // February 15th, 2010
A little song
A little dance
A little seltzer down your pants
-- "Credo of a Clown"
The penultimate season of one of the most beloved and honored sitcoms of all time.
Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) has been living in Minneapolis and working as a producer at WJM News for six years now. With best friends Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) having moved on and away, Mary's life is more work-centered. Of course, she's more than just a co-worker to her boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacCleod), and anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), as well as "frenemy" Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), star of the WJM's successful "Happy Homemaker" program, and Ted's girlfriend, Georgette (Georgia Engel). During this season, Mary gets a new apartment, a new boyfriend, and helps bury a clown.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete Sixth Season features 24 episodes:
"Edie Gets Married"
"Mary Moves Out"
"Murray in Love"
"Ted's Moment of Glory"
"Chuckles Bites the Dust"
"Lou Douses an Old Flame"
"Mary Richards Falls in Love"
"Ted's Tax Refund"
"The Happy Homemaker Takes Lou Home"
"One Boyfriend Too Many"
"What Do You Want to Do When You Produce?"
"Not With My Wife, I Don't"
"Once I Had a Secret Love"
"Murray Takes a Stand"
"Mary's Aunt Returns"
"A Reliable Source"
"Sue Ann Falls in Love"
"Ted and the Kid"
It's no wonder that the most famous episode on this set deals with death. The sixth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was all about transition.
The biggest changes happen to Mary Richards. The wide-eyed girl has matured into a full-fledged career woman. Gone are the "girlfriends," Phyllis and Rhoda; Mary's new best friend is Georgette, but it's hardly the same dynamic -- Mary's more like a big sister or mentor to the younger woman than a buddy. She still has dates, but she seems ready to settle down; she even gets a steady man-friend for a while. Work is really at the center of her life, and not just her work friends; we hear about projects she's working on and programs she's producing.
Mary also moves out of her iconic and funky apartment for something bigger and more mainstream. The "M" is still on the wall, but otherwise, this new place has little in common with the house she shared with Rhoda and Phyllis. While all this makes sense dramatically, it's still a little poignant knowing that our girl has grown up and is moving on.
Moore is at the top of her game here, with razor-sharp comic timing and solid work in her dramatic scenes. It's also a strong but subtle physical performance, filled with small gestures and movements that help define the character.
Mary's not the only one going through changes. This season kicks off with the bittersweet "Edie Gets Married" -- Edie being Lou's ex-wife, thus shooting down his hopes for a reconciliation. One of the strongest episodes, this is an excellent showcase for Asner; it also features a deliriously silly running gag about "Knock Knock" jokes with a genuinely clever payoff. Asner consistently shines this season, particularly in a pair of episodes with Eileen Heckart (The Bad Seed) as Mary's globetrotting journalist Aunt Flo. He's also the center of another of this season's episodes about time marching on: "The Seminar," in which Mary and Lou go to a conference in DC, where Lou's efforts to show that he's still a "connected" guy fail at every turn -- or do they?
While Ted Baxter goes through some enormous life changes -- finally marrying Georgette, becoming a father, and in "Ted's Moment of Glory," finding himself in the running for a high-profile job that would get him out of Minneapolis -- his character stays pretty much the same. Thanks to Knight's dead-on performance, this works just fine, and the anchorman as foolish consistency remains funny and fresh.
Murray remains the least developed of the main players, but this season, his storylines reflect a man who's not as content with his life as he seems. In the strange "Murray in Love," the married father of four decides he's in love with Mary and owes it to himself to tell her; in "What Do You Want to Do When You Produce?," he quits his job as news writer to take a brutal and degrading position as producer for Sue Ann's "Happy Homemaker" show.
Speaking of Sue Ann, it must be noted that Betty White's pre-Martha Stewart TV domestic send up is one of the most audacious creations in sitcom history. White steals virtually every scene she's in and gets to show another of her character's sides in "Sue Ann Falls in Love."
In addition to those already mentioned, standout episodes include "Once I Had a Secret Love," which recounts the horrible aftermath of a drunken evening Lou spends with Sue Ann; "Murray Takes a Stand," in which the harried writer is finally pushed to the edge by the new owner of the station; and perhaps the most famous episode, "Chuckles Bites the Dust," in which the WJM gang tries to cope with the death of Chuckles the Clown, who was attacked by an elephant during a circus parade ("Born in a trunk, died in a trunk," observes Murray).
Fox didn't do a whole lot on this set. The shows are in reasonable shape, with a few nicks and scratches but nothing distracting. Audio is the original mono, and it's fine. We do get subtitles -- English and Spanish -- but there are no extras on this set at all, which is disappointing. The show picked up five Emmy awards for its sixth season -- Moore, Knight, and White won for acting, the show won as best comedy, and David Lloyd won for writing the classic "Chuckles Bites the Dust." You'd think maybe they could have included the Emmy speeches, or maybe a commentary on the much lauded "Chuckles" episode, which TV Guide at one time ranked as number one in its list of "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time."
Looking back, we now know that not only were the characters growing and going through changes, but so were the real-life people behind the scenes. It was during this season that Moore started looking toward bringing the show to an end. A veteran of The Dick van Dyke Show, another successful, high-quality sitcom that had bowed out while still on top, Moore was acutely aware of the value of not overstaying your welcome.
The hallmark of The Mary Tyler Moore Show wasn't that it re-invented the sitcom, but that it refined it. In a landscape of comedies that were candy pop or bombast, this was smooth jazz, acted to perfection by one of the finest ensembles ever put together for a TV comedy.
But in the Sixth Season, some of the sitcom conventions that the show had always managed to subvert start to rear their heads. In "Mary's Father," Mary gets involved with a priest (Ed Flanders, St. Elsewhere), with predictable and not very funny results. When "Mary Moves Out" and into her new apartment, the writers threaten us with loveable sitcom types like The Horny Guy From Down the Hall and The Irascible Landlord; fortunately, these two only appear in this episode, but we do get slightly out-of-place recurring roles from Penny Marshall and Mary Kay Place as Mary's new neighbors.
Having mid-30's Mary finally get a boyfriend is a logical step for the character, but it's not handled very well here. Moore has little chemistry with Ted Bessell (That Girl), who plays Joe, the guy with whom "Mary Richards Falls in Love." Unfortunately, this episode plays as standard-issue sitcom, down to the Special Guest Appearance by Valerie Harper reprising her role as Rhoda, who gives Mary advice by phone. On top of that, the writers give Joe a flaw that by rights should have sent Mary fleeing for the exit; in what I'm guessing is a sign of the new mature Miss Richards, Mary overlooks what should be a deal-breaker and keeps seeing the guy -- well, for one more episode, at any rate, after which, in standard sitcom form, he's never mentioned again.
Happily, "Chuckles Bites the Dust" still holds up pretty well some 35 years later, but it's best if you take it on its own terms rather than looking for it to be The Funniest Sitcom Episode of All Time, or whatever its reputation has morphed into.
Any season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is cause for celebration, and this one's no exception. Lots of laughs, but lots of angst and pathos underneath those laughs. Hopefully, Fox will get us the seminal final season soon, complete with a few supplements worthy of this classic series.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 624 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Not Rated