The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s most complex female stories were written by women
The Mary Tyler Moore Show quietly did more for women in TV than simply show a career woman perfectly capable of "making it on her own." Its star became a legend, ultimately launching her own production company not just fueled by the power of her comedic talents, but also by the iconic actress' eye for talent.
In a time where male-dominated writing rooms were the norm, with one toss of a hat, Mary Tyler Moore changed everything. She knew if her character was going to be written right, she was going to need an army of female writers who knew how to capture what it really was like to be a working woman. They knew the material because they lived it. They were simultaneously an inspiration for show storylines and also the brains behind the best female-centric stories the series produced.
From the very first moment that The Mary Tyler Moore Show creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns got the green light, one of the first calls they made was to now-veteran TV screenwriter Treva Silverman. Silverman had gotten her start writing the very first episode of The Entertainers, where she wrote for comedic giants like Carol Burnett and Bob Newhart. Silverman is just one of many exceptional female writers that The Mary Tyler Moore Show discovered, embraced and shone a spotlight on that, so they could become an inspiration for the female screenwriters who followed.
Here, we've gone through The Mary Tyler Moore Show's most complex female storylines to break down who wrote what and illuminate why Moore's insistence on hiring and uplifting a generation of female writers was perhaps the most prodigious part of her brilliant career.
"Today, I am a Ma'am" (1970)
Writer: Treva Silverman
"Today, I Am a Ma'am" finds Mary Richards flustered when a "kid" from the mailroom calls her "ma'am" one day at work. Naturally, she hashes this out with Rhoda, whose response is a knowing, "Your first time?" The episode is full of astute exchanges as Mary and Rhoda debate the virtues of remaining single while simultaneously arranging a haphazard double date that, of course, ends in hilarious Mary Tyler Moore Show fashion. This early episode (the second in the very first season) arguably wrote the thesis for the whole show.
This episode also marks Silverman's debut on the show. She went on to write 16 more episodes, some of which you'll find below. In interviews, Silverman has said she got much of her start in comedy writing working for Joan Rivers. Active as a screenwriter before and after The Mary Tyler Moore Show, her writing also bolstered shows like That Girl and The Monkees, in a TV writing career that spanned 30 years.
"Assistant Wanted, Female" (1970)
Writer: Treva Silverman
There's so much packed into this episode, the 10th in the first season. Right from the start, Silverman's got us dropping in for breakfast with Mary and Rhoda, and Rhoda's in the pitiable position of being on a new diet. The diet stereotype has been done to death, but in Silverman's hand, it's subtly shattered. The scene is deft and funny, showing an authentic moment as Rhoda successfully avoids the bacon, but then allows herself some toast... with butter... and does she smell jam?
But the premise of the episode is where Silverman's challenge lies: conveying the shift in power dynamic as Mary's landlord Phyllis becomes her assistant at WJM. The episode features this painfully funny fight between Mary and Phyllis once the latter proves not up to the task in the office, where Phyllis insists Mary is firing her because she didn't dress dowdy enough.
Cloris Leachman is pitch-perfect as Phyllis delivering the smug but stung line, "You know how touchy career girls get when you're married and they're not." Mary fires back, "What does your being married and mine not have to do with this?" The episode ends with the grace of committed friendship, with Phyllis and Mary sharing a laugh that comes from simply accepting each other's flaws. Another credit to the strengths Silverman brought to the show.
"A Friend in Deed" (1971)
Writer: Susan Silver
Here's another typical moment that The Mary Tyler Moore Show handled with care. In the first season, episode 22, a long-forgotten childhood friend asks Mary to be her maid of honor at her wedding. It features the delightful cringe of friends thrown back together — who happen to be in entirely different places in their lives. Writer Susan Silver introduces Rhoda in scenes to allow Mary quick dashes of her eyes and whispered pleas for help navigating the awkward reunion, and the result is a dance that never ever goes into mean girl territory and remains pungently sympathetic for all female characters involved.
In the end, childhood friend Twinks asks permission to have a different, closer friend step in as maid of honor in place of Mary. Mary happily complies. But the second Twinks makes it inside Mary's door, the husband-to-be in his car outside immediately begins honking. Twinks turns to Mary and says, "He gets so impatient when I've been gone even a short time." Then with a look that intonates so much, she adds, "Isn't that cute?"
This episode was Silver's first for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She wrote five episodes total, including the incredibly complex storyline of "What Is Mary Richards Really Like?" Silver also wrote for shows like Love, American Style, Maude, The Partridge Family, The Bob Newhart Show and Square Pegs.
In an interview with Milwaukee Mag last year, Silver said, "It was unlike every other show I worked on. They made a conscious decision to hire female writers because they wanted the show to reflect real women’s experiences. When I got my start, in 1971, there were about three other women in the business, period. By the end of the show, there were many, many more. Even today, women — of all ages — still tell me how much the show has influenced them."
"The Birds... and... um... Bess" (1971)
Writer: Treva Silverman
We also have Silverman to thank for this classic line from Phyllis about her relationship with Rhoda that came in the first episode of the second season: "We really like each other, we really do, except as people….” But there's so much more to this episode than snickering.
The heart of the episode finds Phyllis, Mary and Rhoda contemplating the best way to explain "the meaning of being a woman" to young Bess. In the end, Phyllis asks Mary to be the one to give Bess "the talk," after an exceptionally incisive moment where Mary senses Phyllis is on the brink of becoming upset and says, "Don’t be embarrassed. If you want to cry, just go right ahead and cry.” But when prompted, Phyllis cannot muster a tear.
Perhaps the best laugh in the episode comes from little Bess. When it's finally time to talk to Mary, Bess explains that she's already heard all this from her girlfriends at school. It's fun to watch Mary's relief, after having just watched her go through the very same ritual of with her own girlfriends.
There's so much potential for a premise like this to be clumsy, but not in the hands of a competent writer like Silverman, who was so vital to The Mary Tyler Moore Show that James L. Brooks called her the second the show got picked up. In an interview, Silverman said Brooks told her on the call, "We just got picked up. Allan and I would like you to write as many episodes as you want.”
Writers: Jenna McMahon and Dick Clair
The writing team of Jenna McMahon and Dick Clair produced a deluge of extraordinary TV from the '70s to the '90s. Together, they created female-centric sitcoms like Mama's Family and helped co-create The Facts of Life. But the famous duo's TV debut was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show during its second season, as they were tapped to pen the episode "Feeb."
"Feeb" finds Mary, Lou Grant, Murray Slaughter and Ted Baxter out to lunch at a fancy restaurant, celebrating Ted's birthday. Unfortunately, their waitress is a disaster, and the service is so bad that Mary decides to complain to the manager. Her complaint gets the waitress fired, and Mary is positively consumed with guilt. It becomes so thick that against her better judgment, Mary hires the waitress as the new receptionist in her own office.
The scene that makes the episode so poignant is during the WJM job interview when Mary listens as the waitress clearly lies about her experience and work habits. It harkens back to Mary's interview in the series' first episode, only now Mary is in Lou's position, deciding whether or not to give the girl a chance. That theme would echo in the writing team's later work, as well in other episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show we'll get to later on this list.
"Rhoda the Beautiful" (1972)
Writer: Treva Silverman
“All my life, I’ve had this weight thing,” Rhoda tries to explain to Mary — and every girl watching who ever wanted to shed a pound or two. The issue in this episode is that Rhoda has lost about 20 pounds, and she's been invited to participate in a beauty contest at the department store where she works. Mary tries to pump up her best friend, forcing her in front of the mirror and saying, "Forget you’re Rhoda with all those put-downs about yourself and look at yourself like a stranger.” Rhoda makes a joke of course, and Mary groans, “always.”
For invested female viewers, it's impossible to think that Rhoda could've been written without writers like Treva Silverman given the freedom to write what she knows: women. You need no further proof than the precious ending of the uncharacteristic side we saw of one of TV history's brightest female characters in "Rhoda the Beautiful." When the episode concludes, Rhoda tells Mary and Phyllis that she lost the beauty contest, news that both women accept and do not question. But once Phyllis leaves, Rhoda lets Mary in on her secret: She won.
Friendship between women can be difficult to convey, because the intimacy of sharing secrets can't be crudely captured. Silverman has no issue fleshing out these moments to feel authentic to TV viewers, as Mary melts with joy for her friend, and Rhoda admits that she lied not out of humility but out of pride: She didn't want to be made fun of for her fleeting moment as a beauty queen.
"Remembrance of Things Past" (1973)
Writers: Jenna McMahon and Dick Clair
When the man who broke Mary's heart ("the famous Tom") suddenly resurfaces in her life, she immediately has to regroup with Rhoda, of course. The Mary Tyler Moore Show again turned to Jenna McMahon and Dick Clair (who wrote four episodes of the series) to handle this complex topic that tugs at the heart of anyone who ever wondered, "What if?"
The whole episode sees Mary fighting to urge to fall into old ways with someone whom he no longer trusts. She even finds herself using a weird voice when she's on the phone that she resents, asking Rhoda, "Why do I talk like that?" But the climax is surely the best part. It sees Mary exploding after we've watched scene after scene where she's crawling in her own skin while trying to pretend that she's not, just to seem cool for some guy.
The tipping point? Tom orders anchovies on their pizza. Mary hates anchovies. Can't he even remember that one little thing? As she releases all her pent-up frustrations with a literal stomp of her foot, viewers understood it wasn't the pizza, and that's to the credit of McMahon's hand in female-centric storylines that she crafted with Clair.
"Put on a Happy Face" (1973)
Writers: Marilyn Suzanne Miller and Monica Johnson
Now we must take a moment to gush about the way that The Mary Tyler Moore Show specifically worked to put female writers together for spectacular results. Case in point, the amazing writing team of Marilyn Suzanne Miller and Monica Johnson, who brought us one of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's most memorable episodes, "Put on a Happy Face."
The episode story goes like this: Mary finds herself dealing with a string of rotten luck on the day of the Television Editor "Teddy" Awards. She's got a cold, she twists her ankle, her hair will not cooperate; it's a very difficult day for Mary, and it's not made better when she wins an award. Mary wastes her acceptance speech explaining how she had planned to wear a cuter dress... and she must apologize for her hair. This has so much potential to skew Mary's character toward a cartoon, and instead we got to see what read as a genuine breakdown on the screen, a credit to the star, but also to this new writing pair.
The collaboration sprang from the suggestion of Johnson's brother Jerry Belson. He'd been having Johnson punch up his scripts and he told her she should team up with Miller, who is perhaps best remembered as one of only three original female writers for Saturday Night Live. Both writers had long careers after getting their start on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Fans should also note the pair was behind the brilliant Mary-Rhoda showdown episode "Best of Enemies."
"Love Blooms at Hemples" (1973)
Writers: Sybil Adelman and Barbara Gallagher
Stop us if this sounds familiar: Rhoda's got a huge crush on a guy at work. At first, she insists, "I'm not his type," because he's too handsome and too wealthy, despite the fact that they seemed to have hit it off. She begins inventing every possible reason why he wouldn't like her. Mary talks her off the cliff, and Rhoda begins dating the guy. That's when she flips the script and goes overboard, writing him a letter that basically declares her unending unspoken love for this guy she just started seeing.
The twist ending of this episode is absolutely perfect and something no one could've seen coming. The love letter that Mary insisted that Rhoda could not send to her new beau, Rhoda decides to send to her mother instead. The typically conflicted relationship that Rhoda has with her mother experiences a moment of peace as Rhoda tells Mar that the letter made her mom the happiest person in the world.
How is it that something so relatable and familiar feels so fresh on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Credit episode writers Sybil Adelman and Barbara Gallagher, who also both got their start thanks to the show. The writing team also wrote for Maude and Lily Tomlin's TV special, but they each enjoyed individual successes as well. Adelman continued as a screenwriter through the '90s, writing for diverse shows like Alice, Magnum, P.I., Growing Pains and Clarissa Explains It All. Gallagher famously went on to become an associate producer for Saturday Night Live, helping debut the show that's generated more than 800 episodes.
"A Girl Like Mary" (1974)
Writers: Ann Gibbs and Joel Kimmel
The fifth season episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show called "A Girl Like Mary" is positively cheeky. In it, Lou Grant decides he wants to hire a female newscaster to share the screen with Ted, and the type of girl he wants is "a girl like Mary." This prompts Mary to audition for the role herself, and hilarity ensues.
One of the episode's best running jokes pokes fun at what it means to have "a woman's point of view." Thank goodness for the writing team of Ann Gibbs and Joel Kimmel, who wrote together through the '70s, '80s and '90s on sitcoms like The Love Boat, Webster, The Facts of Life and Alice, and who handled the episode's touchy topic with so much skill. Yet again, The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted this writing duo on TV, and their work in this episode demonstrates exactly why they both evolved to become executive script consultants.
"A Girl Like Mary" is original, smart, sensitive and amusingly tongue-in-cheek. At the end of the episode, Mary loses out to a woman who impressed Lou with her response to Ted's prompt, "And now for a woman's point of view," by saying, "I would like to give you the woman’s point of view, but I’m having a problem trying to figure out exactly what the woman’s point of view is. I mean, do all women think alike?" When Mary finds out that's the reason she lost out, she offers an affecting response that's just got a dash of spite amid jealous respect for the new anchor, "It's a cute idea," Mary says of the woman's on-air retort. "Really cute."
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