You like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, right? You think it’s funny, and smart, and warm-hearted—one of the best examples of the 1970s sitcom? Sure. You like the performers? You think they’re experts at getting laughs? Uh-huh. Okay…so let’s switch things up and put them in jeopardy.
Let’s make things really dangerous for them. Let’s just go ahead…and try to kill the funny ladies of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
That’s right: bump them off. After all…don’t you get a little sick of how perfect that show and its characters are? Don’t you want to see everyone get mussed up a bit?
Ever since its original run I’ve been a huge fan of TMTMS, and I still find it impressively funny today…but because of that constant stream of fawning praise from critics and fans, creating a nauseating “saintly” glow around the show, I’m irrationally starting to dislike it when I happen upon it on MeTV (“Television for Corpses!”) or when I try to dig out one of my DVD season sets (the day that dolt Oprah started crying about how she was “Mary Richards”…blecch). So, I thought a solid dose of the salts might be to watch good ‘ol Mare, Rhoda, and Phyllis come this close to getting bumped off. And the only way to do that, is to pull up some vintage made-for-TV movies: 1973’s Dying Room Only, with Cloris Leachman; 1977’s Night Terror, with Valerie Harper; and 1997’s Payback, with Mary Tyler Moore (I would have preferred all classic 1970s MTVs here…but that would have left out Moore, who apparently was too good to get terrorized by a psycho during the Nixon, Ford and, god help me, Carter years).
Anyone who’s into 70s television will tell you that it was the golden age of made-for-TV movies. Some of those titles became cultural touchstones, garnering huge, huge ratings back when the American TV audience was far more unified under only three major networks. For example, The ABC Movie of the Week’s The Night Stalker with Darren McGavin broke all records for a MTV, earning an ungodly 54 share in 1972 (that means of all the TVs turned on that night in America…more than half were tuned to McGavin’s scary vampire outing).
And since TV and feature films at that time still maintained a “class ranking” distinction between each other—you’d never see A-listers like Newman, McQueen or Bronson on a MTV back in ’73…nor would you see Bob Denver or Jean Stapleton carrying a multi-million dollar Hollywood film—the most frequent players in these MTVs, aside from movie star has-beens like Susan Hayward or Bette Davis or Shelley Winters, were established television stars, such as TMTMS’s Valerie Harper, Mary Tyler Moore, and Cloris Leachman.
Contractual obligations to the studios and networks, down time during their series’ hiatuses, and a performer’s need to stretch all worked in favor of these cheap little movies being populated by familiar small screen faces. Audiences appreciated the change-ups, too; after welcoming these actors into their homes week after week, it was fun to see the same actors in a new setting, portraying a new character, in a short, self-contained movie format.