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Thursday, October 22, 2009


One thing I remember vividly about my younger days is how Saturday night used to be dominated by the CBS comedy block. This unbeatable combo of two-fisted ratings busters was comprised of classic sitcoms such as "All in the Family", "The Jeffersons", "The Bob Newhart Show", and, of course, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Mary, who had enjoyed similar success as Rob Petrie's wife Laura on "The Dick Van Dyke Show", was now the top banana of her own popular series, which was still a top-rated show when she decided to quit while she was ahead at the end of year seven. The new 3-disc set from 20th-Century Fox, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON catches Mary in full stride and at the top of her game.

Hardly a clone of "I Love Lucy", yet not as bug-eyed goofy as "Seinfeld", "Mary Tyler Moore" is a prime example of 70s situation comedy in transiton. The show is still influenced by the typical sitcoms of the past, yet it's always reaching for a new sophistication and an intelligent yet increasingly off-kilter sense of humor. Thankfully, the 1974-75 season has none of the "very special episodes" and/or awkward lapses into total seriousness that marred a lot of that era's sitcoms in their attempt to be more relevant or substantial.

While "All in the Family" may have shown us Edith Bunker getting raped or Gloria losing her baby (which was okay for a more seriocomic type of show), Mary's biggest problems are fending off an amorous Ted Baxter in "An Affair to Forget", dealing with Mr. Grant as an unwelcome new neighbor in "Neighbors", or going it alone for the first time as producer of the TV news show where she works in "Mary Richards: Producer." And just when a situation appears to be lapsing into the overly dramatic, it's always punctured by a well-placed zinger that restores things to their irreverent norm.

Not having seen the show in quite awhile, I was reminded while viewing this collection of just how warm and funny it is. Mary's years of playing Laura Petrie alongside Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Morey Amsterdam, and Rose Marie paid off by teaching her impeccable comedic skills and timing. Strong but never unrealistically independent, her Mary Richards character is a real person who stands up for herself but often needs to lean on her friends for support. At times she's vulnerable and totally at a loss as situations overwhelm her, which we can all identify with. In fact, the more frantic, panic-stricken, and desperate Mary Richards becomes, the funnier she is.

You can't go wrong with this supporting cast, either. Ed Asner is perfect as Mary's gruff but lovable boss, Lou Grant, the executive producer of station WJM's low-rated news program where she works as a producer. A pre-"Love Boat" Gavin MacLeod is news writer Murray Slaughter, Mary's wisecracking cohort whose comic barbs are usually aimed at Ted Baxter. As the show's conceited but utterly incompetent anchorman, Ted Knight is this show's rich vein of comedy gold. His Ted Baxter is a brilliant comedy creation whose every word, gesture, and facial expression pays off in funny.

As Ted's preternaturally sweet but airheaded girlfriend Georgette, Georgia Engel compliments his character the way Simka completes Latka on "Taxi." Betty White, going against her happy homemaker image (which was funny at the time but lost on anyone these days who doesn't remember it), is also great as station WJM's cooking show host, Sue Ann Nivens, whose spic 'n' span surface hides the soul of a street walker. And on the homefront, Mary's flighty, materialistic neighbor Phyllis is played to perfection by the great Cloris Leachman. (Valerie Harper as former neighbor "Rhoda" was, by this time, trying to make a go of it on her own show.)

Another thing that this set reminded me of was how gorgeous Mary Tyler Moore was before she became a famous plastic-surgery casualty. Truly one of the cutest women ever to appear on network TV, she really could turn the world on with her smile. By the fifth season she wasn't flaunting it quite as much, but there's still the occasional scene where she pops into the frame wrapped in a towel or something similarly revealing.

In "You Try to be a Nice Guy", ex-hooker Sherry (Barbara Colby), who shared a cell with Mary in "Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?" and now has aspirations as a dress designer, comes up with a doozy of a custom design for our favorite news producer. Mary looks so arrestingly hot in this well-ventilated dress that it totally shut down my ability to watch the rest of the episode for several minutes. When Ted Baxter gets a load of her in this get-up he goes predictably out of his gourd, and I can't blame him.

Probably the most memorable thing that happens to Mary in this season is her landing in jail for refusing to name a news source ("Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?"), but even here the subject is treated lightly. The unseen Chuckles the Clown makes it through another year alive, so we still have his celebrated funeral to look forward to in a later season. Ted Baxter takes us to comedy heaven in several showcase episodes ("You Sometimes Hurt the One You Hate", "A Boy's Best Friend", "The System", "Marriage Minneapolis Style", "Ted Baxter's Famous Broadcasters' School"), Lou Grant gets the spotlight a few times ("Neighbors", "You Can't Lose 'em All", "Lou and That Woman"), and Murray takes center stage in "A Son for Murray" and "I Love a Piano." Sue Ann's shallow character is explored in more depth in "A New Sue Ann", "Not a Christmas Story", and "What are Friends For?" Cloris Leachman gets a chance to show her stuff as Phyllis in "Menage-a-Phyllis" and the hilarious "Phyllis Whips Inflation."

Some of the more notable guest stars in this season are John Saxon, Sheree North, Richard Masur, Rosanne Cash, Doris Roberts, David Huddleston, Noble Willingham, "The Love Boat" alums Fred Grandy and Bernie Kopell, Ron Rifkin, universally-reviled child actor Lee H. Montgomery, and two familiar faces from THE BOYS IN THE BAND, Leonard Frey and Laurence Luckinbill.

This 3-disc set is 1.33:1 full-frame with Dolby Digital English mono and is closed-captioned. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish. No episode guide or other extras. The show looks pretty much as good here as it did when first aired.

Once you settle into the rhythm and feel of this show, it becomes a source of highly-addictive fun. I watched all 24 episodes of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON in no time flat, and it left me wanting more. (Moore...get it? Totally unintentional pun, honest.)

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