Within five minutes of learning Mary Tyler Moore had died, my phone lit up with texts from my friends.
“Are you okay?”
“How are you holding up?”
“I AM SO SORRY.”
I joked on Facebook that those who loved me had sent their condolences, and those who hadn’t would be haunted by me after I passed (roughly 300 years from now). That’s because Mary Tyler Moore was like family. She was that honorary aunt who swooped in once a week—on Friday nights via WTN back in the 1990s—and hung out with me and my mum, teaching me that fulfillment was defined by whatever you decided. Her character was a 30-year-old unmarried associate producer for an evening news broadcast, and her seven season arc saw promotions, professional endings, the best types of friendships and more than enough romantic mediocrity for the lot of us.
When we meet her in the pilot, Mary Richards is starting anew. She’s just moved to Minneapolis, landed a job at WJM-TV and locked down a dream apartment while parlaying a rivalry with her upstairs neighbour (Rhoda, another queen, played by Valerie Harper) into one of the greatest friendships pop culture has known. She also kicks her ex-fiance to the curb: when he shows up with second-hand flowers and barely a sentiment, she ends whatever set-up they had going by answering his “Take care of yourself” with a firm, “I think I just did.” So as promised in the series’ theme song, this spunky broad made clear she was going to make it after all—an especially serious feat for a show about a woman whose world wasn’t defined by her romantic identity.
Because lest we forget that when MTM premiered in 1970, the TV Guide listings weren’t brimming with shows about women unbothered by their lack of marital status. And if you read Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted—a terrific history of the show written by Jennifer Armstrong—you’ll know that MTM wasn’t exactly warmly welcomed upon its debut. But like Mary Richards, the series kept at it, going on to tackle everything from sexism to racism to homophobia to divorce (and more) as ratings and critical acclaim climbed.
Which added to the series’ strength and complexity. Especially because if those issues weren’t addressed directly through the experiences of its heroine, they were by her supporting cast. Who, by extension, were also like family—flawed, interesting, messy family who you could actually imagine working with and surrounding yourself by, even if they sometimes made you want to scream into the night. (Ted.) (And Phyllis.) (And sometimes Sue Ann Nivens.)
Because that’s what the best TV shows do: outside of transporting you to different, more interesting worlds, they make you want to do better on your own. In the case of Mary, she made me—whether watching as an eight-year-old or as a grown-ass woman now—want to work hard, forge real friendships and to embrace my ambition, my career, and above all: spunk.
Which is probably why whenever I’m feeling stressed out or sad I still curl up in front of re-runs. I know life is more complicated than a sitcom set in a newsroom, but Mary Tyler Moore did such a beautiful job of making you genuinely believe that you’ll be fine if you just keep going. That, provided you show up and do the work, you’re going to make it after all.
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