I quit my job on a Wednesday afternoon. By the time Wednesday evening rolled around, the first of several anxiety-induced crying jags already out of the way — how could I have quit without another job lined up? Was I sure I hadn’t overreacted? — I was seated directly in front of my tiny television with the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show blaring at top volume. My future was uncertain, and I didn’t yet have a game plan, but for the next 23 minutes, I would watch Mary Richards arrive in Minneapolis with a similarly precarious situation and somehow make do. After it was over, I would feel calmer, less off-kilter. Of course, that had been the plan all along. When I find myself adrift, unfocused, spiraling, a dose of Mary is the only surefire coping mechanism I’ve got.
My mother was a fan of MTM when it first aired, and as a child, I’d watch along with her as she recalled her favorite episodes. At the time, she was new to the United States, living in a cramped Prospect Heights apartment with her parents and five younger siblings. She wanted to live on her own, but a large portion of her paychecks was required to keep the household afloat. Mary Richards represented a kind of independence she hadn’t quite grasped yet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I returned to the show not long after I moved out of my mother’s house. I rewatched the entire series, drinking in the styling and décor, laughing out loud at the writing, marveling at how modern it still felt. I saw myself in Mary’s plucky determination to do well, in her friend Rhoda’s inability to see herself as more than a perpetual second-stringer.
Arguably the most iconic visual takes places within the final moments of the opening theme: Mary, gleefully taking in the sights along Nicollet Mall, grins broadly, twirls around, and tosses her knit beret high above her head, a freeze frame pausing the hat in mid-air before it comes tumbling back down to earth. However, the show is hardly as giddy as the opening might suggest. The sitcom’s original proposal, as written by creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, described it as such: “This series will … be comedically populated. But it is clearly about one person living in and coping with the world of the 1970s … tough enough in itself … even tougher when you’re 30, single, and female.”
The pilot episode introduces Mary Richards as a jobless apartment seeker, still on the mend from a bad breakup, making a fresh start in Minneapolis and off to a rocky beginning. Phyllis, an old friend, is hoping that Mary will love the apartment upstairs from her — and to move the proceedings along, she has already signed Mary’s name to the lease. Rhoda, the upstairs neighbor, is under the impression that the apartment is hers, and she’s willing to yell, lie, and pick the locks in order to get it. In the same episode, Mary is interrogated and barked at by her new boss at a job where she’s underpaid, ignored, and leered at on her first day. She tries to stand up for herself at one point, telling Rhoda, “If you push me, then I might have to push back — hard.”
“Come on,” her soon-to-be best friend replies, laughing in her face. “You can’t carry that off.”
“I know,” Mary admits, rolling her eyes and admitting defeat.
The producers had to swim upstream in order to get CBS executives to sign off on the show the way they envisioned it. Once they received the go-ahead from the network, they doubled down on their commitment to authenticity by hiring female writers like Treva Silverman to tell women’s stories. The characters they collaborated on emerged fully formed on-screen, three-dimensional and true to life.