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Rotten, but Lucky

On why I turn to a fictional Minneapolis career woman and her friends each and every time life gets me down.

Why I Turn to The Mary Tyler Moore Show When Life Gets Me Down
Gif by Claire Merchlinsky

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.

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Mary is a pushover, yes, but she does have her limits. Rhoda is brash and self-deprecating, her insecurities simmering just beneath every dig she makes at her own expense. Phyllis is whip-smart and driven, though marriage and motherhood prove to be limited outlets for her talents. Meanwhile, the show’s episodes placed these characters in situations that tested their mettle without pushing the bounds of believability: getting roped into standing up in a wedding for a woman you hardly know, crossing the picket line when your coworkers were on strike, bringing a recovering gambling addict back from the edge.

By the end of the pilot episode, Mary’s ex has turned up on her doorstep, unwilling to discuss their relationship but not exactly opposed to a quick hook-up. Mary realizes that it’s really, truly over between them, and, choking back tears, she reminds herself that it’s for the best: “You know, I’m really lucky? I am so lucky,” she tells her Mr. Grant, her boss, who’s just stopped by the apartment.

Mr. Grant assumes that she’s glad to have kicked her boyfriend to the curb. “You feel good now, huh?”

“Yeah,” she says, nodding and smiling, before shaking her head emphatically, giving in to the truth. “No, I feel rotten. But lucky!”

***

Many episodes end like this, without a happy ending so much as the narrative equivalent of a shrug and sigh. In Mary’s world, much like mine, a bad day quite often turns into a bad week (see: season three, episode 23, “Put On a Happy Face,” which begins with a coffee stain and ends with Mary, sick and rumpled with a sprained foot, the result of a “lousy streak”). Friendships are tested, and sometimes their wear and tear doesn’t dissolve with a well-intentioned apology, as seen when one of Rhoda’s beaus makes a play for Mary in season one. You can attempt something to the best of your ability and fall flat on your face — publicly. You can get jerked around and screwed over by someone, and there will be no comeuppance. Sometimes you feel rotten, even when you know you’re incredibly lucky.

As my affinity for Mary grew, I began incorporating as much of it as I could into my own life. I now have a golden R, like Mary’s golden M, in my living room; an “etc.” sign like Rhoda’s hanging in my kitchen. One of my favorite Christmas gifts ever is a customized rubber hand stamp: my name rendered in Peignot, the font that accompanies Mary’s name in the opening credits. I surround myself with Mary Tyler Moore Show ephemera the way some people rely on healing crystals. The show has a timelessness to it, a buoyancy that’s withstood more than two decades of repeated viewings, but I’ve also leaned on it for comfort when I need it most — depressive episodes when I’m unable to get out of bed, paralyzing spells of anxiety. I keep it in heavy rotation as a constant and much-needed reminder that, in spite of everything, I might just make it after all.

Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who’s 60 percent Rhoda Morgenstern, 40 percent Mary Richards.