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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/28/02

The Mary Tyler Moore Show:
The Complete First Season

1970-71 (2002) - MTM Enterprises (20th Century Fox)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete First Season Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B-/A-

Specs and Features

Approx. 612 mins (24 episodes at 25 minutes each), NR, full-frame (1.33:1), 4 single-sided, dual-layered discs (3 discs with 8 episodes each and 1 disc with extras), fold-out digipack packaging with slip case, audio commentary track on Love is All Around (with co-creator Allan Burns, director Jay Sandrich and actor Edward Asner), audio commentary track on Support Your Local Mother (with Allan Burns and writer/producer David Davis), audio commentary track on 1040 or Fight (with David Davis and actor Paul Sand), The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show documentary, 6 CBS promo spots, All-Star Trivia Challenge, Emmy Award clips, still gallery, program-themed menu screens, scene access (10 chapters per episode), languages: English, French and Spanish (2.0 mono), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Have you ever noticed how casually the word "groundbreaking" is tossed around in descriptions of TV shows? For instance, M*A*S*H was "groundbreaking" in its mixture of comedy and drama. Friends was "groundbreaking" in its depiction of Gen-X adults. Manimal was "groundbreaking" in its depiction of humans who transform into panthers. With all this ground being broken, you'd think television today would be a mighty temple with artistic pinnacles everywhere you turned, instead of the vast desert with infrequent oases of quality it really is. One show that actually earned the right to be described this way is The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Culturally, the show was significant for its depiction of a single, 30-year-old working woman struggling to make it on her own, with no family, no husband/boyfriend/fiancé, no support system at all except for her friends. But as far as I'm concerned, the most groundbreaking aspect of the show is that it still holds up beautifully, even more than 30 years after its debut.

Pretty much everybody knows the sit- behind this particular sitcom by now. Having just dumped her arrogant doctor fiancé, Mary Richards starts a new life in Minneapolis. Her longtime friend Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) helps her find a tiny studio apartment in her building and, after a slightly rocky start, Mary becomes best friends with her upstairs neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Mary then lands a job as associate producer for the low-rated evening news at WJM-TV. Her co-workers include head writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), dim anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), and, of course, her irascible boss, Lou Grant (Edward Asner). And the rest is television history.

In the first year of her eponymous sitcom, Mary wasn't yet turning the world on with her smile. The lyrics to the now-familiar theme song were more tentative in year one, asking "How will you make it on your own?" Quite well, apparently, because nearly everything that made this show special is in place right from the first episode. Over the course of year one, we get to know Mary, Rhoda, Lou, Murray, Ted and Phyllis so well that the familial feeling of the holiday episode Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II doesn't seem rushed or artificial in the least. Even the worst episodes of this season (like the ill-conceived Howard's Girl, which strands Mary away from both Rhoda and the WJM newsroom for most of its running time) contain at least a couple good laughs. And when the show is firing on all cylinders, it simply can't be beat. In addition to Love is All Around (the first episode) and the Christmas episode, highlights in this set include:

Support Your Local Mother - Nancy Walker makes her first guest appearance as Rhoda's mom, Ida, whom Rhoda refuses to see when she comes for a visit.

Toulouse-Lautrec is One of My Favorite Artists - Two hilarious storylines in this episode. Mary dates a handsome writer who has everything, except for height. And Ted comes down with the flu, so Murray fills in as anchorman.

The Snow Must Go On - A blizzard cuts off phone lines at WJM on Election Night, forcing Ted to ad-lib for hours.

1040 or Fight - Mary is audited by the IRS, a tense situation made worse when the auditor starts to fall for her.

There are plenty of other gems in this collection, but you don't need me to summarize all the episodes here. Suffice it to say that The Mary Tyler Moore Show remains just as good as I'd remembered it being the first time around, maybe even better. I have my own reasons for being a fan. If you come from Minnesota, like Bill and I, I think it's kind of a prerequisite that you must at least somewhat enjoy Mary. But I watched this set with my wife, who does not come from the Gopher State and had never seen an episode of this before in her life and she was laughing just as hard as I was. At the end of the day, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is just damn funny. It deserves every ounce of praise that has ever been heaped at its feet.

Fox continues to lead the way in presenting TV on DVD with this box set. The episodes look surprisingly good for their age. There's some wear and tear on the picture and a huge amount of edge enhancement that does occasionally distract the eye. But the color appears sharp, flesh tones seem accurate, and the show's distinctive look, so unlike most other sitcoms even today, is well represented. It's a much better image than I expected to see and it certainly seems that the show was transferred to disc with care. Sonically, it's a mixed bag. At its best, the audio simply does its job and gets out of the way. At worst, there's a hollow, distant sound to dialogue, as if you're sitting in the very back row of a medium-sized theatre. It never degenerates to the point that you can't understand what's being said, though, and that's what's important here.

The big draw with this set is the extra features. Most of the sitcoms of the 70's to find their way to disc so far have done so without benefit of a single extra. The biggest bonus on Fox's M*A*S*H sets has been the ability to turn off the laugh track. So it's a real treat to find an entire fourth disc here devoted to extras. Chief among them is an extensive, 87-minute documentary on The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Produced by Danny Gold and Matthew Asner (son of Ed), the documentary interviews practically every surviving member of the MTM team (Ted Knight and writer Lorenzo Music have both passed away). Gold and Asner dig deep into the creative process, focusing on the development of the show and the team's difficulty in dealing with the CBS brass, who fully believed they had a real disaster on their hands. In fact, so much of the documentary is devoted to the events leading up to the premiere of the first episode that the rest of the season is given short shrift. Nevertheless, it's still one of the best making-of pieces I've seen devoted to a television show, with rare photos and footage used to break-up the visual monotony of the interviews. My only complaint with it would be the awful, mawkish music that plays practically throughout.

Commentary tracks are provided for three of the episodes here and the amount of dead air on a couple of them will make you grateful they're not on all of them. Still, there's some choice bits of information here, particularly on differences between television then and now. And if you've ever wondered about that kitten in the MTM logo, you'll learn all about the little scamp on the Support Your Local Mother track.

Rounding out the extras are a half-dozen CBS fall season promos, which are all pretty similar but kind of fun, and clips from the 1970-71 Emmy Awards, where the show took home 4 trophies. The All-Star Trivia Challenge is inconsequential but cute. And the photo gallery compiles TV Guide covers, publicity and behind-the-scenes photos, and an assortment of script pages, many of which were provided by Ed Asner, whom I now suspect never throws anything away. All in all, this is a very nice collection of extras. The Simpsons is the only other TV-DVD package I can think of that even comes close to this.

It's pretty rare for a TV show to gel so immediately out of the gate, so I wouldn't blame you if you were hesitant to pick this set up. But let me assure you, the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is great television comedy and Fox's presentation is TV done right on DVD. The show only gets better from here, with the addition of Betty White and Georgia Engel to the cast. And when it comes out, The Complete Sixth Season should already be on any TV fan's must-buy list, as it will include the all-time great episode, Chuckles Bites the Dust. But until then, catch up with America's favorite hat-tossing associate producer from the beginning. If you're already a fan, you'll break into a grin the first time you hear Lou Grant bellow, "Mary, come into my office!" If not, this might just win you over.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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