Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Book review: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

I'll check out just about any book-length treatment of 1970s and 1980s TV, but when this book came out in 2013, some negative reviews (particularly a few on Amazon) scared me away. I revisited this after we covered The Mary Tyler Moore Show earlier this season, though, and I recommend it for any fan of the series. It has its flaws and quirks, but it also has tons of great info and is a fun read.

First, let me mention those quirks: The book starts off reading like an agenda-driven effort to focus on the female writers who worked on the show. Oddly, that emphasis fades once the book gets going, and while Armstrong does keep checking in on some of the women who helped craft the series, it's not like they overshadow co-creators James L. Brooks and Allen Burns. Feminism is absolutely a big part of the series' story and appeal, but it feels like there is an inconsistent approach to it in the book, and MTM is maybe inflated a bit to seem like more of a singular advancement for women that it was.

More importantly, there are some strong factual errors, especially early in the book (a misidentification of Room 222 jarred me), that make you wonder about the rest of it. Some of the choices are a little odd, like the decision to tell so much of the story of a dedicated fan who grew to knew the show's principals but comes off kind of like a stalker.

That said, the book is really easy reading with lots of cool details. We've alluded to some of them here on the site, like the complex relationship between Ted Knight and Ed Asner. The saga of how MTM was cast makes a fascinating story in itself. Gavin MacLeod read for Lou Grant before asking, almost as an afterthought, to read for Murray. Asner himself struggled to get the Lou character down. Producers were skeptical of Cloris Leachman but casting exec Ethel Winant pushed for her.

Armstrong does a great job of chronicling the establishment of the series and how it takes off. Her sections on iconic episodes like the finale and the Chuckles the Clown funeral make me wish she spent more time talking about specific installments. The decision to semi-focus on the lives of some of the key female scribes may mean less time for more of the actual goings-on of the series during its prime years.

Overall, though, the anecdotes and info in here make this a must-read for MTM fans and a recommended one for fans of era TV in general, with the caveat that there are some inaccuracies and misleading bits in the text (see those Amazon reviews for more). I personally think Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted improves as it gets going, and I will likely seek out Armstrong's recent book on Seinfeld.

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