Mary Tyler Moore, one of television’s true legends, died yesterday at the age of 80. She became a star as Laura Petrie, the beautiful, charming and occasionally hysterical wife of Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. But she became an icon for her self-titled sitcom as Mary Richards. And it’s in that role that I best remember her.
When you’re a child, you warm only slowly to the concept that your parents are people, too—people who may have interests that extend beyond feeding you and reading you bedtime stories. And from my earliest days, I knew my mom loved The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The program launched in 1970, the year after I was born. It took its final, tearful bow in 1977, just as we were saying goodbye to my hometown of Taos, N.M. In between, the show won 29 Emmys (a record then). And almost every Saturday night, my mom, dad and I would watch.
We didn’t watch very many shows together. My dad was a news and sports guy. My mom hardly watched anything but PBS, from what I remember. I tuned in to Sesame Street and The Electric Company. So those Saturday evenings were special for me, watching Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show. If I was especially good, they’d let me stay up late and watch The Carol Burnett Show too, my favorite. But if it hadn’t been for Mary Tyler Moore, we probably wouldn’t have been watching at all.
Even now, all those years later, I can sing the theme song from memory. I can see Moore tossing a slab of meat into a grocery cart with a roll of the eye, walk around a lake in her oh-so-’70s pantsuit, throw her hat into the air. The show is indelibly etched into my memory, attached to laughter and popcorn and snuggling between my mom and dad.
It’s interesting that in the wake of Moore’s death, so much has been made of her being television’s first feminist role model—a single working woman trying to make it on her own. And while that’s true, she was really more than that.
My mom was the salutatorian of her high school and earned a full-ride scholarship from Denver University, graduating with a degree in international relations. But she set aside whatever career ambitions she might’ve had to raise my sister and me: She was with us every day—reading books, playing games, teaching us crafts. She tells me she never regretted it.
Mary Richards and my mom made very different life choices. But that didn’t stop her from watching, and loving, the show.
Time, in naming it one of the “17 Shows that Changed TV,” said that Mary Tyler Moore was “liberated TV for adults.” And looking back, I’m sure the grown-up, Plugged In me would ding the show for some of its content. It was pretty edgy back in the day: Man-eating Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) peppered the dialog with a steady stream of double entendres, and the show itself dealt with ’70s-era sexual liberation and birth control.
At 5 or 6, I had no clue about any of that stuff. All I knew is that anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) was funny and dumb, that boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) was funny and grumpy, and that they—along with everyone else on the show—made my mom happy. They made my parents laugh. And I loved hearing my parents laugh. Even today, now that they’re in their early 70s, there’s still no better sound.
We at Plugged In talk a lot about how the media can influence us and shape our worlds, often in bad ways. But we shouldn’t forget that, when we find a bit of entertainment that we can share with the ones we love, entertainment can be the stuff of memory. It can pull us together, draw us closer.
When we’re children, the world can be a frightening place. Everything is so big, so mysterious. We long for safety, security, the sense that everything’s going to be just right.
When I was 5, I found that safe place between my parents on the couch, eating popcorn, watching Mary Tyler Moore and feeling my mom and dad laugh beside me, making me laugh, too.