Monday, March 19, 2012

When Mary Tyler Moore Left 'Em Laughing

"But now it's just another show.
You leave 'em laughing when you go.
And if you care, don't let them know.
Don't give yourself away."

Joni Mitchell

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the most consistently entertaining — and creative — sitcoms I ever saw.

And I have no doubt it would have gone on being funny beyond this day in 1977 — if the ensemble cast hadn't decided to pull the plug while the show was still riding high in the ratings.

So the episode that aired on this night 35 years ago was the finale. Everyone knew it. Everyone anticipated it.

And, for my money, it is one of the best TV series finales of all time — surpassed only by the surreal conclusion of Newhart.

(A lot of folks would mention the finale of M*A*S*H as one of the best of all time, and I would be inclined to agree — but that was a movie–length finale, and I'm thinking of final episodes that were the same length as any other episode in the series.)

The show, of course, was about the newsroom at a metropolitan TV station. The news anchor (Ted Knight) — the most visible member of the crew — was a blowhard whereas all the others (including hot–blooded Sue Ann, the Happy Homemaker) were, at least, competent.

The others had been putting up with Ted — occasionally rescuing his chestnuts from the fire throughout the series' run — but, at the end, the tables were turned.

A new owner had acquired the TV station, and he was looking for ways to economize — and he decided to keep Ted and let everyone else go. For those who had watched the show throughout its run, that was a delicious — and totally unexpected — turn of events.

Before the owner met with the staff to announce his decision, Ted made his newsroom colleagues promise to vocally support him if the owner decided to fire his anchorman.

When the situation was reversed, though, Ted put up a token protest but crumbled like a cookie when the owner said, "I wish you would reconsider."

Later, in the newsroom, a guilt–ridden Ted expressed surprise that his friends weren't angry with him.

Murray assured him there were no hard feelings. "When a donkey flies," he said in one of my all–time favorite MTM lines, "you don't blame him for not staying up there that long."

The second half of the show was pure tear–jerker, winning a well–deserved Emmy for the writers.

Everyone, it seemed, was coming back on stage for the show's final curtain call — even folks who hadn't been show regulars in years (Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper) were brought back for guest spots. The characters of Phyllis and Rhoda ostensibly returned to Minneapolis from their homes on the coasts at Lou Grant's request to cheer up the now jobless Mary.

That was tear–jerking enough, but it was nothing compared to the last scene, in which the WJM crew bade their heartfelt goodbyes to each other and participated in one long group embrace. That was followed by yet another classic Murray line: "Now for the hard part. How do we leave this room?"

Consistently in the Top 20 during its run, The Mary Tyler Moore Show dipped dramatically in the ratings in its last season, falling to 39th — respectable but a far cry from the cast's expectations.

That may well have been an indication that the show was losing its edge and its audience. But we'll never know. The cast decided to pull the plug, to leave 'em laughing and wanting more.

It's not hard to guess what most MTM fans were feeling as they watched the finale.

The WJM cast was like a family — to the viewers as well as to Mary. And it was sad for viewers to think that they wouldn't see these family members together in one place again.

It's probably the same feeling you had the night of your high school graduation. Or the night you watched Johnny Carson host The Tonight Show for the last time.

Or perhaps it's a feeling you've had in retrospect — on those occasions when you have thought of the last time you saw someone but you didn't know it would be the last time so things you wished you had said went unspoken.

I don't think much was left unspoken with the Mary Tyler Moore Show family. Not even at the end.