Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Night the Lights Went Out in Minneapolis

Mary Tyler Moore was notorious in her 1970s sitcom for throwing epically lousy parties. It was a running joke, the kind that all the successful sitcoms have — you know, like Debra Barone's awful cooking or Michael Stivic's insatiable appetite. Or Fibber McGee's closet.

The mere mention of one of Mary's parties would cause eyes to roll and excuses to be made. Each party was worse than the one before, and it wasn't really a matter of being spectacularly bad. The parties generally weren't too bad — until one thing went wrong in a spectacular, only–at–one–of–Mary's–parties way.

That was what happened in the episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show that aired 40 years ago tonight, "Mary's Big Party."

Mary almost always believed that her next party was going to be a game changer for her, and this time was no exception. She was convinced that this party would be the one to change her reputation. After this she was certain that people would want to attend her parties, not avoid them.

A guest at the party was going to be a congresswoman with whom Mary was acquainted. But the congresswoman would not be the main attraction. The congresswoman had a special guest coming into town to M.C. a charity event — Johnny Carson — and she asked Mary to have a small dinner for him so they could be spared the crush of admirers they were sure to encounter at a restaurant.

Mary wouldn't reveal the name of the special guest so everyone in the newsroom came to the party to find out who it was — even though most clearly expected another one of Mary's disastrous parties. When Mary told Mr. Grant (Ed Asner) that this would be a terrific party, he replied, "It better be. I gave up tickets to midget wrestling."

Finally Mary could contain herself no longer, and she spilled the beans. When she did, Mr. Grant conceded that it might be a "fair" party after all.

Mary was feeling triumphant and insisted it was going to be a great party — when the lights started to flicker, and then the apartment was plunged into darkness. The only lights that could be seen were a few lights from a distant building visible through the glass doors leading to Mary's balcony. Apparently the power was out over most of the city.

Mary had a flashlight, but the batteries were dead. And she had candles — somewhere. They were left with no alternative but to talk in the dark. Mary fretted that this would be her worst party ever.

"That's impossible," Mr. Grant said. "You'd really have to go a long way to top some of the bad parties you've had."

And that set up a series of flashbacks to the bad parties in Mary's past.

For Mr. Grant, Mary's worst party had been one that she had thrown with her friend Rhoda (Valerie Harper), and Mary set him up with a blind date who "turned out to be a little old lady."

Sue Ann (Betty White) remembered when the congresswoman attended another one of Mary's parties, and Sue Ann prepared a special veal dish for the occasion — but with just enough for each guest to have a single portion. Then Rhoda showed up with a date (Henry Winkler). He had been one of Rhoda's co–workers, but he had just been fired, and Rhoda couldn't let him be alone when he was feeling so vulnerable.

Feeding him would be a problem with only six portions of the veal and six people already at the party. Rhoda told Mary that her friend could have half of her portion. Problem solved — temporarily.

Then, when Mary was serving the veal, Mr. Grant took three portions — and Mary had to talk him into putting two portions back. Reluctantly he did so, explaining to the other guests that "I'm not as hungry as I thought I was."

Eventually Mary's special guests did show up. They had been stuck in the elevator when the power went out. They were only liberated after Johnny climbed through the trap door at the top.

Bear in mind that the stage was still cloaked in darkness. In that setting, Carson delivered one of the best deadpan lines I have ever heard: "Nice place you've got here."

Carson was never seen. I have heard that it was because he was under contract to NBC and could not be seen on the other two networks (the Mary Tyler Moore Show was on CBS). I don't know if that was true, but I do know it was a very entertaining episode, aired just two weeks before the series' grand finale.