Sunday, January 08, 2017

Be Careful What You Wish For

Karl (Eric Braeden): What you're watching at this very moment is a classic example of what's wrong with television in this town. It is the pursuit of personality at the expense of competence.

Ted (Ted Knight): I'm not sure I understand.

Karl: I'm sure you don't.

The episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show that first aired on this night 40 years ago, "The Critic," began innocuously enough — Mr. Grant (Ed Asner) was trying to put together a softball team to play WJM's crosstown rival.

But Mr. Grant and the rest of the staff had to leave the newsroom to attend the station manager's reception for Professor Karl Heller (Eric Braeden), a well–known critic who was going to be teaching some classes at the University of Minnesota. He also happened to be a friend of the station manager (David Ogden Stiers, in a pre–M*A*S*H recurring role), who had decided to hire him as an on–air critic at WJM one night a week.

The station manager said the news had become stale and predictable; he wanted controversy because controversy builds ratings.

As the staffers tried to make conversations with him, mentioning plays and movies that they had liked, it dawned on them that the professor was negative about everything.

Murray (Gavin MacLeod), for example, told the professor that he loved watching movies on TV. "That's where they belong," the professor replied.

"Come on, you must like some movies," Murray said.

"Well, at best, which it seldom is," the professor conceded, "a film can be powerful. There was one absolutely first–rate Ukrainian film at the last festival. It was called 'Blood On A Dog's Face.' It was about deformity. But somehow the subtitles missed all the whimsy."

When he left the professor, Murray walked over to Mr. Grant. "You want to know something?" Murray asked. "That guy's a pain in the neck."

"I have an even lower opinion of him," Mr. Grant replied.

In his first appearance on WJM, the professor pledged to spend the coming weeks evaluating the people of Minneapolis and trying to determine "why no first–rate art has ever been created in this vacant — but intellectually famished — arid and sterile city."

If the station manager wanted controversy, he got it. "That is the cruelest man I have ever seen," the perpetually amorous Sue Ann (Betty White) told her colleagues in the newsroom. "I think I am in love!"

The professor's commentary about Minneapolis had the phones ringing off their hooks. And it persuaded the station manager that one night a week wasn't enough. He wanted the critic to be on the air every night.

Things cut a little too close to the bone, though, when the professor turned his spotlight on WJM.

And he got told off by, of all people, normally timid Mary.

After she finished, Mr. Grant and Murray were about to throw some punches at the professor when he pointed out that they would not do so because he had stated an honest opinion, and people in the news business don't attack people for that.

Sue Ann came in carrying a pie. She was angry about what the professor had said about her show in his critique, but he used the same rationale to mollify her. "You're sensible, rational people," he said, "and sensible, rational people do not throw either pies or punches at someone's face for simply stating an honest opinion. Only a fool would vent his frustration in those ways."

At that moment, Ted walked into the newsroom and pushed Sue Ann's hand that was holding the pie into the professor's face.

It was unanimous.