When I read this morning that Mary Tyler Moore had died, my first thought was not of the TV series bearing her name, but of Ordinary People (1980), the extraordinary debut feature film by Robert Redford about repressed middle-class white Americans who find displays of emotion difficult and expressions of love nearly impossible. In it, Moore gives the performance of a lifetime as Beth Jarrett, a beautiful, brittle, relentlessly positive Midwestern housewife who carries a not entirely healthy torch for her dead older son and who can’t forgive her younger son for still being alive. Donald Sutherland as her kind but unassertive husband, Timothy Hutton as the surviving son Conrad, and Judd Hirsch as Conrad’s shrink are also extraordinary.
I can manage happily without ever again seeing Moore as Mary Richards throw her hat slow-motion in the air to the strains of the relentlessly positive The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song. Not that I hated the show or thought ill of it. Quite the contrary. If I watched more TV and ranked it, it would score high. For TV, it was fairly close to life at times and a good place to start if you want a gentle introduction to 1970s America.
But it was TV – in the 1970s – and a “comedy” – so the characters are “survivors,” none of whom wind up in recovery or the mental hospital or jail, all of whom really love each other under the gruffness, whose darkest days are never that dark or last too long. And my viewing relationship with TV is an odd one. I look below the surface of the show to the writer’s well from whence it sprung, listen not to the actors’ words but to their subtext. In my distorted world, The Andy Griffith Show is about small-town loneliness. People in Mayberry are so lonely it aches. And – to my twisted mind – The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the saddest shows ever aired, every single one of whose characters is hanging on by their fingernails, unwilling to think too hard about anything, afraid to feel. Mary saddest of all.
And it is a small leap, really – barely a hop – from the almost real Mary Richards to the painfully real Beth Jarrett, hiding her hate and terror behind the makeup of normalcy, holding tight by her lacquered nails until they finally break – or her tortured son Conrad breaks them – and she can’t go on. Not one more step. Not in the company of her husband and surviving son, who have found their way to the real – and decided to live there – leaving Beth to run away, find others around whom she can pretend again, toss her hat in the air.