Monday, September 27, 2004

The MTM Kitten Meows Again

Randy Salas of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has a new article reporting that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the most notorious sales flop in the short history of TV shows on DVD, is finally on track for a season 2 release, though whether it'll have extras -- extensive extras were prepared, but that was before season 1 under-performed -- is another question.

Salas also included a chart of how various classic TV shows have sold on DVD; it turns out that the first season of MTM didn't really sell that badly -- 85,000 copies, which isn't that far out of the usual figure for the first season of an older TV series. The problem, I think, was that Fox had had a big hit with the first season of M*A*S*H, which has now sold 550,000 copies (that's just the first season alone), an extraordinary figure for a show from 1972, bigger than most current shows. I'm not a big M*A*S*H fan, but its continued popularity is extraordinary and impressive, and probably set impossible expectations for other "classics" from Fox. So Fox released Mary Tyler Moore with the copious extras and marketing that they would give to a current show, only to find that it sold at the levels of, well, an old show. Hopefully they've now figured out how to make these releases work, and hopefully this will lead to the rest of Mary Tyler Moore as well as the other series from the MTM library.

Truth be told, though, I'm less fond of Mary Tyler Moore and the other MTM sitcoms than I used to be. In the '70s, MTM became synonymous with the "quality" sitcom, shot on film, dealing with youngish or at least vaguely hip people (even Bob Newhart wore plaid pants, which were apparently supposed to make him look cool to a '70s audience), more sophisticated and less loud and brash and obvious than the videotaped Norman Lear sitcoms. When I was growing up, MTM sitcoms were everywhere in syndication and the Lear stuff was almost nowhere to be seen; I remember one cable station ran All in the Family sometime in the '80s and then pulled it, and everyone I knew seemed to feel that all the yelling and topical references made it seem very dated. But now it seems that All in the Family is much more popular in reruns than The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the Lear sitcoms have sold well on DVD, and more and more sitcom producers talk about All in the Family, not Mary Tyler Moore, as their ideal of a sitcom: politically incorect, bold, loud, tough.

Mary Tyler Moore still holds up for me, at least from the third season onward (once they added several key writers, including David Lloyd and Ed. Weinberger, the overall quality of the writing took a big step forward). But a lot of the MTM shows now seem to drown in their own sophistication; they're so determined to be the thinking person's sitcom that they eschew physical comedy, farce, suggestive humor, and basically everything except a stream of not-terribly-funny one-liners. The early seasons of The Bob Newhart Show strike me as not funny at all (once Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses took over as showrunners, it got funnier), and Rhoda is kind of a trainwreck with or without the pathetic Joe (who vies with Stanley from Golden Girls as Most Emasculated Sitcom Husband).

In my opinion MTM's finest achievement, at least in sitcoms, was WKRP in Cincinnati, a show that sort of fused the MTM style (sophisticated ensemble workplace humor) with the Lear style (videotape, socially-conscious humor). That show will probably never come out on DVD, but because of music issues; in terms of popularity, it's probably ahead of any of the other MTM sitcoms, and -- according to MTM's founder, Grant Tinker -- made more money in syndication than any of them. And yet WKRP, because it wasn't in the "pure" MTM style, was looked down on by others at MTM, starting with Mary Tyler Moore herself, who, asked about WKRP, replied "Let me put it this way: I wouldn't watch it." A huffy TV Guide article from 1978 basically accused MTM of selling out by producing the show, and the charge was more or less repeated in various articles and books on MTM, including one called MTM: Quality Television. But to a large extent the sitcoms that hold up well are not the ones that have the slightly stultifying reputation of "Quality" sitcoms; "Quality," at least as critics apply the term to sitcoms, often comes across as meaning doing without all the lowbrow, vaudevillian, silly stuff that makes sitcoms what they are. That's not true of all MTM shows, but it's certainly true of some of them.

Even The Dick Van Dyke Show, the stylistic father of MTM, has this problem sometimes, with the lesser episodes featuring a string of lukewarm one-liners hung on a slim "realistic" story, the sort of thing that makes you long to change the channel to a dopey but funny show like The Beverly Hillbillies. However, Dick Van Dyke holds up better than most of the MTM shows, in part because of its generous helping of physical comedy; Rhoda or Bob Newhart could have used a few pratfalls to liven up the setup-punchline monotony.

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