Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Revenge of the MTM Kitten

Finally, at last, The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete Second Season will be released on DVD this summer.

You may recall that the first season came out in Fall of 2002 in a beautifully-remastered, extras-heavy package that was just about perfect (except for a little snippet they cut out of one episode because of music-rights issues). And it tanked, at least by the standards that Fox had set for it; they'd spent a fortune producing it -- outsourcing the extras to a team headed by Ed Asner and his son, who did a great but not cheap job -- and the number of copies they sold just couldn't make back that kind of money. So the whole thing was put on hold until they could figure out a more effective way to market older shows on DVD.

At this point, two and a half years later, things will probably be better for shows like this; Paramount has had some success with releasing old shows like The Andy Griffith Show at low prices, without extras but with uncut, remastered prints, leading to good sales. Fox, which is releasing another MTM show, The Bob Newhart Show, in a very cheap bare-bones package, seems to be following the same strategy, and it's fine; when it comes to shows that aren't on anywhere and have 5-10 minutes cut out of them when they are shown anywhere, just having the uncut episodes is enough.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show improved quite a bit in its second season; the first season had quite a few boilerplate, formulaic, wide-eyed-gal-in-the-city episodes, but in season 2 they started giving the supporting characters -- the non-Mary characters, more to do, which was all to the good; some of the best episodes of the season revolve around supporting characters or guest characters (the Mexican waiter in the season's best episode, "He's No Heavy... He's My Brother").

In fact, I'd say that The Mary Tyler Moore Show got better the less it was about Mary. I'm not saying Mary Tyler Moore was the weak link in her own show, but unlike Dick Van Dyke, who had the versatility to play several roles combined into one (specifically, two roles: the head of the work family and the head of the suburban nuclear family), Moore didn't have a wide range as a performer and Mary didn't have a wide range as a character. And that meant that there were certain limitations in the kinds of stories the show could do with Mary, and much of what she couldn't do wound up being given to the supporting characters: Lou got the darker stuff, Ted the wackier stuff, even Phyllis stepped into the breach to do things that would have been out of character for Mary (like the episode where she helped Ted run for office). That doesn't make Moore a bad star, but it meant that Mary Tyler Moore, which was conceived as a star vehicle, worked better when it wasn't one: the other characters worked best not on the periphery of the star's stories, like Buddy and Sally, but basically starring in their own stories with Mary supporting them. And so what began as a star vehicle became one of the first true ensemble sitcoms, with a sort of rotating lineup of stars.

I think The Mary Tyler Moore Show really hit its stride in the third season, when they finally gave up the idea of doing Mary-centric stories every week and started giving more time to other characters. (The best season of all was season 4, when David Lloyd joined as a writer; he would become the show's star scriptwriter, wining an Emmy for "Chuckles Bites the Dust," and would later write many of the best episodes of "Taxi," "Cheers," "Frasier," and... uh... "Amen.") But let me tell you this: if season 2 doesn't sell, don't expect season 3 in another two-and-a-half years. So get season 2, and hope that Fox's new commitment to MTM shows (Remington Steele is also coming) means that there might be a "WKRP In Cincinnati" release somewhere down the road.

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