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Mary Tyler Moore: Before Humbling Lou Grant, She Shattered the TV Mom
October 13, 2015  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

PBS’s hour-long tribute to Mary Tyler Moore Tuesday (Tues., Oct 12, 8 p.m. ET check local listings) mostly focuses on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I suppose it should.

Great show, great cast, centerpiece in a golden age of smart sitcoms. Moore’s Mary Richards and Ed Asner’s Lou Grant remain one of the best TV couples ever.

When you’re talking Mary Tyler Moore, however, there are those among us whose go-to image isn’t Mary Richards. It’s Laura Petrie.

Maybe it’s an old-guy thing, since you probably needed to be watching TV back in 1961-66, when Moore played Laura Petrie, wife of Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (top).

If you’re lucky enough to have been in the group, you will understand.

This new PBS show, simply called Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration, includes interviews with Moore (left), Asner, Van Dyke, Oprah Winfrey, Betty White and a cavalcade of others who have worked with her over the years.

Many of the interviewees, including Oprah, talk about the ground Mary Richards broke from 1970 to 1977 as a single working woman in her 30s.

Beyond the workplace comedy on which the show was built, Mary was navigating a world in which everyone had spoken or unspoken expectations for her. The challenge was that her life didn’t always conform to those expectations, so she had to carve out her own path, which real-life women had been quietly doing for years.

Add Moore’s brilliant comic timing plus first-rate writing, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show deserves every superlative this documentary and others lob at it.

But enough about Mary Richards. Let’s talk for a minute about the impact Laura Petrie could have on a teenage kid in the early 1960s.

Television since the mid-1950s had been swarming with traditional Moms, since almost all TV sitcom families were Standard American Nuclear, with Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids.

The Moms were, of course, played by actresses, so they didn’t completely reflect what your own Mom and your friends’ Moms looked like. Donna Reed from “The Donna Reed Show” or Jane Wyatt from “Father Knows Best” were hardly random women you’d see watching their 6-year-olds on the jungle gym at the local playground.

But given the parameters of television, they were still women you believed would head for the kitchen at 4:30 to ensure the pot roast and vegetables would be ready for hungry hubby at 6.

June Cleaver on “Leave It To Beaver.” Harriet Nelson on “Ozzie and Harriet.” They were the mold.

Then along came Laura Petrie.

She talked like a TV Mom. She sparred with an energetic young kid like a TV Mom. She understood and adored her quirky, lovable husband, just like all TV Moms.

And she shattered the TV Mom mold into a thousand shards.

Laura Petrie was like the TV Mom from Outer Space, and while it wasn’t possible to articulate exactly why, let’s face it: For a young teenage boy, it probably started with the Capri pants and just went on from there.

Laura just moved differently from, say, June Cleaver, maybe because Laura – and Moore herself, for that matter – had been a dancer.

She also looked glamorous, even when she wasn’t trying to. Maybe especially when she wasn’t trying to. No matter how totally the stories and dialogue focused on the routine matters that fuel good sitcoms, no matter how flustered a scene called for Laura to become, she still had that extra dimension.

You imagined that if you were friends with the Petrie son, Richie, you might play at his house and then later your conversation with one of your other friends would go like this:

You: I was over at Richie’s.

Friend: Did you see his Mom?

You: Yeah.

Adolescent hormones were definitely at work here, just as adult hormones were a beautifully inserted undercurrent in The Dick Van Dyke Show itself.

The “Never Bathe on Saturday” episode, where Laura gets her big toe caught in a hotel bathtub faucet, should be shown to every writer who thinks explicit sex jokes and visuals are more effective than evoking the imagination.

But Laura Petrie was way more than a forbidden fantasy, because she really did do all the TV Mom stuff. She got frustrated with Richie. She got tangled up in absurd situations with Rob. She could be a ditz.

Basically, Moore and Van Dyke – along with a uniformly superb cast – created wonderful comedy. If that weren’t true, no pair of Capri pants could have made us remember The Dick Van Dyke Show as fondly as we do.

The specific occasion for this PBS special, for the record, is the 45th anniversary of the debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

As milestones go, that’s not too far above marking the 45th anniversary of your first lawn ornament.

No matter. Any excuse to honor the 78-year-old Moore is a worthy excuse. And anything that summons the days of the Beatles, Ford Mustangs and Laura Petrie brings a burst of springtime to the golden days of autumn.

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L Tessler
Thanks David.... read you regularly at the NY Daily News ( where I once wrote to you, and also discovered David B.) and wish you best of luck here
Oct 14, 2015   |  Reply
David Hinckley
Thanks so much.... I'd be delighted to do something that would make you check me (us) out here.
David (H)
Oct 17, 2015
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