One cold day in 1970, Mary Richards drove her white Ford Mustang to Minneapolis looking for a new life. She was 30, unmarried, and from the small town of Roseburg, Minn., four hours away. She found an apartment with a view of the downtown skyline, a job as associate producer of the news show on WJM-TV, and a circle of friends and colleagues who became her family.
The central character of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which premiered 40 years ago this fall and ran for seven years on CBS, is one of Minnesota's most enduring connections to popular culture.
Which might seem odd. Roseburg and WJM were fictional. The choice of setting appeared random: Seattle had been considered, but co-creator James L. Brooks liked the snow in Minneapolis, which justified interior settings. WCCO cameraman Bob Hernandez shot local exteriors, but the actors working in Studio City kept California tans through the winter. When TV Land dedicated a Mary statue on Nicollet Mall in 2002, many Twin Citians balked.
But now that Mary Richards belongs to the online ether, tossing her knit tam like a graduate over and over for eternity, can we at least admit there are worse myths to have at our center? Minnesotans enjoy sharing in Mary -- and not just in a jokey, Paul Bunyan way -- because maybe she has something to tell us about ourselves after all.
She embodies, for one thing, the idea of making Minneapolis better by moving here. Unlike sitcom everymen going back to '40s radio, Mary wasn't just a bumbler seeking the good life. She was a striver who humanized the people around her. Mary Tyler Moore the actress had roots in Brooklyn and Hollywood, but her character was like a model of assertiveness for stereotypical Minnesotans: Caught between doing right by herself and doing right by others, she sputtered along her moral axis, eventually mustering the nerve to trust her own loving, open nature. If she knew she could turn the world on with her smile, that only made the balance tougher. (Nobody let down so many bad dates as gently or humorously.)
That kind of caring was new to TV, and showed how much the '60s had changed things. After the first episode, where Mary breaks things off for good with a fickle fiancé ("Take care of yourself," he says; "I think I just did," she replies), the Sonny Curtis theme song became about the rejection of automatic marriage. You could locate the future of insult comedy in the spats around Mary, but the heart of the show's humor lay in not wanting to offend. Ed Asner's Lou Grant, Mary's abrupt boss, was funniest withholding rage behind a demented smile, usually over Ted Knight's vain anchor, Ted Baxter. This was the comedy of kindness that writer Lorenzo Music, who had grown up in Duluth, later took with him to "The Bob Newhart Show."
There was also the acknowledgement of Minnesotans not fitting the stereotype: Gavin MacLeod's warmly bitchy Murray, conceived and played as gay, but with a wife and kids written in, and Valerie Harper's Rhoda, a lovely gas face to network brass warning against too much Jewishness. Others played straight men to white awkwardness, as when Mary and Rhoda encountered a waiter who quipped that he was the only Mexican in Minneapolis. When Cloris Leachman's Phyllis meets John Amos' weatherman Gordy and says, "I'd love you to come over for dinner so we can really get to know each other, I mean as human beings," it was a subtle dig at liberal racism.
But you already know Mary changed television, or was changed herself as female writers on the show embraced the women's movement. In the end, WJM's staff was fired except Baxter, and Mary left the office a principled journalist living in the Riverside Plaza high-rise on the West Bank (instead of Kenwood impersonating the North Side). She had joined the skyline.