For a kid raised on a TV diet of The Brady Bunch and The Flintstones, Mary Tyler Moore's smart, vulnerable, complicated – and ultimately iconic – Mary Richards was a revelation. Here at the centre of a TV show everyone was watching – young, aspiring-journalist me included – was a woman in her 30s who was not a wife and mother, but a career woman; and what a career at that – an associate producer in a TV newsroom.
At the same time, Mary Richards felt real in a way many other women who had glamorous TV jobs did not. She was completely relatable: Her life was not one of important breaking news stories by day and glamorous events by night. Mary produced items for a dufus of a newscaster and a bear of a boss. She put up with obnoxious TV station colleagues and creepy dates. Smarter than most of her colleagues, funny, lively and – not that it seemed to matter – gorgeous, Mary nonetheless encountered constant career and love-life struggles. Yet we always knew she was gonna make it after all.
Mary Richards was not Mary Tyler Moore, but the distinction didn't matter much to those watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Richards was the heart of the eponymous show in every way. You couldn't take your eyes off her as she put up with her self-centred landlord Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), her man-crazy colleague Sue Ann (Betty White), Ted Baxter's sweet space-cadet wife Georgette (Georgia Engel) and bitter newsroom podmate Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod). Her gruff boss was tough to please. "You've got spunk," Lou Grant (Ed Asner) famously tells her in the series premiere. "I hate spunk." And yet Mary becomes the centre of his newsroom – charming her skeptical boss and turning the world on with her smile.
God we loved her as she fought for pay equity, palled around with Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) – Rhoda's flashy ethnicity a foil for Mary's middle American WASPiness – laughed through Chuckles the Clown's funeral, tossed her hat into the air, nailed her beloved "M" to the wall of her new high-rise apartment after she moved out of her studio bachelor pad with the pull-out couch. (I made my own "M" in Grade 7 shop class and felt very important as I tacked it up on the wall of my own first apartment when I got my first full-time radio newsroom job.)
Moore was already a familiar face when the show premiered – she had played Laura Petrie, the wife – on the The Dick Van Dyke Show. And she was a fine actress: She was unrecognizable as the cold, grieving mother in Ordinary People, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. But it was as Mary Richards – a smart woman focused on her career rather than finding a husband – that she made the most impact, both as a feminist role model and a model for future screen icons.
You can't oversell the influence of the multiple Emmy Award-winning series, which ran for seven seasons; you could write a thesis on the way it has infiltrated pop culture. In addition to the show's many spinoffs (Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou Grant), and the long list of shows Moore's production company went on to create (including The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues and WKRP in Cincinnati), Mary Richards in one way or another was godmother to so many women we have since watched on TV or in movies.
Holly Hunter's brainy neurotic Jane Craig in Broadcast News (written and directed by James L. Brooks, co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) comes immediately to mind as does Tina Fey's Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) on Sex and the City and Girls, respectively, are also descendants of Mary's – especially in the importance of the girlfriends in their lives. And certainly Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy in Anchorman owes much to Ted Baxter.
When the show's final episode aired in 1977, I experienced a new (and now wholly familiar) sensation: tears while watching TV. The scenes – including Mr. Grant's surprise use of the $800 in petty cash, flying in Rhoda and Phyllis for a surprise reunion with Mary – had me blubbering again at my desk on Wednesday after learning that Moore had died. The last scene, in particular.
"I just wanted you to know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with and not my family," Mary sniffs to the group in her sing-songy warble.
"And last night I thought, what is a family anyway? They're just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that's what you've done for me. Thank you for being my family."
Watching even as a 10-year-old, I understood that the tears flowing during that small-screen group hug were real.
Mary Richards did make it after all – not with a glam TV wedding or fictional promotion to network news star. When she left the WJM-TV newsroom for the last time, her future was uncertain. She was a career woman but unemployed, still single and still the sweetest girl we knew. And she was surrounded by her kooky colleagues – her family. And as they left, singing It's a Long Way to Tipperary, she was the one who remembered to do the responsible thing – she turned around, took one last sad-happy look, and turned out the lights.