Spinoff Stories -- The Cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show Branch Out With Mixed Results (Article II)

Written Examining History by Bridger Cunningham

A quintessential, positive representation of modern women in the 70's, The Mary Tyler Moore Show stands as one of the leading icons of the 70's.    Article II of the Sitcom Spinoff series explores the three spinoffs franchised from one of the decade's leading showcases which dominated Saturday nights.  One spinoff outperformed MTM, another started strong then collapsed its 2nd season, and the third washed down the laughs for a durable hour-long drama.

The Original Hit Machine -- The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77)

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Unlike the crass, direct approach of Saturday counterpart All in the Family (and its proliferation of topical spinoffs), the Mary Tyler Moore show took a homespun, heartfelt approach to topical issues, all the while showcasing the glamour and grit of being a modern woman with its perks, pitfalls and stereotypes.  MTM focused on Mary Richards, a 30-year old starting over in Minneapolis on the heels of a broken engagement.  Initially applying for an occupied secretarial job at WJM News, fate pushes her into a plum position as the producer of the Six O'Clock News.  The cast was well developed with several male counterparts at WJM, as well as Mary's landlord Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) and upstairs neighbor/best friend Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper).  While it was a topical show, playing into the era of relevance, the delivery was kinder than the All in the Family franchise.  Birth control pills, intimate relations and addiction were handled with grace and a woman's touch, inspiring a new generation of women with a polished role model.

The First Spinoff -- Rhoda (1974-78)



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A Top-20 juggernaut for its entire run, CBS opted to branch out Mary Tyler Moore and create its next franchises between 1974-77, one character at a time.  The first to siphon from the flagship was Rhoda Morgenstern, who initially traveled for a vacation to New York City to visit her sister, Brenda (Julie Kavner of Marge Simpson fame).  Upon visiting, she meets and falls in love with divorcee, Joe Gerard (David Groh).  Episode 6 of the first season features a marriage proposal, and episode 8 culminates in a wedding.  A fast acceleration indeed, as this culminated in Season 3's opening episode featuring a subsequent split.  This season featured Groh making 9 appearances as Joe and Rhoda attempted counselling to salvage their fractured marriage.



Season 4 drastically changed the tone, as Groh has exited and Rhoda was now a thirtysomething divorcee exploring dating life.  The laughs were lost after season 2, and the series dropped out of the top 10, crashing in 32nd place for the 1976-77 season.  After the series veered toward a lighter tone, it inched back to 25th Place.  The 1978-79 season, however, experienced a steep collapseto 43rd place, and CBS pulled the plug in December after 5 seasons.

The Second Spinoff -- Phyllis (1975-77)


Image result for cloris leachman phyllisInspired by the success of Rhoda, CBS went for broke and branched out scene-stealing Cloris Leachman as recently widowed Phyllis Lindstrom.  After her late husband Lars leaves her penniless, Phyllis is forced to move in with her mother-in-law Audrey Dexter (Jane Rose) in San Francisco, along with her daughter Bess (Lisa Gerritsen).  The first season's plum scheduling between Rhoda and All in the Family resulted in the series taking 6th Place for the 1975-76 season.  The next season, however experienced timeslot, production and premise setbacks.  Rose took ill in the winter of 1977, and the show faltered in its new Sunday timeslot.  This same season, CBS lost its coveted 1st place ranking after 21 consecutive years, and the network scrapped Phyllis as it consistently hemorrhaged in the Nielsens.

The Third Spinoff -- Lou Grant (1977-82)

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After MTM ended in Spring 1977, Ed Asner took his gruff character, Lou Grant, into a dramatic direction as the title character relocated to Los Angeles as the editor of the fictitious Los Angeles Tribune.  The continuation series managed to find a niche as serious material was always welcome in the hour-long drama format.  The tone changed as the series followed Procedural profiling of stories, the drama of its participants as well as the reporters' struggles to convey the stories.  A consistent ratings winner, the series was abruptly cancelled in 1982 due to Ed Asner's political controversies.  He served two terms as president of the Screen Actor's Guild and opposed the US' political position on Central America, working closely with Medical Aid for El Salvador.  The headlines and controversy surrounding his stance are attributed to the show's demise.

Tie-ins to The Parent Series

Rhoda featured a plethora of tie-ins to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, while Phyllis only featured two episodes, as well as Leachman returning for the MTM series finale.  And Lou Grant featured zero tie-ins from the parent series' cast with few mentions.

Why These Spinoffs Succeeded and Failed

All sitcom spawns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted during the zenith of social relevance and issues tackled in the show's subject matter.  The tide changed in 1976, however, as not only did CBS collapse, but fantasy and lighthearted tones on ABC triumphed.  Socially relevant shows such as Maude experienced the same collapse, as viewers chose not to be depressed by CBS' heavy social conscience vs. a nostalgic craze on ABC's Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, as well as titillating, suggestive thrills on ABC's Charlie's Angels and Three's Company.  Perhaps Rhoda and Phyllis debuted all too late and fell victim to the burnoff.

Lou Grant managed success as it was a declared drama, a slate which never went out of fashion as television changed eras.  The heavy material was appropriate for hour-long dramas, which is why it continued strong until early 1982.  Had Asner's political stance not wrangled headlines, Lou Grant could have been more seasons to its lengthy order.  It managed to cross the syndication line like Rhoda and never deviated in tone.  These shows helped landmark a franchise which spanned from 1970-82, a success story indeed.

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