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Mary Tyler Moore, Queen of the City

Her show—and the shows her production company created—helped define what American cities looked like on TV in the 1970s.

Here’s Mary, pulling into town, alone: The towers of early-’70s Minneapolis loom in the windshield of her new white Mustang. She’s 30 and single in the big city. The song begins:

How will you make it on your own?

As it must have for millions of Gen Xers yesterday, a big woodgrain Magnavox in my head flicked on when I heard that Mary Tyler Moore was dead; immediately, I saw the opening credits to her show. Winner of 29 Emmys over its seven-year run that spanned 1970 to 1977, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was in heavy syndication during the 1980s, when I caught a daily afternoon dose of Mary Richards, Mr. Grant, and the rest of the WJN-TV crew.

As many appreciators have observed, Mary Richards was a pioneering character in television: Originally conceived as a divorcée (CBS balked), she was a single, working woman at a time when nearly every adult female on network TV was a mom, a matronly aunt, or whatever these people on “Hee-Haw” were supposed to be. After Mary, a deluge of career girls followed, from “Murphy Brown” in the ‘80s to “30 Rock” and the “Girls” girls (they have jobs, right?). They all, correctly, owe Moore an enormous debt of gratitude.  

But MTM’s importance as a feminist cultural icon shouldn’t overshadow her other great achievement: Her role as a proto-yuppie laid the groundwork for the TV trope of the city as a stage for childless young pals. More broadly, her eponymous show—and the half-dozen equally influential programs produced by her production company, MTM Enterprises—helped define what American urban life on TV looked like in the 1970s and 1980s.

It all started with that opening credit sequence, a groovy collage of period filmmaking shtick, full of dramatic zooms, whip-pans, and freeze-frames. We see solitary Mary negotiating crowded streets, riding escalators and elevators, schlepping paper bags of groceries-for-one, gazing up at the skyscrapers of her new hometown. (As we learn in the pilot, she’s moved to Minneapolis after breaking up with her fiancé, Bill, the first of many feckless doofuses she must endure over the next seven seasons.) Shot on film and on location, that opening montage would change over the years (as did the theme song’s lyrics), but it retained its grainy, distinctively downtown funk: Mary, we understand, is getting shit done in the city.

Like many a young urban striver, Mary quickly assembles her tribe, including sharp-tongued neighbor Rhoda, one of those young creatives who’s been priced out of New York. She marches into a TV newsroom to get a secretarial job and walks out with an associate producer title and bunch of mostly male coworkers. She moves up and out: The bachelorette pad atop an adorable Victorian soon gives way to a brutalist apartment tower; flirty minidresses become shiny silver pantsuits. The decade marches on.

It wasn’t easy to celebrate city living in the ’70s, a time of spiraling crime, hollowing downtowns, and federal disinvestment; blackouts and blizzards and garbage strikes seemed to gnaw at the very fabric of American society. But Mary didn’t flee to the suburbs. Her signature spunk was inextricably tied with her identity as a city dweller, someone who needed the energy and aggravation that a city provides.

The shows that MTM produced shared that urban DNA: “The Bob Newhart Show” aired right after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” substituting a droll Chicago couple in a sleek lakefront high-rise. Later came “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “St. Elsewhere,” which are, respectively, the best workplace comedy, best cop show, and best medical drama ever made. (Fight me!) And they were all, in their ways, built upon the cities they depicted—flailing, failing places that were somehow worth fighting for. In some impossible-to-quantify way, Mary Tyler Moore kept the spirit of urban America flickering during a dark time.

The message, for those of us watching these intrepid urbanites from our suburban family rooms, was clear: The city might be a screwed-up place, but it is still where the action is. Mary Richards, hitting 30 and sensing time running out, felt that when she loaded up her Mustang and left her small town. The city called. And later, when the crime abated and the yuppies gentrified, many of those cities bounced back, refilling with young people who yearned for funky apartments and wacky coworkers of their own.

That story continues, despite all manner of new challenges. But, like the song says, we might just make it after all.

About the Author

  • David Dudley
    David Dudley is the interim editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.