How 'The Mary Tyler More Show' Spanned Generations

This week, the world mourns the death of TV and film legend Mary Tyler Moore, who passed away yesterday at the age of 80. In my family — and, I suspect, many others — Moore’s iconic role in The Mary Tyler Moore Show brought generations of women together. Though it was filmed nearly 50 years ago, the show has remained eminently watchable; the characters still connect, the humor still zings, and I would imagine that there are countless fans this week who are remembering, not only how great the show was, but how it helped them connect with their loved ones.

It can be hard to know how to feel upon the death of a celebrity — someone whom you don’t actually know, but who nevertheless impacted your life— but this particular loss feels personal to me. I associate Mary Tyler Moore with her trailblazing work as an independent single woman in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her fantastically complex performance in 1980’s Ordinary People. But I also associate Moore with things that sit much closer to home — memories of shared laughter and experience between multiple generations of my family. I have The Mary Tyler Moore Show — and its irresistible cross-generational appeal — to thank for that.

My sisters and I grew up watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show with my parents and grandparents. Throughout much of the ‘90s, the show aired regularly on Nick at Nite, when Nickelodeon would trade Rugrats and Clarissa Explains It All for decades-old TV classics. When my grandparents visited, Nick at Nite was standard evening viewing, and we’d watch whatever was on — The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, Taxi. All great shows, but really we were always waiting for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, by far everyone’s favorite. How did a TV show filmed in the 1970s manage to appeal so strongly to women whose ages spanned a solid 60 years? Such is the magic of Mary Richards and the gang at WJM.

It’s not hard to see why The Mary Tyler Moore Show appealed so strongly to women in their 20s and 30s during the show’s 1970 —1977 run. The show was groundbreaking and modern, showing a single, successful, career-driven woman grappling with of-the-moment issues. My mother tells me that she identified strongly with Mary Richards when the show first aired, saying that, as a single woman in her 20s who was still developing her career, it mattered to her that Mary Richards “pointed to possibilities for women other than ‘teacher,’ ‘nurse,’ or ‘airline stewardess’.” And, significantly, Mary wasn’t alone on the show; she was a smart, complex woman surrounded by other complex women — women who were funny and interesting, with distinct personalities and aspirations.

However, the appeal of The Mary Tyler Moore Show extended well beyond the audience of young, working women. My grandmother, who was in her 50s at the time, absolutely adored the show, especially Sue Ann Nivens, the sardonic, sexually aggressive “Happy Homemaker” played by Betty White. And she wasn’t alone — The Mary Tyler Moore Show was consistently popular during its seven-season run.

And this is despite the fact that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was, in the broad scheme of television up to that point, fairly radical. Mary Richards is a single woman who has sex, takes the birth control pill, and fights for equal pay. (To put that in context, remember that when Moore starred in The Dick Van Dyke Show less than a decade earlier, married Rob and Laura Petrie weren’t even allowed to share the same bed). Although many of the ideas embedded in The Mary Tyler Moore Show were decidedly progressive, the show managed avoid alienating viewers through deft writing and the considerable force of Mary Tyler Moore’s sheer likability. There is certainly a time and place to be confrontational in the work for social progress, but Mary Tyler Moore reached people by being the opposite. Investing Mary Richards with vulnerability and humor, Moore created a character who doesn’t preach or even explicitly point out the trails she’s blazing. Instead, she simply attempts to live her life and do her work, and in doing so naturally reveals the challenges and double standards that women face in a male-dominated society. Moore recalled in a 1997 interview of the show’s social point of view, “It was never a ‘stand on the soapbox and shout’ show. It pioneered but it pioneered without self-consciousness.”

The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t seem so revolutionary to me when I watched the show with my family in the early and mid ‘90s. Used to shows like Murphy Brown (which, as Candace Bergen points out, probably never would have existed without The Mary Tyler Moore Show), I didn’t find the idea of a single woman living alone and having a career remotely unusual. (It’s only now that I realize that I have The Mary Tyler Moore Show to thank for that.) Nevertheless, I still loved The Mary Tyler Moore Show; even at 20-plus years old, it felt fresh, modern, and relatable. And funny — so very, very funny.

Maybe that, more than anything, is the key to the show’s longevity and its appeal across generational divides: The Mary Tyler Moore Show was simply funny as hell, and Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman and all the rest were funny as hell in it. The show reflected the cultural change happening in the time in which it was made, and, arguably, it instigated change of its own, but, first and foremost, the show was based in genuine laughter.

I’m grateful to The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s cultural impact, and the way it shaped the lives of countless viewers, but I’m especially thankful for this memory: Three generations of women — grandmother, mother, and daughters — sharing a couch and laughing our faces off. Memories don’t really get any better than that.