There’s Something About Mary

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Summer, the mid-nineties. At the end of the day, pleasantly exhausted, my sister and I would retire to the downstairs bedroom and sit in the air conditioning as it got dark outside, watching Nick at Nite’s “Block Party Summer.”

The best night was Mary Monday.

We first knew Mary Tyler Moore from The Dick Van Dyke ShowLaura Petrie. She was so pretty, and her clothes were so cool, and sometimes she would do musical numbers with Rob and they were so great.

And she was funny as hell.

Then there was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Richards. Still pretty, still dressed to the nines. Not a stranger to feminine charm, she could, as the song says, “turn the world on with her smile.” But Mary Richards was not Laura Petrie. She was unmarried—for seven seasons she dated around, but remained unattached. She lived alone. She had close friends, both male and female. She worked, and placed a high premium on doing her job well.

The portrait of Mary Richards that often gets referenced these days is the Mary from the show’s opening credits: stylish, confident, independent. Digging her car out of the snow. Modeling spectacular fashions. Striding across the street. Making it on her own. In short, a rather generic feminist icon.

But watching the show again—as I did to prepare for this essay—it’s easy to see what’s missing from that summary: in short, her personality.

Unlike Laura Petrie, Mary Richards didn’t come from the U.S.O. She didn’t feel comfortable onstage, or in any kind of spotlight. She didn’t want to be in charge. Put on the spot, she often stammered and seized up. Watching her reluctantly take a leadership role in her early days at WJM—such as when, during an election-night blizzard, she takes over producing the disastrous live-results news coverage only after Mr. Grant (Ed Asner) repeatedly orders her to step up—can induce cringes.

Mary’s confidence emerged in other ways. When she was highly invested, she would forget to be self-conscious. When she was hashing something out with her friends or coworkers (which were often, on this show, one and the same). When she was ensconced at home or at the newsroom, enjoying the people in her orbit. In these moments, her intelligence and humor were undeniable, and whatever vulnerabilities she had didn’t equate with weakness.

The conflict between Mary’s natural charisma, her integrity, and her nagging imperfection is often what was so special about the show. It’s what made Mary Mary. She had a lot going on at once. It didn’t all make sense, and it wasn’t all smooth-edged. She wasn’t an avatar for women’s liberation; she was the real thing. And, in the deft hands of Mary Tyler Moore, she was funny as hell.

Take the very first scene between Mary and Lou Grant, in which she goes into the WJM television station to interview as a secretary and comes out with a job as an Associate Producer of the evening news:

Mr. Grant: What religion are you?

Mary: Uh, Mr. Grant, I don’t know quite how to say this, but you’re not allowed to ask that when someone’s applying for a job. It’s against the law.

Mr. Grant: Wanna call a cop?

Mary: No.

Mr. Grant: Good. Would you think I was violating your civil rights if I asked whether you were married?

Mary: Presbyterian.

This is a good old-fashioned bit, but it’s also an introduction to Mary’s perspective, as we see her choose which vulnerability to protect: her sense of justice or her pride. In one short exchange, we glimpse her shaky earnestness, her self-deprecation, and her deadpan wit all at once.

That same famous scene ends with what is arguably the show’s most famous exchange:

Mr. Grant: You got spunk.

Mary: Well, yes—

Mr. Grant: I hate spunk.

The punch line endures because it’s about Mr. Grant, not Mary. That classic surprise reversal is growled by the quintessential gnarled newsman, with liquor in his desk, sweat under his collar, and a picture of himself in a football uniform on the wall behind him. It snaps Lou Grant into focus for us, seconds after he first appears on screen. Here is a man who uses the word “spunk” not as a demeaning compliment (because spunk is a pretty damn condescending thing to attribute to someone; no one would ever say that to a man), but as a setup for a more straightforward slam. How refreshing! No, really, it’s refreshing. For all his blustering force and her nervous conviction, Mr. Grant and Mary are on a level playing field right from the start. He treats her just as roughly as he treats everyone else, and she acquiesces in only the most superficial of ways.

The seven-season relationship between Mary and Mr. Grant ultimately becomes a profound illustration of the complexity of the show’s treatment of the life of an unmarried woman.

In the series’ penultimate episode, “Lou Dates Mary,” a romantically discouraged Mary describes her elusive male standard to Georgette (Georgia Engel): “Someone who doesn’t care how I look because he’s more concerned with who I am. Somebody strong and intelligent, who respects me, who I can respect, who has gentleness in him.”

Georgette, insightful as only she can be, suggests Mary give Lou Grant a try.

Mary balks, then proceeds to rhapsodize about the gruff boss we viewers have all been in love with for years. “I mean, sure, I enjoy his company and yes, he is someone I respect and I have a good time with him, and he doesn’t play little games and I am…comfortable with him and he is straightforward and intelligent and fun…”

You see where this is going.

The ensuing episode takes all of the deep camaraderie developed between Mary and Mr. Grant over the years and dares to ask the question: what if there weremore between them? It’s a junction many shows have explored, but rarely with such satisfying results or fidelity to the characters. An episode supposedly about a date becomes emphatically about a friendship between a woman and a man.

The tenderness shared by the two is never more apparent than when they soldier through supreme discomfort in order to give the experiment a chance. They take turns being vulnerable: she asks him out, he admits he’s thought of her “that way,” she reciprocates, he brings flowers, she wears the dress he likes and turns down the lights, he agrees not to talk about the office during their dinner. She calls him “Lou.”

And finally, the brilliant moment, when they interrupt dinner and decide they can’t go on until they kiss and see what happens. They agree to get it out of the way. They kiss! And they’re kissing, they’re kissing, we’re so uncomfortable and yet so wanting these two beloved people to find the happiness they deserve, we’re so conflicted, and then—

Their eyes peek open and they start laughing.

In the type of blessedly synchronistic moment that can only happen between friends, they both just know: “it’s not going to work.” And that’s okay. They go back to the dinner table. She turns up the lights. He launches into a story about something dumb Ted did that day. She calls him Mr. Grant again. And you’ve never seen two people with a higher regard for each other, or more content in each other’s company. Single but unalone.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was about a woman in her thirties living her life. Not within the context of her perfect marriage, or her continued wacky attempts to sneak into her husband’s show, or her quirky adventures as a mom/witch. It was, comparatively speaking, real. She worked, she dated. She threw terrible parties. Her friendships were of obvious and incalculable value. She was graceful, clumsy, timid, brave. She developed before our eyes. Mary Richards can’t be described in one sentence. And that is the point. That is what makes her a feminine icon.

Back during those nights of “Block Party Summer,” The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t make me a feminist. What it did do was show me a woman who lived her life according to what she determined was best, who was a challenge to define by anything other than the shades of her character. It trusted that that would be compelling enough.

Today, multidimensional and label-eluding women exist onscreen—Leslie Knope, Cristina Yang, Mary Crawley, every female on Mad Men—but they’re still too rare. The stories out there are endless, and they need to be told more, and better.

This year, I turned thirty. I’m the age Mary was when she moved to Minneapolis and interviewed at WJM. Last summer, I had an exchange with an acquaintance in which I said I couldn’t wait to turn thirty and she responded, “Really? Why?” I was unprepared to explain that feeling, so firm had been my assumption that it was universal, but it was still easy to do: my twenties were tough. I’ve worked hard to begin to figure things out, and I’m hopeful that the next decade of my life will be better than the last. I’ll be better. I’ll be stronger, less afraid, more at peace with who I am. I will more often dwell in clarity.

And it will be interesting as hell.