There was something about Mary: She changed TV forever

NEW YORK– Just the idea that a show could announce, in all sincerity, “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” while its star twirled and beamed at the audience, and then week after week make that statement unchallengeable, speaks to how thoroughly magical a presence Mary Tyler Moore was on television in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Of course she starred in two of the greatest sit-coms ever created (and surely the best-ever for three-named leads) “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show;” but the impact that Mary Tyler Moore had on television as an art form — as well as a business — eclipsed even her super-luminous star quality.

It is not too much to say that MTM, both the entertainer and the company named for her, changed the television industry — maybe even saved the television industry. Certainly her shows and many of the ones that were attached to her name — “Rhoda,” “The Bob Newhart Show, ” “Lou Grant,” “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” among them — changed the expectations of American television audiences forever. And for the better.

For much of television’s history to that point, those audiences had been largely treated like Oliver Twist daring to ask for anything more than gruel. The idea that viewers might demand — and fall in love with — shows that aspired to artful comedy or drama was dismissed by the salesmen who passed for programmers through those early years. A top NBC program executive, explaining to me once why it made no sense for a network to attempt shows of higher quality, said that “the smart viewers can step down, but the dumb viewers can’t step up; so you’re much safer going with the dumb.”

“Dick Van Dyke” stuck out in the 60’s as a rare gem of sophisticated comedy. But the wheel (and the worm) began to turn for good in 1970 when CBS introduced “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Fans of the “Van Dyke” show looked to it at once as a hopeful extension of that brand of sharp comedy, simply because Moore had been so charmingly funny as Laura Petrie, wife of Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie. Her new show proved even more influential, anchoring what became the best excuse to stay home on Saturday nights for a decade: The CBS comedy lineup.

By 1973, the night was wall-to-wall classics: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “Bob Newhart Show,” “Carol Burnett.” That is arguably (and it’s hard to see any realistic counter-argument) the strongest night of network television ever assembled. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was the progenitor and the anchor of that night.

The MTM company created and owned two of those shows, but its style imprint was over all of them: really smart comedy.

The actual MTM logo, with its roaring kitty, was like an imprimatur that certified the program you had just seen was high standard. Even after the company itself faded, once Moore’s husband and co-founder, Grant Tinker, was hired away by NBC, the simple phrase “it’s a MTM-style show” essentially continued the brand. That brand was also extended by graduates of the MTM school, which included the people who created “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “Taxi,” “NYPD Blue,” and numerous other memorable series, all the way to “The Simpsons.”

James L. Brooks, one of the creators of “The Simpsons” and perhaps the most accomplished writer/producer birthed by MTM, is also the maestro of films like “Broadcast News” and “Terms of Endearment.” James Burrows, who cut his teeth directing “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and other MTM productions, is the most celebrated television comedy director in television history, with a voluminous list of classic credits, headed by “Friends,” “Will and Grace,” and “Cheers.”

No one ever believed Mary herself was the genius behind that prodigious creative output. Most of that credit goes to Grant Tinker. But Mary, with her near universal appeal, her unmatchable mix of sophistication and innocence, her rigorous performing standards, was the living symbol of how great television could really be.

And even after today, she still will be.