I recently watched the third season of Rhoda on DVD for the second time. I had previously read about the negative audience response to the storyline regarding her separation and subsequent divorce. In my mind, such an audience desertion meant that the show had either derailed creatively, declined in quality or was just no longer funny.
What I found was that the show found a new life in its realistic explorations of marriage separation, divorce and single dating in late 1970s New York City – all largely uncharted territories for a lead character in a TV sitcom.
Rhoda was the first of three spinoffs from the legendary Mary Tyler Moore Show. It premiered in 1974 to high ratings and achieved a sixth-place Nielsen ranking by the end of its first TV season in 1975. That successful first season peaked with the series’ eighth episode when 51 million viewers witnessed the long-single Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) marrying Joe Gerard (David Groh), the man for whom she relocated from Minneapolis to New York in the first episode.
The remainder of that first season and the entire second season focused on Rhoda and Joe’s life as a newly married couple. The show’s ratings remained high, which resulted in an eighth-place Nielsen ranking for the 1975-1976 TV season.
But while the viewers remained satisfied, the producers were not.
For the third season, it was decided to have Rhoda and Joe separate. Ratings-wise, the producer’s decision proved detrimental to the series as Rhoda fell out of the Nielsen Top 30 and never made it back to the Top 10.
SO MUCH FOR MARRIAGE
In a retrospective of the series on the Season One 35th Anniversary DVD release, Creators/Producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns discussed how marrying Rhoda off so soon was their first mistake and marrying her off at all was an even bigger mistake. However, it was a creative decision they knowingly made against the advice of many because viewers were clamoring for it.
They believed that the appeal of the Rhoda character and the full comedic potential of the Rhoda series hinged upon her as an insecure single woman. Seeing a self-assured Rhoda married to the man of her dreams living the life she’d always envisioned was too far a departure from the independent single woman they had initially presented the character as when The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered in 1970.
Though the separation and subsequent divorce proved to be an unpopular decision, both maintained that it was best for the series.
Burns admitted that they probably should have married Rhoda off later in the first season or even in the second or third season, but marrying her off in the first place was not the creative misstep he and Brooks claim it was.
Whether married or single, Rhoda is an inherently funny character made even funnier by the talents of Valerie Harper. Rhoda the character was just as funny, appealing and amusingly self-deprecating after she got married as she had been on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
But as self-assured as she was when it came to dealing with her younger sister Brenda’s (Julie Kavner) all-too-familiar self-esteem issues, Rhoda was at times just as insecure when it came to her marriage to Joe. It often seemed as if she didn't think she deserved to be with a guy like Joe and was just waiting for him to realize it.
Granted, many of the storylines began to center on the ancillary people in their lives such as her mother Ida (the incomparable Nancy Walker) and Brenda but only as it affected what was going on in the lives of Rhoda and Joe. This effectively turned a star piece into more of an ensemble.
From that vantage point, the series needed to refocus -- not from a lack of comedic possibilities. It may have been easier to write for a single Rhoda but that didn't make a married Rhoda any less appealing or less comedically viable.
Perhaps my viewpoint is skewed by the fact that I’m reflecting on this series almost forty years after the fact.
Mary and Rhoda were among the first female characters to realistically and honestly reflect independent single life. Those who came before them such as Connie Brooks (played by Eve Arden on Our Miss Brooks) and Susie McNamara (played by Ann Sothern on Private Secretary) in the 1950s were single but seemingly far less independent as marriage was more of a goal for them than an option.
That mindset began to change in the late 1960s with The Girl, an underrated precursor to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas) spent the show's entire 1966-1971 run in a relationship with Donald Hollinger (Ted Bessell), but the series ended with them engaged. Within the context of the series, the two never made it to the altar as Thomas herself didn't want to perpetuate the thought that marriage was an end goal for women.
Since these pioneers, the television landscape has been littered with single women humorously navigating the treacherous waters of the dating pool on Caroline in the City, Sex and the City and Friends.
Mad About You is a notable exception of being able to mine humor from early married life in a way that the writers and producer of Rhoda claim they could not. So in that regard, the third season of Rhoda is a disappointment.
Granted, Rhoda was previously established as a single character whereas Paul and Jaime Buchman (Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt) were already married at the outset of that series.
Subsequent writers and producers must feel the same way as Brooks and Burns because there have been many more sitcoms about single women looking for love and single guys trying to avoid marriage than there have been sitcoms about fun, loving relationships between two people.
I refuse to believe that it’s because sitcoms about dating are funnier than those about two people in a relationship. That may have been the case forty years ago, but most of us have experienced how difficult dating can be. Most of us are living it. It’s time to balance things out with some smart comedies about people actually putting the work into a relationship instead of copping out with tough, career-driven women and professionally successful playboys.
ALL THE SINGLE LADIES
As the third season of Rhoda progressed, that same realistic, honest and humorous depiction of independent single life that had been explored on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was now seen in that unpopular and taboo separation storyline.
It began with “The Separation”, continued with “Together Again for the First Time” as well as the very funny “Two Little Words – Marriage Counselor”, “Guess Who I Saw Today” and the very sweet “The Second Time Around” (where Rhoda dates Brenda’s boss but realizes she’s not ready to date when she momentarily loses her ring).
Though many would maintain that a crumbling marriage and eventual divorce have no place in a television sitcom, the matter was handled with great sensitivity and careful but effective humor.
As that storyline was developing, Rhoda was faced with re-entering the dating scene, finding herself all over again and moving on with her life. Though Rhoda had 30-plus years as a single woman, the writers wisely took their time to allow the character to re-discover who she was outside of being Joe’s wife despite the fact that their marriage was so short-lived.
The writers also intertwined the aforementioned “separation” episodes with standalone episodes dealing with Rhoda’s new life and dating misadventures.
“H-e-e-e-r-e’s Johnny” introduced the character of the over-the-top lounge singer Johnny Venture (Michael Delano), who returned in “Rhoda’s Mystery Man” and “To Vegas with Love”.
“I Won’t Dance” introduced the character of the tough and slightly bitter flight attendant Sally Gallagher (Anne Meara), a fellow divorcee who unfortunately only turned out to only be a one-season character.
“No Big Deal” introduced Gary Levy (Ron Silver), a swinging bachelor who winds up swapping apartments with Rhoda after Joe moves out. He initially has his eyes set on Rhoda but then backs off and serves her well as a supportive new friend.
Other standouts from the season include “Meet the Levys” (featuring Doris Roberts from Everybody Loves Raymond) in which Rhoda poses as Gary’s girlfriend so he can impress his parents, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” where Rhoda throws a last minute New Year’s Eve party after she finds out that Joe has plans and “Somebody Has to Say They’re Sorry” (guest-starring Robert Walden from fellow Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff Lou Grant with Ed Asner and TV Land’s Happily Divorced with Fran Drescher) where Rhoda demands an apology from a cop who mistakenly arrests her for solicitation.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Rhoda and Rhoda may have found themselves a new focus and a new perspective in season three (much like Ellen in its final two seasons with the build-up and fall-out of coming out), but that doesn't mean either were less appealing or less funny because Rhoda was married or that there wasn't comedy to be mined from having her get married. The appeal and the humor were inherent in the character and enhanced by a gifted comedic actress.
Perhaps if I had seen Rhoda when it first aired, I might have been just as turned off by Rhoda’s separation from Joe in the third season. I might have defected from the show as many viewers did only to rediscover it in syndication, Nick-at-Nite or on DVD. However, I imagine I would have eventually come around to still feel the same way I do now about that difficult but underrated third season.
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