The holidays seemed off-key for me this winter. Sickness ran through my circle of friends and loved ones, and December’s calendar included a few funerals. Coupled with the headlines announcing school shootings and political discord, the season’s happenings felt not quite so merry or bright.
Happily, though, some yuletide cheer arrived in my wife’s Christmas stocking in the form of a few DVDs of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In these cold evenings of early January, we’re not in the thick of budget talks or campus violence, but back in the newsroom of WJM, the stomping grounds for Moore and her cast when her celebrated sitcom graced the airwaves in the 1970s.
As a newspaperman who depends on interest in current events, I’m not going to argue in favor of routinely avoiding reality, but an occasional respite from it works wonders for the soul.
My Christmas gifts included a vintage book by the late Clifton Fadiman, a popular commentator in the 1950s and 1960s. Fadiman worked hard and was intensely engaged in public affairs, but in the book I’m reading, he has a few kind words for the virtues of embracing escapism from time to time.
“Few bore more successfully than those who are always facing facts,” Fadiman tells readers. “Soon their faces begin to look like the facts they face — and very dull facts to boot. Why not admit that much of living is escape, that some of our most ingenious inventions, from sport to distillation, are but engines of evasion? Perhaps escape from ‘the facts’ is part of the make-up of man, a reflex as uncontrollable as that which closes his eyes when a blow threatens them.”
Encouraged by Fadiman, I’ve felt little guilt about the “Mary Tyler Moore” marathon we’ve been having at our house this month. More than a decade and a half ago, when my wife was enduring the difficult pregnancy that led to the birth of our now teenage daughter, videocassettes of Moore’s show helped us laugh through the tears. In 2005, nightly visits with the sitcom “Frasier” offered brief mental vacations from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” belongs to an era of entertainment I call aspirational television. Moore played Mary Richards, an endlessly earnest associate news producer at a struggling Minneapolis TV station who met the world’s meaner impulses with politeness and good cheer.
That’s a far cry from the prevailing ethic of so-called reality television, which instead invites us to sneer at people who are dumber and meaner than we are.
Even the chronically flawed characters in Moore’s show revealed glimpses of promise that made us wish the best for them. Ed Asner was brilliant as Mary’s gruff boss, Lou Grant, and as numbskull anchorman Ted Baxter, Ted Knight showed us how smart an actor has to be to play someone so stupid.
We have only two more DVDs left in our Moore marathon. Then it’s on to “The Carol Burnett Show.”