Even before last month’s news that Mary Tyler Moore had died, she was already the talk of our household. By coincidence, my wife and I were in the middle of one of our “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” marathons when Moore passed away.
About once a year, when we’re feeling blue for one reason or another, we fetch our “Mary Tyler Moore” DVDs from the shelf and, during a happy week, watch all seven seasons from start to finish.
The tradition started long ago, during the difficult pregnancy that produced our first child, a healthy baby girl. To cheer us up, a friend taped some “Mary Tyler Moore” reruns off cable and mailed us the cassette. We watched “Mary Tyler Moore” again after Katrina, seeking comic relief from the recovery.
In recent years, knowing how much my wife loved the show, I’d drop a “Mary Tyler Moore” DVD into her Christmas stocking, eventually making a set. In leaving her small town for a career in the big city, the fictional Mary Richards had set a good example for my wife to follow. After college, the young woman I’d eventually marry left her own small town to live and work in Washington, D.C., for a few years. She could think of Mary Richards, finding new friends and adventures and making her own way.
Moore’s death prompted many comments about the iconic opening sequence of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in which an exuberant Mary Richards tosses her cap in the air. But I was always more touched by a scene added in the opening of later episodes in which Mary tosses not a hat but a package of meat from the freezer case of her neighborhood supermarket. Mary’s older now, and she pitches the purchase into her store cart with eyes rolled, resigned to the reality that not all of life’s choices are exciting.
“The Mary Tyler Moore” show has been celebrated as an ode to youth, but it was really a reflection on the joys and tribulations of middle age. When Mary Richards arrives at WJM-TV to take a job as an associate news producer, she’s already 30. As the seasons unfold, she discovers, as many of us do, that not all the dreams of youth come true. She’s destined to do a good job at a TV station that will remain, despite her best efforts, mediocre. Mr. Right does not arrive, and with each new friendship comes the prospect of an eventual goodbye. Mary also learns to embrace days when nothing much happens at all.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” tickled us as children, but in reruns, it has taught us how to gracefully grow older. During its run, America lost the Vietnam War, fought a fuel crisis, saw its president resign in disgrace and watched inflation spiral, seemingly out of control. Through it all, Mary Richards remained generous and hopeful.
In this ugly time, we need her now more than ever.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.