Goodbye, Mary

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death this week of Mary Tyler Moore, at age 80.  She was a television icon and, through The Mary Tyler Moore Show, an inspiration to a generation of young women who saw, through her example, that living and working as a single woman in a big city was a viable alternative to more traditional paths.

It’s not a coincidence that Mary Tyler Moore starred in two of the very best situation comedies the small screen has ever produced.  I loved her as Laura Petrie in the Dick Van Dyke Show; she was talented and funny and a perfect foil for Van Dyke’s classic brand of physical and facial comedy.  (“Oh, Rob!”)  But The Mary Tyler Moore Show was also a lasting, brilliant contribution to the medium of television, with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled and some of the greatest comedy writing as well.

In my view, the “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is arguably the funniest single episode of any network sitcom in the history of television, period, and its final scene, shown above, demonstrates Mary Tyler Moore’s enormous range as a comedic actor.  For those who haven’t seen the episode, a local TV personality named Chuckles the Clown is killed in a mishap — dressed as his character Peter Peanut, he is brutally shelled by a rogue elephant — and for most of the episode the characters make jokes about Chuckles’ demise while Mary Richards, the soul of rectitude, is offended by their cavalier attitude about Chuckles’ death.  In this final scene, though, Mary just can’t hold it in any longer, and the result is one of the great turns by any TV actor, anywhere.

Mary Tyler Moore was one of the giants.  She will be missed.

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The Office Gets Ready To Turn Out The Lights

The Office is counting down to the last show of the series.  Kish and I enjoy the show, and we’re holding our breath that the characters we’ve come to love aren’t ruined forever as the producers seek to build tension for a big finale.

I may be the only person in America who was happy when Steve Carell left The Office.  I thought the Michael Scott character had become so painfully awkward and outlandish that the series was difficult to watch, and the Michael Scott stories were interfering with the show’s real strength — which is the ensemble of office workers.   Every moment of Michael Scott angst took time away from a Jim Halpert practical joke at the expense of Dwight Schrute, or droll Stanley Hudson comment, or Creed Bratton weirdness.  When Michael Scott finally left it cleared the way for the other characters to shine, and they did.

Many of the great American sitcoms have been ensemble efforts, rather than solo star vehicles.  Cheers, Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi, among many others, all have been classic multi-character efforts.  What would Cheers have been without the characters shouting “Norm!” or listening to Cliff’s latest blowhard theory?  How much did Newman bring to Seinfeld, and the Reverend Jim add to TaxiThe Office characters are similarly capable of carrying their show as a group, and since Steve Carell’s departure the show has remained hilarious without the downside of the pitiable Michael Scott storylines.

This year, though, the show seems to have lost its way.  Pam and Jim are having marital difficulties, and a lbehind-the-camera sound technician has emerged as a suitor for Pam’s affections.  Andy Bernard, who may be the most unevenly written character in TV history, has gone off the deep end.  It’s as if the producers are searching for a dramatic conclusion — and I wish they would resist that temptation. We want to remember Jim and Pam as the young lovers who finally found each other or the happy newlyweds, not as some estranged couple fighting in a way that seems inconsistent with their well-established characters.

I’d be perfectly happy if the last episode featured more of the enjoyable antics of Dwight and Angela, and Oscar and Kevin, and Phyllis and Meredith, and the show ended with a Jim Halpert prank and Pam simply turning out the lights of the Dunder-Mifflin workroom a la The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as another workday ends.

Budget Chicken

We are a few hours away from the point at which the federal government will run out of money and have to shut down — at least in certain respects.  President Obama, House Republicans, and Senate Democrats are trying to hammer out a deal as the witching hour draws ever closer.  It is like a huge game of chicken, where each side hopes the other will blink.

In the meantime, the competing factions posture in an effort to assign the blame for any shutdown on the other party.  Today House Republicans passed yet another stopgap bill that would fund the Defense Department for the rest of the year and give negotiators another week to try to work out a deal.  Even though the President has signed other continuing resolutions to provide interim funding, he says this one is a mere distraction and, if it is presented to him, he will veto it.  Senate Democrats say House Republicans are in thrall to “extreme” elements, like the “tea party” movement, that makes reaching an agreement impossible.  Finger-pointing rules the day.

How fractured and ridiculous our governmental processes have become!  Our politics are so polarized that we can’t do anything without having our backs to the wall and disaster looming just ahead.  Consider that the budget being discussed now is the current budget, and is an issue only because last year Congress and the President didn’t enact a budget when they were supposed to — and that was when the process was totally controlled by one political party, with a Democrat in the White House and huge Democratic majorities in each House of Congress.  If agreement wasn’t possible then, what chance do we have now, where Democrats control the Senate, Republicans control the House, and President Obama has already announced that he is running for reelection?

Regardless of their political beliefs, every American should be disgusted and concerned about what is happening right now.  This is not “good government.” Small groups of legislators, aides, and administration officials are engaging in closed-door negotiations, cutting the kinds of back room deals and unholy bargains that inevitably make us cringe.  Crucial decisions are being made under enormous time pressures, without the kind of careful consideration and public scrutiny that help politicians make sound judgments.  In this kind of super-heated atmosphere, can anyone have confidence that the strutting negotiators will reach reasonable and rational decisions?  And if agreement is not reached, and a shutdown occurs, we can be sure of one thing:  the bickering and bitterness that will occur in the wake of that failure will make the current hyper-partisanship look like the group hug in the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.