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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
y the end of the fourth season of “Mary Tyler Moore,” the character of Rhoda Morgenstern had become so popular – as did Valerie Harper herself – that the producers were faced with a dilemma: give her a spin-off or lose her altogether, due to other offers coming her way. And so the series “Rhoda” was born. The premise saw her returning to New York to visit her family, only to fall for a guy named Joe Gerard (David Groh). The pair got on so well, in fact, that they were married eight episodes into the first season. The producers would later admit that the development was a mistake, as taking Rhoda out of the singles scene took away a lot of what made the character. As a result, in Season Three, Rhoda and Joe actually divorced, which makes watching this set an ever so slightly depressing affair, since you know that the marriage is doomed.
Being the massive fan of “Mary Tyler Moore,” I went into “Rhoda” wanting to love it – expecting something nearly as good as its parent series. (I did watch the show when I was a kid, but it was so long ago that for all intents and purposes this DVD was like seeing it for the first time.) “Rhoda” is no “MTM” by any stretch of the imagination (but then again, what is?). It’s far more grounded in a sort of everyday, mundane sitcom world that we’ve seen all too often by this point. Whereas Mary’s show still has bite, this series simply has gnaw. In all fairness, it probably seemed far fresher in ‘74, but the type of formula that makes up this show unfortunately seems pretty tired by today’s standards. What ultimately saves “Rhoda,” however, is its performances, which are pretty damn good across the board. Harper probably has the toughest job, since her character isn’t quite as engaging as she was in the first series, although as the season moves along she becomes more than just a wife and newlywed, and even manages to set up her own business – and she’s certainly never at loss for quick, self-deprecating joke.
The real standouts of the show are Julie Kavner and Nancy Walker as Rhoda’s sister and mother, respectively. Kavner’s Brenda is a joy, and in this series she basically plays the same type of role that Harper played on MTM – the lovable, yet awkward and insecure best friend. On top of that, she’s really very cute in a strange sort of way, and my kid was quite surprised when I pointed out that that was the voice of Marge Simpson onscreen. Walker’s Ida is an absolute scream – a true TV icon – and the show is almost never as good when she’s not around (which may actually be at least half the season). Groh’s Joe is a likable enough guy, but all too often the character seems to be written only as an excuse to give Rhoda some mission to go on. He doesn’t have much of a character to call his own, and as such, the series never really has a strong male voice – unless you literally count the disembodied sounds of Carlton the Doorman (Lorenzo Music), who quite simply must be the greatest sitcom character of all time that’s never actually seen. Indeed, Carlton has more of a presence off-screen than most sitcom characters do with the camera smack in front of them.
Most of the season is about Rhoda and Joe getting their life started, and many of the typical themes you’d expect to be associated with such a setup – work, sex, money, friends, family, etc. I’d be hard pressed to be able to pick a standout episode, although certainly the hour-long wedding installment is a highlight, if for no other reason than Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner, Gavin McLeod, Cloris Leachman and Georgia Engel all crossover from “MTM” (Ted Knight is not only absent, but never even mentioned). The plot probably doesn’t warrant an hour, but it’s still great fun and culminates in Phyllis forgetting to pick up Rhoda for the wedding, leaving the bride to wander all over New York in her wedding dress, trying to get to the ceremony. Actually, Mary shows up on a couple of other occasions, including the season finale and, um, well, I think I’m showing my hand here. I love Mary Tyler Moore and her self-titled show, and if you do, too, don’t go into this expecting the same sort of TV brilliance. (There are some fun guest appearances – keep an eye out for Henry Winkler, Howard Hesseman, Linda Lavin, and John Ritter and Norman Fell in the same episode.)
Further – and here’s where the review gets ugly – this box set is a really piss poor presentation of “Rhoda,” and its possible I would’ve liked the season much more had some actual work been put into this. Well over half of the episodes on this set are syndicated versions, missing probably 2-3 minutes apiece. It’s a good thing the set isn’t labeled “The Complete…” because that would be a lie. As if that weren’t bad enough, just about every time an installment is one such episode, its video and audio quality are muddy and distractingly underwhelming. The hour long “Rhoda’s Wedding” is luckily uncut and in pretty good shape, however the pilot episode completely omits an introductory sequence where Mary takes Rhoda to the airport! What a bummer. The set does include the usual disclaimer stating, “These episodes were compiled from the best possible masters” or somesuch, but that’s still very frustrating and doesn’t make it any more palatable. Are we really to believe that most of these episodes no longer exist in their complete forms? I realize that TV on DVD has become an increasingly slippery slope for companies to navigate, but there has to be a better way than this, because ultimately this set isn’t going to please the people at which it is aimed.
Special Features: One featurette entitled “Remembering Rhoda” lasts for a mere ten minutes, and features only producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns discussing the show. No Valerie Harper, Julie Kavner or anyone else involved in the show – nothing else folks.