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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ny discussion of Season Six of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” should probably begin with the episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” especially since so many conversations about the show in general start off with that episode as a reference point. It’s been hailed time and again as one of the greatest TV episodes of all time of any series. Once a piece of pop culture attains that sort of status, the only place to go is downhill, and then it’s all a matter of how far it’s going to go.
The premise of “Chuckles” is largely a one-joke affair that builds and builds to a crescendo. Chuckles the Clown, who’s sort of WJM’s version of Bozo, dies at the trunk of an elephant. He was dressed as a giant peanut at the time, you see. These events are of course played off-screen, but they’re described in detail well enough that we get the picture. At first the staff is shocked, but after some time passes, Murray (Gavin MacLeod) cracks a morbid joke, which Lou (Ed Asner) finds to be a scream. Before long, Ted (Ted Knight) and Sue Ann (Betty White) are joining in on the fun, with each offering up one lame gag after another. And the jokes are pretty lame, but the jokes aren’t why the episode is funny. No, the humor here begins with the fact that Mary doesn’t care for their attitudes and takes each of them to task for their insensitivity, which is turn just eggs them on.
The climax of the episode occurs at the clown’s funeral, and what exactly happens there won’t be revealed. This is still a really good, even if not a great episode. The problem is not that it isn’t funny, but that as TV watchers and moviegoers, we’ve been exposed to increasingly dark examples of humor in the 35 years since this first aired. “Chuckles” was a blackly humorous piece of TV for its time, but once you’ve seen Aunt Edna strapped to the top of the family truckster, the joke has in many ways already been bested – and “Vacation” came out all the way back in ’83. You can imagine how quaint the episode feels by today’s standards. In any case, humor is subjective, and there may be plenty of people who watch it now and find it as perfect as it was back then, but in case you don’t, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
Further – and this is the real disappointment – there are two episodes on this box set that sport very subpar sound quality, where the dialogue is muffled and flat. Guess which one of those episodes happens to be? Yup, the many that’ve patiently waited for a crisp, clean DVD copy of “Chuckles” all these years are going to find this something of a letdown, regardless of what they think of the material itself. (For the record, the other episode with weak sound is “Ted’s Wedding.”)
Great, now that we’ve got all that unpleasantness out the way we can move on to the rest of the season. It’s been so long since I’ve seen this material that I was actually quite shocked by the shift in tone in Season Six, and most of that tonal shift resides in the character of Mary Richards. She’s grown up immensely since Season Five, and in fact when I wrote the review for that season a few months back, I complained about much of the underlying sexism in the series, specifically between Lou and Mary. That’s almost if not entirely erased from this season, which surely must be an improvement, right? Maybe, maybe not. Mary just isn’t the same sort of lovable doormat in this season that she was in the past. Although it never happens, you can almost imagine Mary barking at Lou to get his own fucking coffee. Well, maybe that’s a bit much, but there’s no denying that this season feels more adult and serious than it had in season’s past. It’s harder and less forgiving. Make no mistake, it’s still “Mary Tyler Moore,” and it’s still great TV, but those who’ve been following it via the DVD sets over the years will notice the shift.
For all the press “Chuckles” has gotten over the years, there are at least a handful of episodes in this season that best it for comedy gold. At the top of the heap may be “Lou Douses an Old Flame,” in which a woman from Lou’s past – the woman he considers the great love of his life and the one that got away – asks him to dinner. It’s the first time he’s seen her in 30 years. What happens at that dinner is like a punch to the gut, and it’s followed by one of the most hilariously appropriate moments of physical comedy I’ve seen in ages. Another stellar outing is “Once I Had a Secret Love,” in which Mary betrays Lou’s confidence, and there’s a scene between Asner and Moore that moves into some of the most perfectly played dramedy I’ve seen in some time. Very powerful stuff. What’s also fascinating about this season is that there seems to be real dramatic threads woven throughout, such as Ted and Georgette finally tying the knot and everything that follows, or Sue Ann’s continued pursuit of Lou, or two appearances by Mary’s Aunt Flo, who’s one of the most celebrated newspaper columnists in the U.S. All in all, fascinating slices of TV from a different time that may well leave some people scratching their heads. Never before has the theme tune “Love is All Around” so frequently sounded so out of place.
Special Features: Zip. Nada. Nothing. Unless you count the paper insert which lists which episodes are on each DVD, which is actually a welcome inclusion since the Season Five set lacked any such list. It’s a real shame there’s nothing more, because this would’ve been an ideal set to include some kind of behind the scenes featurette on what the writers and producers were thinking when they were putting the season together. Come on, Fox, you’ve only got one more season to go. Give us a little something extra on the Season Seven release, and by all means (and I know I speak for all the hardcore fans here), be sure and include the curtain call on the final episode.