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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
hoda” was an incredibly successful series during its first two seasons. It was, in fact, a top ten show, going so far as to best its parent series, “Mary Tyler Moore,” in the ratings. And yet, as I understand it, the writers found it difficult to write for Rhoda (Valerie Harper) as a married woman. So at the start of Season Three they made an incredibly radical move for the time – they separated Rhoda from her husband, Joe (David Groh). Audiences were appalled, I guess because in 1976 those kinds of things just didn’t happen on TV. The ratings plummeted. Presumably, producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns didn’t care, because the couple, despite some attempts to make it work, never got back together. And you really have to admire that kind of brashness on the part of Brooks and Burns, don’t you? It was probably a first that something of this ilk was explored on primetime American TV – and if it wasn’t, it had to have been the first time something like this happened to a beloved lead character whom the audience had, between the two series, known for six years.
I’d been somewhat led to understand that the material suffered as a result; surprisingly, that’s not even remotely the case. With Season Three, “Rhoda” remains at least as strong as in its previous seasons, if not a little bit a cut above. In my previous reviews of this series, I’ve made mention of how poorly written Joe Gerard’s character is, and it’s worth repeating. It’s a shame, too, because David Groh is a fine actor, who got saddled with lame material to play, and the events of this season certainly don’t do Joe any favors. The first episode of the season is called “The Separation,” and the show doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. It begins with Joe playing passive-aggressive games involving the couple buying a house which Rhoda desperately wants.
Later on, during a conversation between Brenda (Julie Kavner) and Rhoda, she reveals that she knows there’s something going on with Joe. Soon enough, Joe admits that he wants time away. He wants to move out and get his own apartment. What’s amazing is how wishy-washy he is about the whole thing (or maybe not – this is Joe after all). Rhoda does her best to be understanding about his crisis, even when he cannot give her a solid reason for his need to separate. And never once in the season does he ever give her a good reason for wanting to separate. About the best he can muster is, “I never really wanted to get married in the first place.”
The season moves forward. The couple still see each other – maybe once a week, but as the story progresses, it seems clear that Joe has no interest in getting back together with Rhoda in any serious way. He’d rather date her again. (Very strange!) All the episodes devoted to the issue (there are at least a half a dozen) are frankly rather depressing, but in a peculiarly engaging, worthwhile sort of way. Despite that, it isn’t difficult to see why audiences at the time weren’t amused. The worst part of it all is just how weird and uncommunicative Joe is about the whole thing, and yet it makes for fascinating TV viewing, when you consider the time at which it was made. (By today’s standards it is unquestionably naïve.) The storyline wraps up three-quarters of the way through the season in an episode called “The Ultimatum,” that offers no great shocks, despite the grave-sounding title, and ends with Rhoda calling Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) to tell her the bad news, although I don’t recall the word divorce ever actually being used.
There’s much, much more to the season, though, than just Joe and Rhoda. Ida (Nancy Walker) appears in only the first episode, as Walker was busy trying to launch her own show (maybe even two), but success was elusive, and she and Harold Gould would return in Season Four. Here the couple is written off as having bought an RV to travel around the country for a year. So with Ida’s absence, the show essentially becomes the Rhoda and Brenda show, as the two sisters get into all manner of typically hokey yet charming ‘70s TV shenanigans. Kavner really shines here. She was cute in previous seasons, but she must have lost about 20 lbs. since last season, and she frequently dances with sexy this year. Yes, the voice of Marge Simpson was once quite the little hottie, not to mention a gifted comic actress (and you’d better be if you’re working alongside Valerie Harper). Most surprising is that the show doesn’t really suffer from the loss of Ida, although her spirit hovers over the proceedings, as Rhoda and Brenda constantly say things like “You know what Ma would say…” or “Remember what Ma did to us that one time…”
A new character is introduced in the form of Gary Levy, as played by Ron Silver. Who knew this guy was once young? (He bears a strong resemblance to Jason Schwartzman here.) At first the character is drawn as a macho swinger type who’s moved into the building, but he’s quickly revealed to be more desperate and goofy than suave. Gary brings a great deal of fun to the table, and in some ways is reminiscent of Larry Dallas on “Three’s Company.” Anne Meara also makes frequent guest shots as Rhoda’s desperate stewardess friend Sally; in one episode, Jerry Stiller even shows up playing her ex-husband. Yet another character who makes several appearances is sleazy-but-rich lounge singer Johnny Venture (Michael Delano). He tries way too hard to woo Rhoda, only to be shot down each time. These days we call them stalkers. It really is rather creepy, but that was the ‘70s. Oh, and of course there’s cheesy accordion player Nick Lobo (Richard Masur), the guy Brenda just can’t say no to, who’s by this point a reliable staple of the show.
So if you’ve heard that Season Three of “Rhoda” isn’t up to snuff, then that’s just balderdash. It’s a great deal of fun if you already dig this show, and if you’ve never watched “Rhoda,” this is as good a place to start as any.
Special Features: Once again, kudos to Shout! for doing such a stellar job re-mastering these uncut episodes. Unfortunately, that’s about as special as this set gets, as there are zero extras, which is a shame as it would’ve likely been fascinating to hear someone – anyone – who worked on this season talk about what it was like to produce.