Thursday, June 19, 2014

Nonfiction | The Road to Making It, After All

My favorite Nick At Nite shows from my youth (when Nick at Nite syndicated comedies that hadn't aired within the last decade):

I Love Lucy.
Laverne & Shirley.
Mary Tyler Moore.

There's a theme here, and it's groundbreaking. These were monumental women in comedy, the ones that could hold their own in an era when women in comedy were rather rare. Lucy paved the way back in the 1950s with her flawless comic timing and brilliant business acumen; but nothing symbolizes the rise of feminism in television quite like The Mary Tyler Moore Show—and this is the subject of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic.

Several years ago, I wrote some in-depth posts on an amazing book called When Everything Changed that chronicled the feminist movement from the 1960s to the present, and The MTM Show was featured as the embodiment of feminism of the 1970s. In the decades prior, it was rare for a woman to have a career, and it was rare for her to be single—and happy—well into her thirties. And look at how television had portrayed women before Mary Richards! It was the Donna Reed generation where women stayed at home and supported their husbands, and they were usually just the straight man (er, woman) to a male lead.

By 1970, television was still mirroring a reality that was quickly disappearing. The MTM Show was the anecdote to the false reality of women and their world being portrayed on the small screen. Finally, here was someone the modern woman could relate to! But as Armstrong shares in her book, the road to success was often a difficult one.

To say this show was a hard sell to the television industry is an understatement. Starting at the very beginning, Armstrong chronicles the many successes, failures, and compromises of getting MTM on air. And once it's on, she covers just how it all came about, how all the pieces fell into place—the writers, the scripts, the actors. She delves into the stories behind monumental episodes, how the characters were created and fleshed out, and how groundbreaking it really was both on screen and behind the scenes. While The MTM Show was certainly trailblazing in its on-screen portrayal of women and their lives, it was also creating a breeding ground for women writers in an industry dominated by men. With all this in mind, then, it's no surprise that modern-day comic queen Tina Fey cites MTM as a big influence.

I really enjoyed Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. It was an enjoyable history of the show that never got too bogged down in detail, nor did it drone on as many entertainment bios tend to do. Its focus was diverse, approaching the story from many angles to tell it in context. MTM was an important show in TV history, and you finish Armstrong's book with that understanding. In the case of most entertainment-focused nonfiction I think you need to have a foundation of interest in the book's specific subject—the figure or feature at hand. But in this case, I think an interest in pop culture or feminism or 20th-century history, or especially how they connect and reflect, is all you need.

Time to start the series from the beginning...again.

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