Test Pilot: File #18, Rhoda and Lou Grant

Test Pilot #18: Rhoda and Lou Grant

Debut date: September 9, 1974 and September 20, 1977

Series’ legacy: Somewhat worthy successors to the Mary Tyler Moore throne

Authorship is a really tricky thing and perhaps no more so than in the world of television. Numerous scholars have discussed the problems with analyzing television with an authorship slant with all of them rightfully pointing out that any production has countless cooks in the kitchen, within individual episodes and across multiple efforts just the same. With so many writers, directors, producers, co-producers, executive producers, story editors and everything else, it is difficult to say that a series is reflective of one person’s sole vision. Even an egomaniac like Matthew Weiner doesn’t do everything on Mad Men, no matter how much he might think he does.

But despite the complex issues related to authorship, the MTM Enterprises book edited by Jane Feuer introduces an intriguing concept of “corporate authorship” wherein a collective (featuring those from both production and business) can produce something of a corporate signature that reflects certain ideals, standards and expectations. In the case of MTM, Feuer argues that the production power of the ’70s and ’80s reflected a signature of quality, not unlike the way HBO and AMC co-opted those ideas of taste and distinction for their respective cable channels years later. These ideas of authorship and quality really stuck with me and inspired me to dive into the MTM oeuvre for this quartet of Test Pilot files. The two things I want to discuss are 1.) this idea of “quality” and whether or not, at least from my perspective, the MTM series are “quality” and 2.) How MTM did or did not put a specific stamp on some of the series it produced, comedy or drama.

As we continue our journey through the works of MTM, I thought it might be interesting to try something slightly new: tackling two pilots at once. The success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show spawned multiple spin-offs that were produced under the MTM umbrella and thankfully, a few of them are readily available online. Thus, in today’s Test Pilot, we will be talking about the initial offerings of two of the Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs, Rhoda and Lou Grant.

My guest today is Carolina Hernandez. She just finished her MA Thesis in the RTF program at UT-Austin and she’s something of a MTM connoisseur. Currently, she’s attempting to watch all the MTM Enterprises series in their entirety, in chronological order. If you’re curious, she’s just finishing up 1976-1977 season now, so had previously seen Rhoda’s origins but had not seen Lou Grant. That’s OK though. You can (and should) follow Carolina on Twitter. Carolina, take it away:

Since last summer, I have been trying to work my way through all the MTM Enterprises series currently available on DVD or through online streaming, watching them in order of television seasons (I am currently finishing up the 1976-1977 season). So, I jumped at the chance to write about Rhoda and Lou Grant, two very different spin-offs from the same great series. However, I am familiar with these series to varying degrees, having watched the first three seasons of Rhoda, but only just watched the pilot of Lou Grant for the first time. Still, I can’t help but feel like both pilots disappoint, especially in comparison to The Mary Tyler Moore Show pilot. This is not to say they are bad or not enjoyable, but simply that they don’t meet the high expectations one inevitably has when watching these two series. My issues with these pilots, though, are rather different, perhaps because the series themselves do not take the same approach at a spin-off.

It’s been said that for viewers of The MTM Show, Mary is the kind of person you aspire to be, Rhoda is the person you are most like, and Phyllis is the person you hope you never become. It makes sense then that they would want to create a spin-off for Rhoda, considering she was one of the rare sitcom sidekicks fleshed out beyond witty one-liners. Yet when watching the pilot for Rhoda, I cannot help but think that they were trying to shoehorn her into a Mary-type role by showing an ultra-confident Rhoda who apparently has no issues with her appearance and can brazenly ask a man out on a date right after she meets him. Granted, Rhoda’s character was certainly evolving and becoming more sure of herself on The MTM Show, but hardly to the extent seen in the Rhoda pilot. Meanwhile, the writers also pull a retcon and change Rhoda’s younger sister, whom we had seen in an earlier episode of The MTM Show, from a young married woman named Debbie to a single girl with a Sara Lee addiction named Brenda. Clearly, Brenda is supposed to fill in the role of the old Rhoda. However, Brenda starts out very one-note, only interested in trying to lose weight and finding a boyfriend. Rhoda had more dimension than this in The MTM Show pilot alone. The result is that Rhoda and Brenda’s relationship feels rather lopsided, one of teacher and student, whereas Rhoda and Mary’s friendship generally had them on equal footing regardless of their differing personalities.

Eventually, the writers knock down Rhoda a bit and give her a smidgen of insecurity again. They also give Brenda a bit more confidence and a legitimate dating life. I believe that is when the series hits its stride, during the second season when the characters became easier to identify with, but before Rhoda’s separation from Joe. It is during that season when Rhoda shows that finally being married does not solve your problems and suddenly make you invulnerable to insecurities. However, I never would have guessed from the pilot alone that the series would head in this direction.

On the other hand, my problem with the Lou Grant pilot stems from pretty much the opposite of  those of Rhoda. It can be hard to compare the two series considering their different genres, yet that also helps highlight what each series actually does right. Unlike Rhoda, Lou Grant actually manages keep the title character recognizable in its pilot episode. It helps that Ed Asner is a well-rounded actor who pretty much always gives a solid performance regardless of the project. Even with the change from a sitcom to a drama, Asner manages to make Lou Grant familiar to those who had grown to love him on The MTM Show, while also making him seem at home in his new environment. My love for Lou Grant, though, never extends to the other characters in this pilot. I honestly could not care less about any of the other people in the newsroom. Instead, I found myself more interested in figuring out what building filled in for the home of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune (it was the Title Guarantee Building, in case you were curious). This is not the case with Rhoda, where I do find myself actually caring about Rhoda’s family, even if the characters are rather one-dimensional in the beginning.

The other problem I have with Lou Grant is related to the first. While watching the pilot, I never feel like the characters connect as a surrogate family. I do not know if this is a result of my issues with the other characters, or if the reverse is true and I do not like the characters because I believe they do not mesh well. Of course, maybe I am asking too much of this pilot, comparing it too much to The MTM Show pilot which managed to establish the roles and relationships of its characters rather effectively. I also assume that this changes as the series progresses and that at some point they become more like the WJM family. Unfortunately, I sense no hint of this in the pilot and instead get the feeling that the writers are more interested in focusing on the weekly story than on character development. This is not inherently a bad thing, just a little disappointing for me.

As I said before, these are not bad spin-offs, and not even bad pilots for spin-offs. That bears repeating, because from what I have seen and what I know, these are damn good series worth watching. But they had a tough act to follow, so it can be hard not to focus on what is wrong with these pilots rather than what it is right. At the very least, though, both series can be proud of the fact that they are at least much better than the Phyllis spin-off. Boy, that was a mess.

–CH

And now, my thoughts as a brand-new viewer of both these episodes:

Focusing on these two spin-off episodes not only presents a new wrinkle to the Test Pilot, it also raises some compelling questions that I hope I can at least attempt to address. If MTM Enterprises built their empire on “quality” as Jane Feuer discusses in this edited collection I discussed heavily last time, is the idea of a spin-off – let alone multiple spin-offs – directly contradict that quality-ness? And how is the “house style” (as Feuer calls it) adapted to spin-offs, especially in the case of the longer and more dramatic Lou Grant?

By their nature, spin-offs feel cheap cash-grabs – or worse, moves of desperation – born in the minds of greedy executives hoping to cash in on the triumphs of a long-running series. In the modern era, no one looked kindly upon Joey and CBS is consistently derided for its franchise-building thinking that regularly produces new iterations of established series. Rarely are spin-offs met with excitement and positive feelings. At best, all it seems we can muster up is a sigh. With that in mind, I found it really intriguing to see how Rhoda and Lou Grant fit into this quality factory that Feuer and company paint MTM Enterprises as. And in general, I have conflicted feelings on how the two series do work and am generally unsold on the quality of one of them.

I need to preface this with a reminder that I have seen three episodes of Mary Tyler Moore, all in the first season, but I found Rhoda to be fairly rote, sort of boring and at times, lifeless. Throughout the time I spent with the first episode, I kept coming back to Joey, unfortunately. At least in this initial episode, Rhoda feels well, too much like a spin-off. It features a character who was so clearly a supporting player (albeit an important one, I don’t want to belittle the character too much) that has been thrust into the spotlight without enough consideration. Joey doesn’t work because Joey’s character only worked in small, but substantial bits. I feel the same way about Rhoda.

I have to imagine that Rhoda softened in the many episodes between what I have seen of MTM and this pilot, but she seems to have lost much of her sarcastic, biting edge that made her such a fun quasi-antagonist in those opening episodes of Mary Tyler Moore. She appears to have been filtered down so that she can “work” as a lead character and her sister has taken up the mantle as the overly sarcastic one. Of course, it doesn’t really help that Valerie Harper just isn’t as engaging or charming as Mary Tyler Moore, which is fine when she’s asked to be the bitchy friend, but not so much when she’s called on to be the romantic lead.

Most annoyingly, Rhoda feels like a regression from Mary Tyler Moore’s somewhat innovative lack of focus on the female’s love life. In these 24 minutes, Rhoda keeps mentioning a job, but I don’t actually recall remembering what it is. Perhaps this is something the series just assumes since it is a spin-off after all, but this pilot is almost entirely dominated by its lead character’s love life. I looked up the general series’ synopsis and it appears that most of the first few seasons were similarly devoted to the romantic entanglements of Rhoda and her beau Joe, leading up to a massively popular wedding.

Listen, I’m not the social activism and gender representation police. Television programs can be about whatever the hell they want to be about, but watching this episode and knowing where it came from, I was a bit confused. How could Mary Tyler Moore be so well-known for its interesting portrayal of women, Rhoda included, and this series be totally, formulaically compelled by a possible will-they-or-won’t-they?

Rhoda and Joe are not entirely boring and the final few scenes between them here are the only ones that bring out the Rhoda I remember from my short MTM viewing, but it is just…odd, I guess. It is not like Mary Tyler Moore was a big failure that was turning off audiences with its in your face women’s lib storytelling. But this episode feels like it was made in a world where that was the case and it therefore serves as a reaction to that fictitious version of MTM.

I also read that the series eventually has Rhoda and Joe get a divorce, which is interesting, but it seems like the producers had to feel like they could earn that kind of different story topic with a few years of mostly predictable offerings.

There has always been discussion (including in the Feuer, et all book) about the balance between work and home within The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At least within the pilot episode, that balance is not found on Rhoda and the skewed emphasis on the home life of its lead character combined with the somewhat problematic lead character herself adds up to a much more derivative and more boring program.

If we are to buy Feuer’s assertion that MTM Enterprises has a certain kind of “style” or formula, I would agree that Rhoda follows a similar kind of blueprint established in Mary Tyler Moore. But it comes off as if it is really just going through the motions and hitting the big moments of that style/formula/blueprint: new location! New living arrangements! Moderate crisis three-fourths of the way through! There is an emphasis on the “character” over the comedy as Feuer argues, but it isn’t as prominent here as it was in Mary Tyler Moore, which ultimately leads to a lesser product. This series does not have as distinctive of a voice, it lacks the corporate signature Feuer presents.

The problem is that I don’t buy the extension of the “quality” label in regards to Rhoda. All I buy is my own assumption about spin-offs harming the possibility for quality. Even though I had no real knowledge of the character trajectories or the story arc, I could see why people loved Mary Tyler Moore in my viewing of the first episode. I am less certain of any major enjoyment people would have gotten out of Rhoda, outside of the fact that they might have enjoyed the character in a way I can’t understand based on my limited viewing of the first series. The thing is, spin-offs have to give the audience another reason to watch besides, “Hey, you liked this character! Don’t you want to see more of them?” Rhoda doesn’t really do that.

Interestingly, Lou Grant works much differently and ultimately, much better in its first episode. I could not find any concrete research on the matter, but Mr. Grant has to be one of the only characters to get his own spin-off that actually changes the genre, tone and running time to something fairly different than the character’s original home.

Time has obviously passed between Lou’s spot as the drunken comic relief in the Mary Tyler Moore pilot and his steely, stern and generally sober demeanor in this pilot. Feuer’s book and the Wikipedia gods tell me that ­the differences in this Lou Grant came about somewhat abruptly, but thankfully, Ed Asner’s performance helps ease the transition. Really, I guess you could make an argument for this Lou Grant being fairly comparable to MTM’s Lou Grant. Take away the faster pace, laugh track and Mary Tyler Moore’s reactions and some of the speeches Lou gives to her in his office are more or less similar to his rants in Lou Grant.

This is the first of many reasons why Lou Grant works better than Rhoda, both as a spin-off and as a series. Unlike Rhoda, Lou doesn’t appear to have lost what made him an appealing, compelling character on Mary Tyler Moore. He also works better as the center of an ensemble, which is probably due to a number of factors (performance, character type, setting, etc.).

Rhoda appears to coast on the audience’s recognition of its lead character, but Lou Grant provides many more avenues for story and kind of complicates the audience’s assumptions about Lou to begin with by throwing him into a new world with an all new tone. What is nice about the Lou Grant pilot is that it has a solid hook no matter if you’ve seen the character before or not. I’m a writer and use to work in newsrooms so I’m going to be more intrigued by a series about the ins and outs of a daily newspaper, but even in the most general sense, it feels like there’s more to Lou than there is to Rhoda. Whereas Rhoda felt insular and somewhat suffocating, Lou Grant has some scope and sprawl to it, which is no doubt a result of the more dramatic tone and longer running time but still very crucial to the series’ success nonetheless.

Moreover, if Rhoda focuses too much on the personal without integrating the professional, Lou Grant is something of the opposite. Most of these 49 minutes are focused on Lou’s work at the newspaper, but the episode finds some time to work in a few little beats here and there about Lou and the people around him (again, that might have to do with the extra 25 minutes, though). Because of this, Lou Grant does a much better job of furthering the MTM house style that is so focused on character and somewhat challenging stories.

Obviously a series built around a middle-aged male newspaper editor isn’t groundbreaking, but there are other ways in which Lou presents thought-provoking stories. The big “case” of the pilot involves the possibility of multiple police officers having sex with a number of underage girls and the subsequent cover-up attempts. Again, I don’t make the rules about what kind of stories television series should tell, but that feels like a relatively interesting and somewhat complicated premise for a pilot episode – especially for 1977 on CBS. And again, my research tells me that the series only ramped up its coverage of complicated, controversial stories.

This brings us back to “quality.” Mary Tyler Moore set the precedent for such a thing, both with its character focus and storytelling approach, but also in expectations and prestige. MTM took home a total of 29 Emmy Awards, a long-standing record for one series until Fraiser took it down years later. Though it’s less than half, Lou Grant garnered a very impressive 13 Emmy wins and also grabbed a Peabody along the way as well. By my count, Rhoda won two Emmys and Phyllis took home zero. Although it began the season after Mary Tyler Moore ended, we could say that Lou Grant brought some of the prestige back to the MTM brand after a few misses in the spin-off department.

Lou Grant’s pilot works because it doesn’t feel spin-off-y. This is a character you might know, but the story and its tone are widely different than what you remember the character from previously. Even if you don’t know Lou, the episode gives you enough details so that you can jump right in to this story and the structure presents tons of opportunities for storytelling.

Thus, Lou Grant is kind of an oddity. It doesn’t feel like a spin-off and its tonal changes are certainly different from anything else in the early era of MTM Enterprises. But at the same time, its character base and focus on moderately controversial or “current” stories makes it reflective of the kind of “quality” Feuer is referring to in her work.

In his MTM Enterprises chapter on Lou Grant, Paul Kerr notes that the producers of Lou Grant intentionally positioned the series as something different, “not only from competitors but also the MTM house style itself.” Furthermore, Feuer notes that the series ultimately served as a pivot point between the comedy era kicked off by Mary Tyler Moore and the drama era later anchored by Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. Both of these statements are easily reflected within the Lou Grant pilot. It carries on some of the important elements Mary Tyler Moore established, but mixes them up in a purposeful, palpable way. So maybe not all spin-offs kill the possibility of quality.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: They are who we thought they were — somewhat worthy successors to Mary Tyler Moore

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2 thoughts on “Test Pilot: File #18, Rhoda and Lou Grant

  1. Interestingly enough, with all of the direction changes etc., in many ways I actually preferred Rhoda’s series to Mary’s – but it helps that I think I saw it first, so I didn’t have the “spin-off” stigma. Marge Simpson- err Julie Kavner as her sister Brenda was great but the real star of the show was Nancy Walker as Ida. There were also some random characters that would weave in and out that I thought were a lot of fun. It seemed less organized than Mary’s show, and “Rhoda’s Wedding” still ranks among my favorite TV episodes – even though the best humor from it comes from characters from the “mothership” Mary Tyler Moore show. I strongly disagree that it’s a “cheap spin-off” – I think it was a legitimate series with legitimate creators, and definitely not a cash-grab as Joey was.

    Now that I’ve seen more of both shows and I’m older, I think the seeds for Rhoda to have her own show were sown earlier with episodes like the one where Ida comes to stay for the week very early in Season 1… and the episode where Rhoda goes to the wedding of a sister we never see in her actual show. I think because of that I didn’t feel that it was as cheap – these characters were always a part of that universe, much like Phyllis and Bess were when Phyllis got her own show.

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