Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Colossus of Rhoda

For a long time, my job entailed reading screenplays that had been submitted to various film and TV production entities. During that decade I began paying a different kind of attention to the movies and TV shows I saw for pleasure and for work, trying to keep track of successful and unsuccessful screenplay structural trends. I continued studying structure (among other things) during a two year screenwriting program in NYC, where I applied what I'd learned from the thousands of scripts I'd read and tens of thousands of films and shows I'd seen to scripts I was now writing.

During this process, one of, if not the most important aspects of dynamic storytelling that was elevated from instinctual and/or unspoken to conscious, front-of-the-brain awareness was the pivotal role of the primary supporting character as it relates to the lead or "hero" character.

no word yet on whether the Bronx has a Rhoda statue in the works

I figured out that every good hero's journey requires a best friend or sidekick. Unlike novels, film and TV characters have little or no "internal" life (barring the novelistic cheat of constant voice-over narration), so for the audience to understand what the hero character is experiencing we need a character to stand in for us and listen to/experience along with the trials and tribulations of the lead as they attempt to conquer the villain/opposing force that stand in their way.

In other words, Mary Richards needs Rhoda Morgenstern to succeed. Speaking strictly for TV and excluding movie characters, I'm pretty sure that Rhoda was the best "best friend" character in television history.

I grew up watching THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW because it was one of my mom's favorites and at that time there was only one set in the house so the kids watched whatever was on. I hadn't thought of MTM much since my 1970s childhood until a recent foray into EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND. During its first run, I avoided RAYMOND, believing it to be just another lowbrow comedian huckstering "isn't middle class American hilarious?" schtick. By the time it settled into reruns, Mrs. Word Player and I had heard enough positives about it to give it a try so we dutifully set the DVR to "record series" and were pleasantly surprised.

Although we both HATED Chris Elliot's "Peter MacDougall" character (the brother of Ray's brother Robert's girlfriend/wife Amy), we loved Amy's parents, played by Fred Willard and Georgia Engal. Despite the nearly 30 year gap since watching my last MTM episode, the first time Georgia Engal's "Pat MacDougall" appeared onscreen I blurted out "That's Ted Baxter's girlfriend!"

Long story short, Mrs. Word Player hadn't seen a single MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, so we harnessed the awesome power of Netflix and began watching them in chronological order, starting with the first episode of Season 1, first broadcast September 19, 1970.

And we laughed and had ourselves a "new" show just like that.

will Netflixing RHODA be wonderful or sad???

We're now approaching the end of Season 3, and in two recent episodes it's been teased that Rhoda might be leaving Minneapolis. Thankfully the third act of each had Rhoda firmly back in her bachelorette apartment above Mary's, but the specter of Valerie Harper's Rhoda character being spun-off into her own show (we know it happens, but not exactly when) has me pondering just how important she is to the show.

The answer, or course, is very. MTM has aged remarkably well, thanks in large part to the incredible ensemble cast of character actors assembled by co-creator and legend James "Hell" Brooks. Judge Smails and Captain Steubing in the same show? Oh HELL yeah.

it's no coincidence that his dog was named "Baxter"

Thanks to terrific writing and acting the character of Rhoda, Mary's best friend and confidante, is the one that holds Mary's hilarious and quite frequently touching single-gal odyssey through the 70s together.

And for that, I salute you. People often argue about who's "the Mary" and who's "the Rhoda" in a friendship, each one usually believing that they are the Mary. I personally am more comfortable as a Rhoda.


Anonymous said...

as someone pointed out to me about 15 years ago, if MTM were made today, Stuebing would most certainly be gay.

Anonymous said...

You are right, Rhoda is awesome. And it amazes me how much Steubing, er, McLeod resembles Larry David in voice and look (minus glasses).

J. (