The 'Mary Tyler Moore Show' and How Sitcoms Moved to the City
The 1970s comedy series was one of the first to recognize a new economic and social reality, in which white-collar residents increasingly supplanted the urban working class.
After her death late last month at age 80, Mary Tyler Moore was widely celebrated for portraying one of television’s first modern career women on her eponymous series. But if The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, was a sign of emerging second-wave feminism it was also a harbinger of another related and, if possible, even more contentious cultural change: gentrification.
This may seem far-fetched to contemporary urbanites who equate gentrification with microbreweries and doggy day-care storefronts. In the 1970s, Minneapolis was a demure Starbucks-and bike-free city that resembled Portlandia about as much Anchorage resembles Dubai. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the writers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show managed to sense not just the burgeoning revolution in women’s roles but also its relation to the growth of the white-collar city.
When they started working on the show, the Mary Tyler Moore Show writers certainly didn’t have many television models for understanding the impending change. After World War II, the situation comedy was often a bourgeois suburban family affair. Shows that are now the butt of knowing contemporary jokes like Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Leave it to Beaver comforted a still raw nation with images of middle-class, white normalcy in the quiet safety of the ’burbs. In the early 1960s in The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore herself had played a New Rochelle housewife tending to the pot roast while her husband took the 5:15 train home from his comedy-writing job in Manhattan. The domestic arrangements of Laura and Rob Petrie and their young son on that show were really the same as the Cleavers of Leave it to Beaver, though thankfully the writing for the former was immeasurably wittier.
Television shows set in the city during those decades were generally working-class comedies or mean-street police dramas and reflected the reality of a soon-to-fade urban industrial era. Cops fought crime and vice in The Streets of San Francisco, in Police Story in Los Angeles, and in Kojak in New York City. The best known of the working-class comedies was undoubtedly The Honeymooners, which aired in the early 1950s. Its main character Ralph Kramden, played so memorably by Jackie Gleason, was an everyman bus driver married to an aproned and sharp-tongued wife. Living in the same apartment building in a shabby Brooklyn apartment in the déclassé neighborhood of Bensonhurst was Ed Norton, Ralph’s best friend and neighbor, a sewer worker, as humble an occupation as the writers could have come up with.
Only a few decades later came the last of the urban working-class comic antiheroes, Archie Bunker. In All in the Family, Archie had a day job as a foreman at the docks, but his primary role was to represent the bigotry and obsolescence of the white outer-borough working man in a world poised for change. All in the Family aired on CBS in the same Saturday night lineup as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It may have only been a coincidence, but in one evening viewers jostled between urban past and present. Mary Richards represented an entirely new economic and social reality set to overpower Archie Bunker and his city.
A decade of urban singlehood had become a predictable part of the life course for the educated middle class.
Chances are the show’s producers calculated that a white-bread Midwestern city would cushion the disorientation of viewers unaccustomed to....
This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic