Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rhoda : "Rhoda's Wedding"

Season 1, Episode 8
Original Airdate: October 28,1974
Writers: Norman Barasch, James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, David Davis, Carroll Moore, David Lloyd, Lorenzo Music
Director: Robert Moore
Producers: David Davis, Lorenzo Music
Cast: Valerie Harper, David Groh, Julie Kavner

Before it became a model for what not to do with a successful sitcom, the first season of “Rhoda” was pure magic. The character, who became a fan favorite on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was being spun off into her own sitcom. But instead of just providing viewers with a watered-down version of its sister sitcom (sexy single woman tries to balance dating and a professional career), “Rhoda” was a family affair, centering on the title character’s quirky relatives while also pairing her off in a romance with Joe, a really great New Yorker who she would quickly fall for. The writing was incredibly crisp and Rhoda lost none of her edge in the transition between second banana and leading lady.

The first season featured a fantastic opening, with Rhoda (Valerie Harper) speaking to the camera, confessional style. In just a few seconds we know our main character (“I had a bad puberty. It lasted seventeen years”), know her family (“I decided to move out of the house when I was 24. My mother still refers to this as the time I ran away from home.”) and know the show we are about to watch (“Now I’m back in Manhattan. New York, this is your last chance”). Seriously, whoever made this intro deserved an Emmy.

Rhoda and Joe’s courtship (quickly) blossomed into an engagement, which resulted in this episode, the best crossover in the history of television. Most of the cast from “The Mary Tyler Moore” show came from Minneapolis to New York City for Rhoda’s vows, and the results are sitcom magic. So much could (and more often than not, does) go wrong when two world collide like this. Would the different humor styles of the shows match? Would the cast of “Mary” overwhelm the newer cast of “Rhoda”? Or would the cast of “Mary” be so marginalized that viewers would be annoyed at their inclusion at all? Somehow, the episode’s multitude of writers strike the perfect balance between the worlds, creating a beautifully written hour of television that manages to pay homage to all Rhoda’s history on “Mary” while still being an enjoyable episode of her own sitcom. It’s all so good that you can actually forgive the two minutes of clips that appear around the halfway point.

This wonderful balance certainly comes in part from the fact that this is a special hour-long installment. The added running time gave the writers additional scenes where Rhoda can interact with everyone important in the cast. There is a fantastically funny scene where Rhoda and her sister Brenda (Julie Kavner) slowly, horrifyingly, realize that their mother (Nancy Walker) has ignored her daughter’s wishes of a small intimate ceremony and invited over 70 people. The way Walker balances breaking the news to Rhoda while remaining in control of the situation is superb, something that would recur wonderfully over the show’s first two seasons.

The crew from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” arrives, including Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), who hates Rhoda but is determined to prove that she doesn’t by going to the wedding despite not being invited. At this point we expect that the slew of guest stars (Moore, Leachman, Ed Asner, Georgia Engel, Gavin MacLeod) to take over the proceedings, but instead the writers still allow for a barnburner of a scene between Rhoda and Joe the night before the wedding. You don’t expect the scene, but once you see it you cannot imagine the episode without it -- there’s a sweet emotional honesty between the characters that you would never expect on a sitcom. There are a few punchlines, but they are almost beside the point. The moment is about Rhoda laying herself bare in front of Joe, presenting herself as the imperfect individual she is and allowing Joe to embrace her for those imperfections. It’s sweet, makes you root for the couple and anchors an episode that might have easily embraced too much hype for its own good.

What comes next is truly one of the funniest sustained sequences in all of television. Abandoned in her apartment by Phyllis (because of course Phyllis forgot to pick her up), Rhoda crosses Manhattan and heads to the Bronx...all while wearing her wedding dress. First she’s on the subway but must walk the last half mile herself. These hilarious sight gags (shot on location) are made even funnier by the intercutting with the waiting guests. Phyllis arrives at the ceremony just long enough before Rhoda to get her life threatened by Rhoda’s mother and make the moment all about her, begging for forgiveness and getting none from anyone but Georgette, who warns Phyllis that she better get the heck out of there before Rhoda arrives. It’s perhaps the crowning comedic achievement in the entire franchise (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” and “Phyllis.” The dramatic “Lou Grant” doesn’t really count), rivaling even Chuckles’ funeral, Phyllis slamming the oven door and the group hug. Of course Rhoda gets there and gets her happy ending. It was the happy ending we rooted for. The happy ending Rhoda deserved. And it was all very, very funny.

Until, of course, it wasn’t.

In “Rhoda’s” third season the writers made the abhorrent decision to separate Rhoda and Joe before they ultimately got a divorce. Why? Apparently nothing spells “comedy” more than the slow meltdown of a marriage audiences loved. To make matters even worse, Walker and Harold Gould (Rhoda’s father) were written out, making the familial unit that felt so honest in the series nonexistent. Harper got tan, lost weight and got an entirely new wardrobe toshow off her body. She struggled with dating and juggling that life with her job, all while confiding in her sister/best friend, who was unlucky in love. In other words, “Rhoda” became a watered-down clone of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” something the first season celebrated being so different from. Viewers abandoned it like they would the Titanic, and the show was cancelled by the middle of its fifth season, with four episodes never even aired. Such a shame that a show this good could have dissolved into something that predictable and bland, because it has damaged the legacy of the show, whose first season should be ranked among the best written, performed sitcoms in history.

“Rhoda’s Wedding” is available on HuluPlus and DVD.

1 comment:

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