Sex and ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’: How Mary Stayed Out All Night and Went on the Pill

mary-tyler-moore-200a072108The Mary Tyler Moore Show is no Sex and the City. I see SATC as MTM’s natural cultural heir — along with Girls and 30 Rock all the young-woman-in-the-city shows now — but was surprised by how many of the former MTM writers I interviewed for my book hated SATC. They seem to prefer more traditional sitcom craft; they all cited Modern Family as their favorite current show.

But Mary Tyler Moore did break new ground when it came to young, single women’s sexuality. At first, the show treaded lightly in the dating arena, sending Mary on random, mostly comical dates good for plot — a short guy, her journalism class teacher. And the writers always knew their limits, despite the progressive sensibility of the times. “Mary Goes to the Playboy Mansion, I think, was an idea whose time had never come,” writer Treva Silverman told me. “‘Mary swims topless, as Hugh Hefner looks fondly on,’ was not going to happen.” Mary Richards herself delivered a rather famous statement on the issue: “I’m hardly innocent. I’ve been around. Well, maybe not around, but I’ve been nearby.”

Nearby got a little closer to around, however, by the third season. Mary stayed out all night on a date, returning home the next morning in the same dress, a subtle suggestion of overnight activity. Just a few weeks later, another sly reference: We learned Mary was on birth control when her mother called out to her father, “Don’t forget to take your pill!” And both Dad and daughter replied, “I won’t!”

The slight change in Mary’s onscreen admissions made big waves — so much so that a different show, Bea Arthur’s Maude, remarked upon it. “Look what happened on The Mary Tyler Moore Show recently,” Maude’s next-door-neighbor, Arthur (Conrad Bain), complained. “She went out on a date and she stayed out all night.”

Maude: “All night? Our little Mary?”

Arthur: “You can sneer all you want, Maude, but as Mary Tyler Moore goes, so goes America.”

Sex and the City and Girls may just prove his point.

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