Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why That Girl Didn’t Marry That Guy

 
Does how a television show ends have any impact on its legacy? I explored that question in one of the chapters in my book What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. But that chapter was about St. Elsewhere. This piece is about That Girl.

All five seasons are available on DVD on well-appointed sets from Shout Factory! and I recently wrapped up my second journey through every episode. I like the show. And I think a lot of the credit that Mary Richards receives for breaking ground as a single female making her way in the world should really go to Ann Marie, charmingly played by Marlo Thomas.




The series revolved around two themes. The first was Ann’s struggles to make it as an actress, and the odd jobs she takes along the way to help pay the rent on an apartment that’s insanely huge for someone who works so sporadically; look at Ivy’s apartment on Smash for a more realistic look at how an actress lives in Manhattan – and she worked steadily on Broadway! The second was Ann’s loving but apparently platonic relationship with boyfriend Don Hollinger, who by season five must have been taking a lot of cold showers.

Then and now, what brings viewers to That Girl is the same comedic tone and breezy stories that fueled most sitcoms of the era. And the clothes. I’m a straight male but even I can’t resist the odd exclamation of “Fabulous!” when Ann the struggling actress strides out in some amazing high fashion ensemble that certainly made her the most colorfully chic character of the 1960s next to Emma Peel.

I’m sure we’ll talk more about other elements of the show in subsequent entries. But here let’s look at the final two episodes, which are strident to the point of unpleasantness, and clearly were conceived more as soapboxes for Marlo Thomas than adventures for Ann Marie.

The penultimate episode, “Soot Yourself,” finds “Ann” railing against polluters, including her fiancé’s employer, Newsview Magazine. There’s not much comedy here, just lots of self-righteous speeches, culminating in a wintertime dinner party during which Ann shuts off the heat to freeze her guests (because the building furnace is killing birds and grass and flowers and trees), and serves rancid food because…whatever.

The cause is not unworthy, but this kind of hammer-over-the-head approach, when people are just hoping for a pleasant 30 minutes of entertainment, tends to alienate more than it rallies the troops.

The final That Girl episode, “The Elevated Woman,” is a lazy clip show built around Ann’s attempts to get Donald to accompany her to a women’s liberation meeting. On one of their excellent commentary tracks, Marlo Thomas and series co-creator Bill Persky discussed how the network wanted the series to end with a wedding, which certainly made sense as Donald had proposed earlier in the season, and there had already been episodes devoted to his stag party and Ann’s bridal shower.

But Marlo was having none of that. “I said ‘No way,’ she recalled, with the same pride Susan B. Anthony felt when women got the vote. “I didn’t want all the girls to watch it and think the only happy ending would be to get married. It was really important that we didn’t do it.”

Yeah, take that, you silly, Neanderthal viewers. Why should you expect a series about a young couple in love for five years to end with a marriage?


The problem is that Ann Marie wanted to get married, and that should trump Ms. Thomas’s feelings on the subject. All actors exert some influence on the characters they play, but when personal beliefs contradict the established values and personality of that character, the result is a story that doesn’t ring true, exacerbated in this instance by it being the last time we will ever see Ann Marie. As a result, a very sweet series was left with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

If it’s any consolation, the point that Ms. Thomas was trying to make has certainly been embraced by the society at large, and every young girl grows up knowing that the world offers abundant opportunities besides marriage.

Forty years have passed since Ann Marie didn’t say ‘I do.’ And regardless of Marlo Thomas’s intentions, the story still seems incomplete. And what’s ironic is that today, in the Jersey Shore- Family GuyTwo and a Half Men era, a traditional wedding finale would be the most untraditional climax anyone could imagine. I’ll leave it to you whether that constitutes progress.

3 comments:

  1. Ty.😊 i was wondering. Too bad. They should have gotten married. Then, Ann Marie could have gotten a dream acting role. However, "Should have and could have are words we never use. They only depress us and give us the blues. ". i heard this on, " The Carol Burnett Show". Sincerely, janice bonser

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  2. One of the main differences that I have heard women use in why Mary Richards was more of a feminist icon than Ann Marie was the overall premise of their tv series. Ann Marie, an aspiring actress works at a series of odd temp jobs while waiting for her big break in show business. Mary Richards started off applying to Mary applies for a secretarial job at television station but she is hired as an Associate Producer. Later, Mary is promoted to News Producer when Lou becomes the station's news director.

    We never see Ann Marie break that glass ceiling. She is ALWAYS trying to make it big. Then there is Donald, there always seemed to be wedding bells just around the corner. Mary never had a steady boyfriend, or at least that wasn't the main focus of her show. Ann Marie had Donald, Mary had her career. Mary left her fiance when she realized they would never be getting married.

    I don't think it would have cheapened the show had Ann Marie and Donald tied the knot, but what I would have suggested was that she get mainstream success on stage or on film/tv and THEN get married. That way both or separate happy things in Ann Marie's life.

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    Replies
    1. Oddly enough, around Season 6 of MARY TYLER MOORE, Mary was seriously dating a man played by none other than Donald Hollinger himself, Ted Bessell. Mary didn't marry him either.

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