Monday, September 9, 2019

Why Rhoda Was Necessary

The precept of casting today decrees that roles should be filled by actors who share the ethnic and cultural experiences of their characters. We are told it is more appropriate and more inclusive.

But had that directive been in place in the 1970s, we might never have met Rhoda Morgenstern – at least, not as unforgettably played by Valerie Harper. 

Harper was not Jewish but she created perhaps the most famous and beloved Jewish character on television. And that’s not something to just acknowledge in passing, especially at a time when anti-Semitism is sadly on the rise again.

She wasn’t the first – The Goldbergs debuted two years before I Love Lucy, and the show's writer, producer and star, Gertrude Berg, ranks among television’s pioneers. In the 1960s, Buddy Sorrell honored his heritage on The Dick Van Dyke Show with a decades-belated bar mitzvah (“Buddy Sorrell Man and Boy”). 

But even by the 1970s there were shows that depicted Jewish families as something “other”; I recall episodes like “Danny Converts” on The Partridge Family,” and “Bitter Herbs” on the Saturday morning superhero series Shazam. The lesson of these shows was always that while some people have different beliefs and traditions they’re just people like the rest of us. It’s sad that this even had to be communicated – and even sadder that there are still a few idiots in this country that haven’t gotten the message. 

So it was no small thing that when viewers met Mary Richards in the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they also met Rhoda. And near as I can recall, no one had any concerns or complaints. Everyone just liked her.

As much as we must always acknowledge the show’s writers for Rhoda’s witty dialogue, the credit for the character’s acceptance and the affection she engendered in viewers belongs entirely to Valerie Harper. 

By the show’s second episode one of TV’s most enduring opposites-attract friendships had been established. Where Mary was upbeat and optimistic, Rhoda was cynical and self-deprecating. Where Mary seemed to get asked out by every eligible male in Minneapolis, Rhoda attracted nothing but losers. Where Mary always seemed stylish and pulled together, Rhoda struggled with her looks and her weight.

Mary: Why don't you eat something? 
Rhoda: I can't. I've got to lose 10 lbs. by 8:30.

But these perceived flaws and insecurities never made Rhoda the butt of jokes. Phyllis took her shots but she always ended up on the losing end of the skirmish. Audiences eagerly sided with the plucky Jewish girl over her pompous WASP-y landlord.

The contrast wasn’t always religious as much as it was geographic – Mary was a product of the friendly and wholesome Midwest, while Rhoda’s roots were planted in the kill-or-be-killed streets of The Bronx. But religious intolerance was front and center in the season two show “Some of My Best Friends are Rhoda,” in which Mary's new friend belongs to a tennis club that doesn’t welcome certain types of guests. Mary’s response spoke for all of us.

Maybe this wasn’t the same type of door that opened when Bill Cosby was cast in I Spy, but there is a parallel in finding the right actor with enough talent and charisma to bring a non-traditional character into America’s living rooms, when safer choices were a less risky option.

Today we think of Mary and Rhoda with the same affection as Lucy and Ethel or Laverne and Shirley. But that was no sure thing in 1970, and for proof one need only look at the fate of Bridget Loves Bernie, the CBS sitcom that served as the lead-in for The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1972.

Meredith Baxter played Bridget Teresa Mary Colleen Fitzgerald, an Irish Catholic schoolteacher who falls in love at first sight with Jewish cab driver Bernie Steinberg. The couple’s inter-religious marriage and the culture clash of their respective in-laws was the launching point for many episodes.    

The network canceled the series after 23 episodes, though it ranked fifth among all shows that season. Adverse reactions from a few anti-Semitic viewers? Certainly. But there was also an objection from The Rabbinical Assembly of America, which described the series as "an insult to the most sacred values of both the Jewish and Catholic religions."

More than 40 years later Bridget Loves Bernie remains the highest-rated TV series to be canceled. That same year, Valerie Harper won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress, and Rhoda left Minneapolis to headline her own CBS series, in which her Jewish character would marry a non-Jewish man. Maybe there were grumblings about that too, but for each one there were 500 viewers looking forward to the wedding.

Was Rhoda a good show? Yes, as was The Mary Tyler Moore Show after Harper’s departure. But there was magic when Mary and Rhoda were together that was not there when they were apart.

Unfortunately, when they reunited in the 2000 TV movie Mary and Rhoda, that special something had disappeared. Disappointing, but now it’s little more than a footnote, easily ignored for a character that appears in more than 150 episodes of classic television.

Can we say that Rhoda paved the way for Fran Fine and Monica Geller? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But more than one generation of TV fans is still on a first-name basis with her, and for that we must say one last thank you to Valerie Harper – who also turned the world on with her smile. 

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Hofstede, remember when Valerie Harper was fired from her own sitcom in 1987? The situation did end up working out for her in the end. May Valerie Harper rest in peace.