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 Guy – Two 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.