One of the reasons I’ve never embraced Gilligan’s Island like so many fellow classic TV fans is that the end of every story is clear before the episode begins.
That’s fine if you just enjoy spending time with its seven castaways, but for me it became too repetitious.
1.They want to get off the island.
2. Something happens that makes them think they’re going to get off the island.
3. Something goes wrong and they’re still on the island.
If losing is baked into the DNA of any television character, that character risks becoming less interesting. Lucy Ricardo would never win rave reviews for appearing in Ricky’s show. Bus driver Ralph Kramden’s latest get-rich-quick scheme was always doomed to fail. *
These are classic shows despite the inevitable futility of outlandish schemes, but for those of us who wish that Charlie Brown had finally been able to kick that football, we can’t help occasionally rooting for a different outcome.
That’s why some of my favorite TV episodes are those in which the perpetual loser becomes, for once, a winner. It can never last, of course, but even a fleeting moment of triumph is enough to upturn a routine story and explore new territory.
Which brings us to “Farmer Ted and the News,” a season three episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
By then the character of Ted Baxter had been well established and defined – pompous, egotistical, often incompetent at his job as anchorman for WJM News. In the show’s workplace scenes, if someone was going to be the butt of a joke, it was always Ted. Murray and Lou demeaned him at every opportunity, and usually not without good reason. It was not in Mary’s nature to be as aggressively harsh, but she shared their disdain.
In this episode Ted’s contract is up for renewal, and Murray is seething at the thought that Ted might get a raise when he is already the highest-paid but least-qualified member of the news team. Lou is adamant – no raise – but he agrees to meet with Ted’s agent, and is surprised when into his office walks Bella, a sweet older lady who immediately puts him at ease. She reassures Lou that Ted doesn’t want more money – all he asks is that the exclusivity clause from his contract be stricken, so Ted would be free to pursue other opportunities, such as movie roles or Broadway engagements.
Lou happily deletes that clause, and later shares a laugh with Mary and Murray over the thought of anyone casting Ted in a film or Broadway show.
He’s not even worried when Ted tells him, “You fell right into our trap.”
He should have worried. Just days later Mary is shocked to see Ted doing a Ron Popeil-like commercial for a tomato slicer.
Rhoda thinks it’s hilarious; Mary (and Lou) realize that what little credibility their news show has is now quickly dissolving. More commercials follow – Ted gladly barks like a dog to sell dog food and cashes another check.
Lou has no choice but to admit defeat. “I think Baxter's finally got me. I've gone over his contract, a dozen times. There's nothing I can do to stop him. First it was that tomato slicer. Then it was that commercial for that woman's product. I didn't even know what it was.”
Sure, the idea was probably
Bella’s, or money-hungry Ted would have thought of it sooner. But he
recognized its potential and gave up on another token raise for something with
greater profit possibilities, while leveraging the newsroom’s derision of his
limited outside opportunities into something they couldn’t see past their own condescension. That's a win - and an impressive one at that.
How does it end? I won’t reveal it here, but the last straw comes after one of Ted’s commercials (for Ma and Pa’s Country Pork Sausage) airs between segments during his newscast. After the spot the camera cuts back to a smiling Ted as he admires his pitchman skills, before solemnly dropping back into his anchorman voice – “And now, the news.” Ted Knight was so brilliant in this part – makes me laugh out loud every time.
After the broadcast he reluctantly reports to Lou’s office where the situation is resolved in a way that would not pass muster with any HR department. But it works.
In these challenging times of unequal justice, indifferent customer service, unmerited outrage over movies and songs and anything else that can place another wedge between people who just want to be left alone, it’s enough to make many of us feel like we too are surrounded by hostility on all sides. Maybe that’s another reason why it is sometimes satisfying to watch a loser come out on top – at least until next week’s episode.
* I wouldn’t have even minded if, just once, Dick Dastardly won a Wacky Race.