Not as good as the original comedy series that endeared her to just about all of human civilization, but still easily better than most television programs now on the air, "Mary," the vehicle in which Mary Tyler Moore breezes back onto network television tonight, is possessed of an ingratiating case of the smarts. The smartest thing about it, though, is probably Moore herself.
"Mary," at 8 on Channel 9, will be followed by another new sitcom, "Foley Square," at 8:30. Both shows are about single professional women fending off the threats and pressures of the work place and both aspire to a "Mary Tyler Moore Show" mentality. The one that succeeds at that is the one you would expect to succeed at that.
Her new series reunites Moore with the sitcom format and with CBS, the network that gratefully played "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" from 1970 to 1977. Much in the new program seems determinedly similar to the original; the new version is sort of Moore Classic. Instead of beginning a new life in Minneapolis, the 1985 Mary begins a new life in Chicago, landing a job at a semisleazy tabloid after Women's Digest, the magazine she'd worked for, folds in the opening scene. The publisher plans to put out Mercenary Life instead.
In the pilot episode airing tonight, the semisleazy tabloid was to be called The Chicago Post, but then it evolved that MTM Productions had failed to clear the name, which belongs in real life to a small Chicago monthly. Some reshooting and looping (dubbing) had to be done to remove all Post references. MTM now refuses to release the new name of the fictitious newspaper; a company spokesman said yesterday it would remain a secret until air time.
Whatever the paper is called, the office is a merry zoo in the manner of the old WJM-TV newsroom where Lou Grant barked and Ted Baxter gaffed. At first blush, the new characters do not seem as charmingly conceived as the old, but who can really remember first reactions to Lou and Ted and Murray and Sue Ann? Maybe they had to grow on you, too. Still, James Farentino, as the brash "Front Page"-type editor, seems coarse and harsh and not particularly funny.
A legally blind copy editor (David Byrd) totters about; shown to her new desk in the hectic newsroom, Mary asks him, "What do I do for privacy?" and he tells her, "Go home at night." John Astin plays a preeningly overconfident drama critic, one who didn't bother to check out "Cats." Best of the lot by far, Katey Sagal plays a brassy columnist who looks to become Mary's chief ally. She is delicately asked if she would consider giving up smoking. "Not to end world hunger," she growls.
She also inquires anxiously of Mary the new arrival, "You're not going to keep little stuffed Care Bears on your desk, are you?"
A great deal of exposition and character introduction has to be crammed into the premiere, and it seems cluttered, yet promising. Writers, creators and executive producers Ken Levine and David Isaacs need to bring out more redeeming qualities in the newsroom characters and give Mary more positive support if the show is going to wear well. At the moment, it's too coldly smart-alecky. Even so, the quality of writing on the premiere is high, and the tenor of the jokes is nicely modulated.
Mary of course is pretty wonderful; if Mary isn't wonderful, who is? The new Mary is a divorce' (ex-husband: unseen Ken, no children) who's been around a few more blocks a few more times than sweetie-pie Mary Richards. Moore rises to the occasion and gives this character added dimension, seasoning and savvy. When she first arrives in the newsroom, she's mistaken for a hooker, which really is a stretch, but when the hooker herself turns up near the end and announces to Mary, "I'm a hooker," Moore snaps back, "And a fine one you are, I am sure" with a zip and a crackle that's in the best TV sitcom tradition. Which is to say, the MTM tradition.
Moore has been given a shiny new apartment and some rather negligible comrades on the home front. No signs of anyone approaching a Rhoda sparkle or a Phyllis oomph. Obviously Mary needs to bring her work home with her, although in the premiere that consists of the editor showing up and propositioning her. At moments, "Mary" becomes cynical, and cynicism is something no one wants from Mary Tyler Moore. This is the age of Reagan and Cosby -- no time for Mary Tyler Moore to go crabby.
Danny DeVito, the excessively ubiquitous actor, directed the premiere, giving it a proper sharp edge but not the compensating warmth fostered by the great Jay Sandrich, veteran of the original series (which was chiefly the brilliant work of writer-producers James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels and David Lloyd).
Now to the matter of turning the world on with one's smile. Moore can still do it, but she needs a bit more help on this show. It's funny and clever, but it isn't joyful. Some of that old joie de Moore would help. On the last "Mary Tyler Moore Show," in 1977, Mary Richards referred to the WJM staff as her family and asked rhetorically, "What is a family anyway? They're just people who make you feel less alone and really loved." Moore needs to be less alone on the new "Mary," but she seems certain to be really loved again.
"Foley Square," which follows "Mary," introduces a Mooresque character in a Moorish situation: Margaret Colin as assistant district attorney Alex Harrigan, who has a surrogate family composed of coworkers in the DA's office and the predictable friendly and wacky neighbors who saunter into her Manhattan apartment. Notable among these is Michael Lembeck as, somewhat daringly, a platonic male friend who is nevertheless (at least so far) apparently not gay.
It may be the first time a situation comedy has entertained the notion that such a man-woman relationship is possible.
Colin is certainly a pleasing mixture of tart and chipper elements, and so is the opening show, with a script by executive producers Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, but there's a heavy cloud layer over the thing, a sense that everyone is speaking Standard American Sitcomese. That leads to a numbing realization that there will be few surprises. Hector Elizondo, for instance, does nothing with the crusty boss cliche' that doesn't seem to have been done a hundred times before.
Director Peter Bonerz certainly knows his sitcom oats, but the opening night plot is too similar to one used on "Kate & Allie" earlier this season (placing an ad in the personals To Meet A Man) and too spare on bright ideas. Enter: funny neighbor. Enter: office jerk. Enter: crusty boss. You'd just as soon see them exit, every one.