`Mary' movie isn't great, but so what?

Television: Despite a weak script, it's nice to catch up with one of television's most beloved characters.

February 07, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The movie is not that great, but it does feel good to see Mary and Rhoda again and get a chance to spend some time with them after all these years.

That's the nicest thing I can say about "Mary and Rhoda," the ABC made-for-TV movie tonight that brings back Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) and Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," one of the most beloved and important sitcoms in television history.

Mary deserves respect. While the term television icon is now applied to almost anyone who lasts more than six weeks in a prime-time series, Mary really is one: a media template for the single career woman defined by who she is rather than the man with whom she keeps company.

When Mary arrived in the fall of 1970, she was a seminal figure, and 30 years later she is still being imitated in such series as "Suddenly Susan" and "Just Shoot Me." So, if you want to see this movie get ripped, go somewhere else.

First, you should know what the film is not. It's not a reunion movie with all the cast members brought back, nor is it filled with flashbacks to the original series. There's an opening montage of clips from the old show that lasts all of 20 seconds by my count, but that is it, and those images are limited to Mary and Rhoda. Not only are Lou, Murray, Ted and all the rest not seen, but they also are never mentioned, as if they never existed.

The film finds Mary at age 60 arriving back at her apartment in New York from Europe five months after the death of her husband, a U.S. congressman. Rhoda, too, has returned to New York, the place we last saw her living in the spinoff series, "Rhoda." Most recently, she has been living in Paris with a philandering French husband whom she has just divorced.

Mary finds out her husband left her mainly broke, and both women are in the position of having to re-enter the work force after having been decidedly out of it for years. And, coincidence of coincidences, both women also happen to have daughters in college in New York. Rhoda's daughter, Meredith (Marisa Ryan), is studying pre-med at Columbia University, while Mary's daughter, Rose (Joie Lenz), is a student at New York University. Rose, though, doesn't want to stay in school; she wants to be a stand-up comedian.

The scenes with the daughters are among the film's worst moments. I kept wondering how Mare and Rho wound up with such boring kids.

The best moment is the reunion scene when Mary and Rhoda happen upon each other on the street outside Mary's apartment. They see each other, they scream, they hug, and you think, "Yes, this film is going to work." And for a few more beats it does, as we see the two spending a day together catching up.

But, then, the clunker of a script from Katie Ford kicks back in with another lame story line. That would be the one that has Mary finding a job as a TV producer working for an arrogant wunderkind (Elon Gold). The heavy-handed, preachy plot about values in TV journalism is exactly the kind of thing the original series avoided, while making much more informed points about the medium and the kinds of people who work in it.

"Mary and Rhoda" is not so awful that it will make you angry about the way a cherished TV memory is cheapened -- the way "Patty Duke: Still Rockin' in Brooklyn Heights," for example, did last year. But it is uninspired enough that some will wonder why Moore, who is co-executive producer, risked messing with such a beloved character, especially in a media environment that keeps such characters as Mary and Rhoda alive and well in "TV Land" on the Nickelodeon cable channel.

After listening to her explain it last month in Los Angeles, I think I understand Moore's motivation. She did it, she says, to claim some authorship of Mary and to prove she could make such a project happen.

The original series bore her name, as did the celebrated production company, MTM, that made it. But it was really the work and vision of her former husband, Grant Tinker, and such brilliant writers as Allan Burns and Jim Brooks, who created the series.

None of them are connected with "Mary and Rhoda." This is definitely Moore's creation, her proof that she could make it after all.

In that sense it is a very Mary sort of act, and one that I applaud. But it doesn't mean "Mary and Rhoda" is great television, or that it deserves even polite applause as a film.

Tonight's TV

What: "Mary and Rhoda"

When: Tonight 8 to 10

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Mary and Rhoda at 60. Two great talents, one poor script.

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