A Hit Show Is Hard To Follow

After I received a copy of tomorrow’s release of Mary Tyler Moore season 6 (aka “the one with ‘Chuckles Bites the Dust'”), I was thinking about Moore’s well-intentioned but ill-fated choice of her next project after that show ended. TV stars, obviously, have a lot of trouble following up a very successful show. It’s easier when they’re not the headlining stars, since then they can simply go from being a supporting player to having their own show (or a spinoff, a la Ed Asner or Kelsey Grammer). But what do you do after you’ve been the top-billed, name-in-the-title star of a very successful show? Moore’s decision, sensibly enough, was that it wouldn’t make sense for her to do another sitcom, since nothing could top the one she’d just finished. Her decision was to do a variety show, where she could sing, dance, do comedy and anchor an otherwise young cast. The youngsters selected for the show included Michael Keaton, David Letterman and Swoosie Kurtz, and MTM assigned Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses to produce the show, so you couldn’t accuse anybody of skimping on the talent. But all it proved is that you probably shouldn’t build a variety show around someone who is merely competent, not great, at all the variety-show staples, and whose greatest strength (playing one character every week) has nothing to do with variety. The show was canceled after only three episodes.

After the show bombed, Moore and the network regrouped and re-launched it with a mostly new cast as The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, a hybrid of sitcom and variety in the style of Jack Benny or Larry Sanders (Moore played a character who was the star of a variety show, and the episodes alternated between behind-the-scenes stuff and sketches from the show-within-the-show). Plus, in an attempt to pander to those with fond memories of the older, better show, they replaced the theme song with an arrangement of “Love Is All Around.” It bombed too, but not as humiliatingly, though it once again proved — if the other show and her flop musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s weren’t enough proof — that Moore couldn’t really sing as well as she thought she could.

Michael Keaton was carried over from the earlier version, and he played the show’s page. That page’s name? Kenneth. That can’t be a coincidence. Someone connected with Tina Fey must have remembered that show.

Five or six years later, Moore returned to TV in the sitcom format, in a show created by Ken Levine and David Isaacs; it, too, went the way of most follow-ups. It also has what I think might be the most boring title sequence of the ’80s: the generic Chicago footage, the generic sax theme, all put me to sleep before they get to the laboured closing gag.

There’s no real lesson here, except that hit shows are hard to follow up on.

Also, none of these shows were as strange as the special Moore did while her show was still running, “Mary’s Incredible Dream.” Now there’s a show that needs to be exhumed as an example of how strange (and pretentious) U.S. television can sometimes be.