“Allow me to introduce myself,” spoke a sarcastic voice from the couch during the second episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “I’m another person in the room.” Her name was Rhoda Faye Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), and for a time she was a window dresser and Mary Richards’ (Mary Tyler Moore) upstairs neighbor in Minneapolis. In this instance, she’s learned that the man she’s asked out on a date, the one she met when she accidentally ran him over with her car, is in fact married and he’s brought his wife along for the evening. It’s the kind of thing that Rhoda would insist would only happen to someone like her and never someone like Mary.
Even at times when Mary was having a rough time and Rhoda was having a great one, she knew things would soon return to the order of the universe. “Tomorrow, you will meet a crowned head of Europe and marry; I will have a fat attack, eat 300 peanut butter cups, and die,” Rhoda informs her friend. “That’s the way it always is.” Becoming endearingly popular with viewers, Rhoda’s role as the antithesis to Mary Richards was one that positioned her as someone who knows the power of a laugh, even if it has to be at her own expense. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a sitcom masterpiece for many reasons, but Valerie Harper’s Rhoda is an overlooked spinoff that deserves to be on the top of your watchlist.
Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Became a Fan Favorite on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’
It would have been very easy for network television in 1970 to not include a secondary character of a different religious or social background to show that while yes, Mary does struggle to get by in a male-dominated workforce and the fact that she does was groundbreaking, she still has it relatively easy even by the oppression standards of the day. Watching her in the present, Rhoda doesn’t look necessarily less attractive or white than Mary, but when a new friend of Mary’s once discriminates against her for being Jewish, we’re given to assume that life has not always treated her kindly — but at least she’s reached a point of being able to laugh about it.
As a result of her popularity, Mary Tyler Moore producers soon began to toy with the idea of spinning Rhoda off into her own series. “New York, this is your last chance,” she proclaims during the first season-opening credits of Rhoda, which premiered in 1974 and saw the character move back to her hometown of New York City after a visit turns into something more permanent. The move was ultimately prompted by her first encounter with Joe Gerard (David Groh), whom she marries eight episodes into Season 1 — a wedding episode that served as a crossover with Rhoda’s former Mary Tyler Moore counterparts, which some 50 million Americans tuned in to watch. The heavily publicized fictional wedding became the single highest-rated episode of television in the 1970s (a record Roots would break in 1977), and the second most-watched episode of a series after Little Ricky’s birth on I Love Lucy. Vogue once reported that Rhoda’s wedding was such an event at the time that travelers were pulling off highways to check into hotels to watch the episode. With this evidence, one would say Rhoda was a hit. Or so it seemed.
Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Finally Finds Love in the Spinoff
It wasn’t unusual for stars of the original series to make regular guest appearances during the initial episodes of the spinoff, especially in the 1970s. Henry Winkler did several guest spots as the Fonz during Laverne & Shirley’s first season, as did Mary Tyler Moore during Rhoda’s. Rhoda maintained its high ratings even without Moore as viewers continued to tune in each week for the marital adventures of Rhoda and Joe, a marriage that was easy for fans to emotionally invest in as they had, after all, experienced Rhoda being unlucky in love, self-conscious over her weight and appearance, and overall hard on herself for four seasons on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now, Rhoda was supposedly being rewarded as all of that unhappiness had apparently been worth it, as she had finally found the one. But, as viewers were about to witness, things change and happiness does not exist in a straight line.
Watching Rhoda in the 21st century, there’s never a time in the series where it feels like it’s not entertaining or watchable. Fans of the character followed because they knew that Rhoda was someone who got going when the going got tough. In the iconic The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening credits, Mary Richards famously tosses her hat in the air, knowing she was going to make it after all. In the comparably less remembered Rhoda closing credits, Rhoda Morgenstern attempts a Mary hat toss, only to clumsily drop it on the ground. So she picks it up, places it back on her head, and moves on with her life. It was a sentiment that surely captured the essence of what made the character resonate with audiences, but by the time Rhoda had reached its second season, that essence was missing. She was still feisty, sassy, and cynical, but something didn’t feel right. From a writer’s point of view, this was no longer the Rhoda that viewers had once fallen for.
Rhoda and Joe’s Divorce Was When the Spinoff Lost Direction
Cut to Rhoda’s Season 3 premiere. She and Joe have been searching for a house to buy together, but Rhoda’s husband becomes increasingly standoffish as the episode goes on. At first, it seems he’s objecting to her choice of house, but the root of the problem soon becomes that Joe isn’t sure he wants to move into a house, with her or with anyone. As inexplicably as their relationship began, Rhoda and Joe decide to separate. For sitcoms of the groundbreaking caliber produced under MTM Productions, divorce doesn’t seem like such a taboo. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had gone there with Lou (Ed Asner) and Edie (Priscilla Morrill) just a few years earlier. The difference now was that Rhoda was breaking up its main characters, the core of what her spinoff had spent two seasons building after deciding this was the path it wanted to take. But with Rhoda’s third season, the series creators decided they wanted a different path.
According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns decided to separate Rhoda and Joe for Season 3, later phasing him out altogether, as they believed Rhoda had lost her edge as a married woman. It might not have been an edge that every viewer would have been able to pinpoint, as we were happy nonetheless to watch as the character moved back home, got married, and therefore “grew up.” By our culture’s pervasive heteronormative standards, Rhoda had won. We got to watch her win, and the remainder of her spinoff should have followed her life of bliss with Joe, sister Brenda (Julie Kavner), and never-satisfied mother Ida (Nancy Walker). Right?
‘Rhoda’ Finds Her Edge Again in Season 3
Well, as it turns out, no. Although the writers kept Joe around on a recurring basis during Season 3, even entertaining us with episodes of marriage counseling and chance encounters, they knew that in order for Rhoda to be Rhoda, she had to be on her own, like Mary. And that’s exactly who she calls late at night in Minneapolis towards the end of Season 3 to inform that her marriage is definitely over. This was another new beginning for the character, marking the return of the “edge” her creators had been missing. But it also indicated a shift in the character’s development: having gone through a divorce as an already cynical and pessimistic person who was always convinced love had passed her by, Rhoda was now going to be the best Rhoda she could be.
Unfortunately, the audience didn’t necessarily feel the same way. During its first two seasons, Rhoda was a top 10 show. After Rhoda and Joe’s separation and divorce… not so much. Season 4 managed to pull in higher numbers than its predecessor, but frequent changes to its timeslot and opening credits didn’t help matters. Ratings continued to dwindle into Season 5, leading CBS to cancel the series midway through the season leaving several episodes unaired, only to be seen later in syndication. Unlike The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s grand series finale from 1977, the untimely cancelation left no room for resolution. Although it would have been nice to have seen an ending for our favorite characters on Rhoda, its unceremonious demise feels like an allegory for its later unappreciated seasons.
While The Mary Tyler Moore Show is still rightfully cited as laying the groundwork for everything from Designing Women to Sex and the City, Rhoda rarely gets its due for its portrayal of divorce, single life, and how life always goes on when the unthinkable happens. In some sense, Rhoda felt even more empowering than Mary Tyler Moore at times: for those who see themselves more in the character’s flamboyant self-deprecation, certainly, but also for teaching viewers — especially women — to not be afraid of changing their minds, lives, and outlooks when life goes sideways. Both series have aged undoubtedly well, but it’s Rhoda’s misanthropic persistence that better convinces us we’re going to make it after all.
The Big Picture
- Rhoda’s role as the antithesis to Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show highlighted the privilege that Mary had.
- Despite the initial success of Rhoda as a spinoff series, the decision to separate Rhoda and Joe and focus on her as a single woman caused a decline in ratings.
- Rhoda’s portrayal of divorce and single life was empowering and taught viewers, especially women, to embrace change and persevere when life doesn’t go as planned.
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