Tuesday, 22 September 2009

296: The Mary Tyler Moore Show 1973

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”
My Brother’s Keeper - January 13, 1973
Writers: Jenna McMahon, Dick Clair

Cloris Leachman: Phyllis Lindstrom
Valerie Harper: Rhoda Morgenstern
Robert Moore: Ben Sutherland

Phyllis's beloved brother Ben, a composer for commercials, comes to town for a visit from New York. The dominating Phyllis, proud of her brother, desperately wants to set him up with Mary. The two have a pleasant meal together, but when Mary’s friend Rhoda drops by, Ben hits it off with her, inviting her to a concert. He begins spending more time with Rhoda to Phyllis's dismay and intense disapproval. Rhoda evens says they are going to get married. Mary holds a party to which everyone is invited. It is a disaster. Phyllis is sat in corner away from everybody and begins sobbing violently at the prospect of being related by marriage to her antagonist Rhoda. Everyone rapidly leaves. Rhoda goes up to Phyllis and tells her that she and Ben are not getting married, that it was a joke.

Rhoda: Ben and I aren’t getting married. He’s not my type.

Phyllis:(getting up, outraged) What do you mean? Not your type! He’s attractive! He’s successful! He’s single!

Rhoda:(interjecting) He’s gay!

Incredible display of Phyllis stunned. Stares at Rhoda. Rhoda nods in confirmation. Phyllis is now abashed, then hugs Rhoda joyfully.
(ecstatically) I’m so relieved.

Phyllis and Ben at piano. There is no mention of his homosexuality, only a gag at Phyllis’s ignorance of music.


As the summary makes clear, the only suggestion of homosexuality and a gay character is right at the end of the episode. There is nothing in Robert Moore’s performance to suggest he’s gay. He’s not played as excessively manly, merely as a friendly, attractive proposition for the female characters. If in retrospect the audience sees anything “gay” in Ben’s portrayal then it may stem from the fact that Robert Moore was gay. Moore had been involved in the original New York production of “The Boys in the Band”. Apparently the role of Ben was never conceived as gay. When this episode was recorded it was felt that the conclusion wasn’t working. According to James L. Brooks, the show’s producer: "It was rewrite night, and we were looking for an end to the show. Bob was gay and we said, `What if we just use that?'" That it can all be a last minute afterthought suggests that homosexuality was now a fact of modern life that audience would accept. The audience has been kept in ignorance as much as Phyllis, and it is hoped will accept as well as she does. It’s certainly not given an opportunity to really think of what this means, in itself or for the characters. It’s a way of pricking Phyllis’s self-conceit. Being gay is the biggest logical shock the writers can think of to top the episode. Why wouldn’t a man be interested in an attractive woman? Though it’s a solution which had been offered as a gag in Rock Hudson films over a decade earlier. And this deferred romantic interest gambit is a technique which will become a mainstay of gay-themed sitcom episodes in the 1970s, and even in the cartoon strip “Doonesbury”.
Possibly because “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was a much less abrasive, audience friendly show, more people seem to remember this episode as featuring the first gay character on an American sitcom, than the episode of “All in the family” which preced it by almost two years. And indeed, it may mean more than it was on such an appealing show, and without any hint of controversy or liberal argument, that Ben’s homosexuality was made an inoffensive joke.
And of course, I hardly need mention that we never see beloved gay brother Ben ever again.

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