The outpouring of affection upon the recent death of Mary Tyler Moore is not only a tribute to a popular television icon, but it also draws attention to the series that made her more than just another TV star: The Mary Tyler Moore Show—a program that offers teachers of popular cultural semiotics an unusually rich topic for analysis.
As always, we can begin such an analysis with an identification of the particular system with which The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be associated. This system is the television genre we call the "situation comedy," but the moment we identify that system a rather glaring difference appears when we compare The Mary Tyler Moore Show with the prominent sitcoms that preceded it, including, of course, The Dick Van Dyke Show. This difference is the key to the whole analysis.
The MTM difference, and its significance, is obvious: The Dick Van Dyke Show, along with such iconic family sitcoms as Father Knows Best, Leave it To Beaver, and My Three Sons, were fundamentally patriarchal television series devoted to the presentation of a certain ideological vision of the American family. As feminist scholars of popular culture have long since pointed out, the family sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s functioned to persuade American women that the non-domestic roles they were allowed to play during the Second World War were only temporary and "unnatural." Rosie the Riveter, as it were, had to be shown that her real happiness lay in a middle-class suburban home, taking care of the house and the children for her bread-winning husband. It was all, as Antonio Gramsci might have put it, a gigantic act of cultural hegemony.
This is why it was such a very big deal when Laura Petrie reappeared—only four years after the conclusion of The Dick Van Dyke Show—as Mary Richards, a single professional living an independent life in the big city. Pioneering what could be called "the mainstreaming of the women's movement," The Mary Tyler Moore Show (its very name, as an inverse image to The Dick Van Dyke Show, was significant) marked the moment in which sneering at feminists began to cease to be the default position in American popular culture.
But The Mary Tyler Moore Show does not only signify a crucial moment in the history of the women's movement; it also helped open the door to such other socially conscious sitcoms as All in the Family, and, perhaps more significantly (if far less remembered), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. For while All in the Family brought racial and cultural conflict into America's living rooms, it remained, at base, a sitcom. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, on the other hand, could really be called the first dramedy, its mixture of soap opera with satire offering a not-so-funny exploration of the crumbling edifice of married domesticity.
Like The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (a 1980s proto-dramedy that also explored the darker side of women's lives in a more or less comic setting), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman didn't last very long, but it helped pave the way for Desperate Housewives, Orange is the New Black, and every other contemporary TV series that blends bitter humor with socially conscious drama.
I do not think it is an accident that the dramedy is, more often than not, a woman-centered television drama. The most popular sitcom on TV today—The Big Bang Theory (actually, it is simply the most popular show on TV today)—is a strikingly masculine series, and it has no dramedic echoes whatsoever, nor any particular social significance beyond the way it signals the new popular cultural prestige of science and technology (I think of The Big Bang Theory as Seinfeld-meets-Friends-meets-Flubber). It's very funny, but it isn't game-changing. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was game changing, and a lot of contemporary television is playing by its rules.