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A classic Mary Tyler Moore Show episode mirrors Apple TV Plus’ Morning Show series

How two series airing nearly 50 years apart deal with women in media

Photo: Apple TV Plus

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

“Assistant Wanted, Female,” a season 1 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, written by Treva Silverman and directed by Peter Baldwin, and originally airing on CBS on November 21st, 1970. Over the course of seven seasons, the groundbreaking sitcom followed Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore), an unmarried career woman working as a broadcast news producer at a Minneapolis TV station where the demands of the job regularly interfered with her personal life. In “Assistant Wanted, Female,” Mary’s boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) allows her to hire some help, and she takes a chance on her snobbish, conceited neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) who has a hard time taking orders from someone she considers her inferior.

Why watch now?

Because The Morning Show debuts on Apple TV Plus today.

Consumers will be inundated with new subscription streaming services over the next six months, with Disney+, HBO Max, and NBCUniversal’s Peacock all launching soon, offering original programming alongside an impressive back catalog of classic television and movies. Apple TV Plus will be one of the least expensive of the streaming market’s major players, though, without a Disney- or HBO-like archive of highly valued older content, the company intends to lure subscribers solely with its own products. The service arrives today with a small handful of TV series in a variety of genres, from period dramas to kids’ shows.

The centerpiece of the Apple TV Plus first wave is The Morning Show. The backstage melodrama stars Jennifer Aniston as a veteran network TV news anchor who fights for her job and tussles with a new rival (Reese Witherspoon) when her longtime co-host (Steve Carell) is fired for sexual misconduct. The star-studded series (which also features Billy Crudup, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mark Duplass, and Bel Powley as well as guest appearances from Mindy Kaling and Martin Short) tackles the same fragmented, rocky modern media landscape that led to the creation of Apple TV Plus in the first place. It also deals with how women are treated in show business in the #MeToo era.

The Morning Show is hardly the first series to find drama and humor in the evolving roles for women in media. Beginning in 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show built a devoted audience with its sophisticated, funny take on the everyday grind of turning out a local news telecast — and with its depiction of the toll the job takes on one independent woman. Mary Richards had her share of romantic subplots during the run of the show, but the writers (including Silverman, one of the few women in the room) were far more interested in her friendships and in how she navigated a stressful, fast-paced workplace.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was especially good at contrasting Mary with the other women in her life. “Assistant Wanted, Female” opens with her sharing breakfast with her best pal Rhoda, a wisecracking cynic, stressing out about her diet. (“Just a 70-calorie hard-boiled egg for ol’ tubbo,” Rhoda says of herself, before giving in to temptation and having toast with jam.) Both of them bristle at Phyllis, who swoops into Mary’s apartment looking well-dressed and perfectly coiffed, boasting about “being a model wife and a perfect mother.” (“She’s going to give overbearing, aggressive women a bad name,” Rhoda gripes.) As Mary strives to be taken seriously at work, she sees reflections of herself in her two friends: the one who gets on everyone’s nerves because she tries too hard and the one who stays primed for disappointment by treating everything as a joke.

Who it’s for

Anyone interested in tracking the transitions women have experienced in the workplace, and in media, in particular.

“Assistant Wanted, Female” arrived early in The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s run when Mary was still trying to find her bearings at the fictional Minneapolis station WJM. Without making a big point of it, the episode exposes the gendered power imbalance in the newsroom where Mary is expected to work through lunch, covering the phones and doing the filing, while news anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) takes a long nap after a two-hour Mexican feast.

Most of the humor here comes from the way Mary manages two competing egos as she runs interference between the evening news’s sour, unsentimental producer Lou and the above-it-all Phyllis. Because she takes this job mostly as a lark, Phyllis has a lackadaisical attitude toward her clerical assignments and working hours. When Mary chastises her for embarrassing her in front of Mr. Grant, Phyllis assumes her friend is just jealous and wonders if she should’ve dressed more “dowdy,” so as not to overshadow Mary. Like the best of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Assistant Wanted, Female” is snappy, with a keenly nuanced sense of how bad habits and unfair presumptions have way too much to do with how the world really works.

Where to see it

Hulu. None of The Mary Tyler Moore show spinoffs — Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant — are currently available to stream. That’s a shame because, collectively, they also have a lot to say about labor and gender in 1970s America.