Unless you fall, as happened recently, into the unforgivable mistake of considering a list with the best series in history as credible only from the productions created after 1990, there is no way to write the greatest history of world television without the inclusion of two of its greatest and pioneering female stars: Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore.
The recent appearance in the HBO Max catalog of a feature-length documentary dedicated to Moore helps us vindicate his figure, sadly reduced to almost oblivion in Argentina. Something similar, perhaps to a lesser extent, happens in the case of Ball, owner of a name and a career that returned to our memory for a while. thanks to the dramatization of some key episodes of his life in Being the Ricardos (2021), by Aaron Sorkin, available at Amazon Prime Video.
The Oscar nominations for leading actors they obtained for this film Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem impersonating Ball and her husband and partner Desi Arnaz (there was one more for JK Simmons as a supporting actor) they brought back one of the great couples in big TV history, but beyond their merits those characterizations couldn’t compete never with the real protagonists. They appear in another documentary, Lucy and Desiwhich at various times seems to be imaginarily conversing with its equivalent dedicated to Mary Tyler Moore. There are a few very visible parallel lines between the two.
Lucy and Desi Also released last year on Amazon Prime Video and available on that platform, it was directed by the talented actress and comedian Amy Poehler from unpublished testimonial material provided by the couple’s children. Poehler took care of editing and incorporating the voices of Ball and Arnaz into his film, narrating different aspects of his life.
In Mary Tyler Moore: the lady from TV (Being Mary Tyler Moore), the production that HBO Max has just added, there is also a decisive contribution from one of the actress’s sons and especially from her third and last husband, the neurologist Richard Levine, who accompanied her in her last years and gave her good back. part of the mental and emotional balance that he lost for a long time.
In this case, the common thread of the narration is supported by two long and very different television interviews recorded at different stages with a common denominator. In each of them, Moore takes stock of his life from the great experiences that enabled him to become a great star thanks to two extraordinary characters. First, Laura Petrie, the wife of the protagonist of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), and later Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977).
The documentary directed by James Adolphus highlights the nuances and differences between these two characters as essential factors in the development of the actress’s great television career and at the same time as mirrors in which Moore herself observes key aspects of her own personal life. In that sense, Mary Richards appears portrayed as the answer in terms of independence, commitment, realism and empowerment (although that word was not used at the time) of a woman who felt an enormous need to find her own voice.
As Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh pointed out in their documented dictionary of prime time television shows in the United States throughout its history, Mary Richards is the idealized and prototypical image of the independent woman who in the 70s decides to live alone to give priority to his professional career and his feelings. All of this above any family commitment like the ones that shaped her first big appearance as the wife of Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke).
That starting point could not have been better, because the talent of the cast and especially of its creator and main screenwriter (the enormous Carl Reiner) enhanced Moore’s extraordinary talent as a comedy actress. That profile was enriched in dramatic terms when the actress began a new stage, now she owns her own show. The documentary traces that evolution while watching off-camera Moore find her way through much effort (and a few closed doors) while bearing the impact of several very hard blows, including several close losses, marital dissatisfactions and frustrated longings.
Ball faces something similar, according to what Poehler’s documentary tells us. After beginning her career as a showgirl she found, a couple of decades before Moore, a place in the studio system imposed on Hollywood during her great golden age. Falling in love with a Cuban exile who arrived in the United States with nothing on and without speaking English, fleeing a revolution that seized all the properties of his wealthy family also brought him problems, because it was not well seen at that time that a rising star as Ball conformed to an interracial marriage. Prejudice was the order of the day.
Ball and Moore, as these documentaries reveal to us, found a first way out of their hardships by becoming pioneers of a television model that largely thanks to them adopted a profile that continues to this day. I love Lucy (1951-1961) is the first great sitcom who knew television and made Ball one of the great stars of that decade. Moore would pick up the baton in the following two decades. And in both cases, from the documentaries that cover their respective trajectories, another key piece of information remains visible: how the two get involved in previously unknown fields, such as the production and distribution of their own audiovisual material and also foreign to them. Desilu was the name of the production company that Arnaz and Ball set up, and MTM Productions, which was run by Moore.
Of the two, the description of the first case is much more accurate, among other things because Desilu became a very important content producer in its time, from which several programs emerged that made stories, including the series The Untouchables. Poehler’s documentary shows how the growth of the production company forced Ball to move further and further away from her place as an actress and also contributed to a certain wear and tear on the couple’s relationship. On Moore’s side, her role as a producer and creator of content is much more elusive and the documentary prefers to record her value as a sample of the independent spirit of the actress, without delving too much into the results.
The best of both documentaries appear on the same site. Above all, they function as vehicles that allow us to travel back in time and discover, through archival materials of extraordinary quality, how sitcoms were born on TV and what these two great women did to take them further than ever. These testimonial images show, for example, how the sets worked (with the classic three-camera model and the recordings in front of a live audience, in the case of I love Lucy) and how “the kitchen” of each program worked: the role of the scriptwriters and producers, the relationships between the figures and the members of the respective casts.
Ball’s unparalleled talent for physical comedy appears in excerpts from the archive included in Lucy and Desi. Also the story that led to one of the actress’s real pregnancies becoming, overcoming enormous resistance, part of the fictional plot. And a fundamental fact that remained in the history of TV: Ball and Arnaz were the inventors of repetitions. Until then, the premiered episodes were only seen once. The idea paid off almost immediately: there was a time when the rerun had more ratings than the original broadcast.
On Moore’s side, it is very interesting to listen to the testimonies of the factotum of the show that bears the name of the actress, the great James L. Brookslater creator of great successes as Cab and Cheershistorical producer of The Simpson and director of notable films such as the strength of affection (for which he won the Oscar for Best Director) and better… impossible. Brooks talks among other valuable things about the connections between the plot of the program and some relevant episodes of the personal life of his protagonist.
Much of Moore’s enormous commitment to fighting diabetes, the disease that plagued her for much of her life, is also revealed. The testimonial account of the last years of the actress, supported above all by images and words provided by her last husband, provides the most moving moments of the documentary.
In addition to nostalgia and emotion (especially when the time comes to peek into the vital and artistic twilight of its protagonists), Mary Tyler Moore: the lady from TV and Lucy and Desi arouse in the viewer an enormous desire to rediscover the priceless original material that allowed them to enter the great history of television.
In the United States, all seasons of The Dick Van Dyke Show can be seen on the Peacock platform (owned by NBCUniversal), those of I love Lucy are complete on Paramount+ and The Mary Tyler Moore Showalso in its entirety, is available on Amazon Prime Video.
None of their equivalents in Argentina decided to add them to their programming so far. Perhaps it is nothing more than a rarity or a curiosity for few to have them in our country. But if it did, local streaming would make a fundamental contribution to its own subscribers in terms of service. They would have within reach of a “click” of the remote control or mobile device an undisputed example of the best television ever written, produced and performed in the entire history of the medium.
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Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore: how to rediscover the first great queens of American TV