85. "Ted's Change of Heart," The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1976)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
The "metamorphosis" episode, in which a sitcom character suddenly changes personality, must be hard to resist. It provides writers with the chance to play against expectations, and it gives actors get an obvious submission for an Emmy award. But it can also bring out the hackiest aspects of a sitcom. On Gilligan's Island, Mary Ann gets knocked on the head and turns into Ginger. On Taxi, Andy Kaufman gets to show his disdain for TV by giving his Latka character an obnoxious alter ego. In one of my least favorite Bob Newhart Show episodes, Howard is magically transformed into a responsible adult, then Bob and Emily beg him to become a needy pest again. As with episodes about changing one's appearance, the "be happy with who you are" moral can feel forced.
But there are some good examples of the genre. The Dick Van Dyke Show's "The Bottom of Mel Cooley's Heart" is a funny and satisfying episode in which the nudgy producer finally stands up to tyrannical Alan Brady. Because it's one of the last episodes in the self-cancelled series, there doesn't have to be a reset, and Mel doesn't have go all the way back to being a syncophant.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show has at least two metamorphosis episodes, done in its typically classy way. (Cue Lou Grant at 8:46 in "Mary Midwife": "I really hate it when you get classy.") In "Rhoda the Beautiful," Mary's best friend has to ease her way into a more confident personality to match her newly slim figure, and her not-as-sour outlook carries all the way to her spin-off series, Rhoda. And "Ted's Change of Heart" neatly avoids the reset button by giving Ted a personality change that is temporary by its very nature.
At first annoyed by Ted's "life is precious" outlook, the rest of the characters decide to emulate him — in a group hug scene that's essentially a dry run for "The Last Show." And when Ted starts to return to his old self, Lou figures thngs out:
I just remembered. The same thing happened in the war. During combat, I never held life more dearly. But the feeling started to go away the minute the Germans stopped shooting at me. (pause) I never forgave them for that.
Things are back to normal by the next episode, but in this case, it would be unrealistic to expect anything else.
• Coming from the same era as All in the Family and Three's Company, MTM has a reputation for tastefulness, but it could be risqué even in episodes without Sue Ann. In this episode, Mary gives Ted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation:
Ted: (reviving) Lou, I'm not going to die. I can tell I'm not going to die.
Lou: How, Ted?
Ted: (reaching up toward Mary) I'm starting to get excited.
Ted: Mary, I didn't get a chance to thank you for saving my life by pressing your lips to mine.
Mary: Ted, it was nothing.
Ted: Well, what did you expect? I was sick.
• We get to see part of WJM-TV's forbidden zone in this episode: the film library! And it looks pretty good for a one-time-use set. I especially like the big sign outside the window, which everyone looks right past because they're mesmerized by the stupid sunset. I've never owned a neon beer sign in my life, but I'd pay a lot of money to hang "WJM" outside my bedroom.
This episode is on iTunes but not YouTube. But to compensate for its lack of Sue Ann, here she is marveling about the beauty of nature: