61. "Lou's First Date," The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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.
Previous entries on this list have taught us to be wary of change. Bigger boobs, a new car, the sudden chance to host a talk show... all ended in disappointment or disaster, with characters wanting to go back to the way things were at the start of the episode. This is such a common theme in sitcoms that the genre has a melancholy air about it. It's funny when Ralph Kramden fails at another get-rich-quick scheme, but there's a little bit of heartbreak when he realizes he'll have to beg Alice's forgiveness for his stupidity once more. (One of most Charlie Brownish moments on TV is at the end of a "Family" sketch on The Carol Burnett Show — there's a chopped-up version here — when Mama states the obvious : "Shut up, Ed! Can't you see that Eunice is upset? Poor baby, she's failed again!")
But there's a more hopeful theme in some sitcoms that's typified by Mary's advice to Lou about a supremely awkward blind date in this episode: "Mr. Grant, why don't you just go through with it?"
Ted: These needs are nothing to be ashamed of Lou. All men have them. You have them, I have them... (drops to "newscaster" voice) Even President Nixon has them.
What finally convinces Lou to go on a date is the prospect of meeting Edie at the same social function and proving that he's coping as easily as she is with single life. And this magnifies the importance of the evening. It's safe to assume that he spends all week imagining the encounter with Edie, in which he shows off his attractive companion, and thinking that this could open a new chapter in his life. Perhaps he'll even hit it off with "Mrs. Dudley," a friend of Rhoda's from a "modern dance" class.
Then he arrives at Mary's on Saturday night and meets his date: A tiny, elderly woman who was a flower girl at Thomas Alva Edison's wedding (and the mother of Rhoda's friend, accidentally invited by Mary).
Lou's shell-shocked reaction is one of Ed Asner's best moments on the series. After he recovers a bit, he's typically sarcastic toward Mary (by this point in the series, the most important person in his life): "All I said to you was, 'Get me a date!' I didn't specify what kind of a date. How were you to know that I wanted somebody under 90?" And he gives a murderous glare to Ted, who ribs him about Mrs. Dudley ("does she have a granddaughter for me?") before realizing he's gone too far ("actually she's kinda cute, you know? Kinda grows on you. Got nice legs!")
But Lou is clearly more disappointed than angry. The evening was supposed to be a turning point for him, and his first reaction is that he can't get through it with an octogenarian on his arm. Fortunately, there's Mary and her "Why don't you just go through with it?" advice. So he does, and even if the party (and his encounter with Edie) is nothing like he had imagined it, he actually does make progress toward coping with his separation from his wife. It turns out that taking a chance isn't always a bad thing, even on sitcoms.
• I could have picked a sitcom episode involving a major event (wedding, New Year's Eve, etc.) to make the point that you can make it through mix-ups and minor catastrophes and come out the better on the other side, but I like the less extravagent situation here. And, at least in my experience, it can be tougher to get through a date, dinner party, etc. for which you have unrealistically high expectations than through an event that everyone treats as a big deal.
• The studio audience really seemed to have a good time in this episode, especially when they saw Mrs. Dudley before Lou did and eagerly waited for his reaction.