14. "The Lars Affair," 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Sue Ann: There was no need for violence. Why you should deliberately destroy an innocent soufflé that never did you any harm is beyond me. I think you've gone too far!
Phyllis: You're bananas, you know that?
I can't overlook an sitcom episode that has Cloris Leachman acting opposite an apple pie, Betty White slamming an oven door shut with her knee, Valerie Harper joking about an overcaffeinated house plant, and Mary Tyler Moore putting two divas in their place. The Mary Tyler Moore Show reaches new heights with the first episode of its fourth season (the only one with all four women as cast members), which treats adultery with the same light touch that earlier sitcoms would have treated ... well, a fallen soufflé.
Leachman is terrific as Phyllis in this episode (and won an Emmy for it), but "The Lars Affair" is most notable for its introduction of White as Sue Ann Nivens, the "Happy Homemaker." Some 15 years earlier, Leave It to Beaver introduced Eddie Haskell and showed the usefulness of a selfish, hypocritical nogoodnik as a regular sitcom character. Dumb-but-sweethearted characters are well and good, but we also crave the occasional person with an id-like propensity to do whatever he wants — a sitcom psychopath. Bewitched's Endora was among the rare female characters who could arguably fill this role (though she always seemed rather joyless), but Sue Ann Nivens blew the door open for utterly shameless women in TV comedies.
Sue Ann is bossy, self-centered, and a slut. She gets what she wants, even if it means giving herself and her colleagues food poisoning (in the All About Eve parody "A New Sue Ann," in which she refuses to play a martyr à la Bette Davis). "She represented all the evil little corners and dark places that we have inside us, and we cheered her on," says Moore in a Archive of American Television video interview. In "The Lars Affair," written by Ed Weinberger, she steals Phyllis's husband through a combination of sex and home economics. "Do you know that his clothes are cleaner when he comes home at night than when he leaves in the morning?" Phyllis laments to Mary.
Phyllis, better described by the lyrics of "The Ladies Who Lunch" than by "I Can Cook, Too," vainly tries to beat Sue Ann at her own game. But her attempt at an apple pie earns her only pity from Mary and Rhoda.
It's up to Mary to restore order, and she does, showing a more confident side than in the show's previous seasons. Her take-charge attitude at the end of the episode, essentially blackmailing Sue Ann into giving up Lars, is a turning point for her character — and a step up from losing her cool and telling Ted to "shut up" on the air in the third-season opener, "The Good Time News." From this episode on, Moore is no longer playing an ingenue, instead giving us a portrayal of a woman who's learned enough to trust her own instincts most of the time. Her character's evolution will lead to some of the best scenes between Moore and Ed Asner in the series.
Phyllis: Did you know the male bee is nothing but the slave of the queen? And once the male bee — how should I say? — umm, has serviced the queen, the male dies. All in all, not a bad system.
• How Sue Ann says goodbye to the host of a party:
Sue Ann: Remember, dear, do try a little iodine for that scratch on the desk. And baking soda will bring that grease up out of the carpet like nothing— (to Rhoda) Oh, dear! Dear! Don't throw away those coffee grounds, they're the perfect plant food for Mary's geraniums. (back to Mary) Now if you want to tidy up in a hurry, think of your living room as a big clock. Start at midnight (points) and then go around the room working clockwise toward the kitchen. You'll be done in two shakes of a lamb's tail!
• Nearly 40 years later, Leachman and White are still getting press from their supposed rivalry, as in this 2010 story on the Daily Beast:
“Oh, I was getting silly and tired and so they asked me about Betty and I said, ‘I’m so over her, I never liked her,’ ” explained Leachman of what she blurted out on Sept. 2 after a long day of press for Raising Hope. “And of course that went all around the country, I was No. 1 on whatever the intercom, the inter-, the computer where it goes all over the country."
• Leachman's performance in this episode also helped get her a spin-off series, which includes a shot of her "pie face" in its awesome opening credits. Jaime Weinman writes about the ill-fated, but initially quite popular, Phyllis in his "Fun Flops" series.