6. "The Dinner Party," 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.
So much of human interaction revolves around food: church suppers, holiday feasts, first dates at restaurants, business lunches, etc. The dinner party is probably the most nerve-wracking for all involved. It's a way for someone to make a mark as a host or hostess, but so many things can go wrong that no one really relaxes until the dishes are cleared away. It's not as easy as Julia Child would have you believe.
Mary, dear, do you have any idea what happens if you let Veal Prince Orloff sit in an oven too long?
Mary: No, what?
Sue Ann: He dies!
Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) is a warm, generous person who wants guests to enjoy themselves in her home. She's also rather uptight and desparately wants to avoid "scenes." In the world of sitcoms, this is a combination that guarantees trouble.
"The Dinner Party," scripted by Ed Weinberger, starts with Mary planning a last-minute party in honor of a congresswoman. Rhoda (Valerie Harper) suggests going to a restaurant instead.
Rhoda: Mary, I thought you knew. Your parties are, uh, disasters. (Mary doesn't respond) I mean, I thought you knew. How could you not know that?
Mary: Yes, OK, I know, I knew. I just didn't know that anyone else knew. Rhoda, why aren't I a wonderful hostess?
One of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's continuing themes is the pressure we put on ourselves in social situations. In "Lou's First Date" (No. 61 on this list), Mr. Grant (Ed Asner) puts far too much importance on his first evening out with a woman since his divorce, and in many episodes Mary worries herself sick over social events and work assignments (in contrast to Rhoda's defense mechanism of not taking things too seriously). That Lou also builds things up out of proportion is one reason that he and Mary are sympatico, but he doesn't help her out here. When Mary invites him, he turns up the heat, telling her, "It's not that I don't have a good time at your parties, Mary. I've had some of the worst times of my life at your parties." He finally agrees to go but tells her, "This is your last shot!"
Ted (Ted Knight) is even more melodramatic, throwing a tantrum when he finds out that he's not invited to the party. He tries to hit Mary where it hurts, claiming that he hasn't invited her to "parties where you would fallen in love with that Mr. Right you've been so desperately seeking. Yes, Mary, he was at one of my parties!"
With friends like this, Mary's nervousness is understandable.
Mary: Oh, Rhoda, I hope this party turns out all right. I mean, I hope I finally give a good party, because if I don't, I'm gonna start being afraid to invite people over. Pretty soon, people won't invite me to their place because they're afraid I'll invite them back here and they won't want to come. Before you know it, I'm going to end up a little old lady sitting alone in my apartment, tickling my cats.
Where Mary sees danger, sitcom writers see potential. Outside of pilot episodes, "Dinner Party" (with or without "the") may be the most common episode title in the genre. It's been used by Good Times, The IT Crowd, The Nanny, The Office (US), Seinfeld, and others, while Bewitched had "A Nice Little Dinner Party." On Frasier, the title refers to an episode about an "intime soiree" that falls apart at the invitation stage. (It's at No. 45 on this list.) In particular, the "boss is coming to dinner" is a trope that pops up frequently in parodies of the sitcom genre.
As it turns out, Mary's dinner party is not a fiasco, which is unusual for this sitcom plot. But Mary is still in anguish through most of the episode, as several of the show's well-defined characters threaten to derail the event in their own ways.
There's TV chef Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), appearing on MTM for only the second time (after White's bravura debut in "The Lars Affair") but already one of the show's most memorable characters. Sue Ann insists on cooking the meal, but she makes something fussy and complicated that has to be served as soon as it's ready. When Mary points out that none of the guests have arrived yet, Sue Ann doesn't resassure Mary but just adds to the pressure: "If we don't eat at eight o'clock, we might as well take my delicious dinner and flush it down the toilet!"Best friend Rhoda arrives with an extra guest, a co-worker from Hemple's Department Store who's just been fired — something he announces to everyone he meets, bringing down the mood of the party. (He's played by Henry Winkler, right before assuming the role of Fonzie on Happy Days.) Rhoda, the impulsive New Yorker to Mary's cautious Midwesterner, doesn't quite understand why Mary is so flummoxed by having to set another plate (at the "little table," away from everyone else), even though Rhoda was the first one to raise the specter of a "disastrous" party.
Then there's Lou, who grouses about not getting a drink before dinner, then helps himself to half the platter of Veal Prince Orloff, meant to serve six people. "You mean that's all there is, what's on this plate?" he asks after a horrified Mary tells him he's got to put some back. Any conflict between meat-and-potatoes Lou and uptown Mary is funny, and by this point in the series they have the rapport of a longtime married couple, each thinking they understand each other and getting frustrated when this turns out not to be the case. Here, Lou tries to be supportive by marveling at how nice the Veal Prince Orloff looks, but he obviously has no idea what a big-deal dish it is and would be happier with a steak.
About the worst thing that happens at the party is that everyone has to listen to Ted, who shows up for dessert and dominates the conversation with a sob story about being excluded from a Christmas party as a child — yet another reminder of how we can obsess over what is supposed to be a fun and relaxing event. Ted has to arrive at the end so that all the major characters from the episode are in one place, with no one left out in the cold, which is the sitcom's way of restoring order and telling us that we can get through any crisis with our own family and friends.The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a "nice" 1970s sitcom in which differences are usually resolved by the end of an episode. In contrast, social situations on the 1990s Frasier, which otherwise shares MTM's sophisticated style, almost always end with characters fleeing in confusion or anger — as is also the case with Seinfeld. Other sitcoms, like Friends and Parks and Recreation, tend to have it both ways, putting its characters through humiliating situations but ending episodes on optimistic notes. "The Dinner Party" probably would be considered too tame for TV today (the Veal Prince Orloff would surely end up on the floor somehow), but it conveys the psychological torture of trying to get people to have a good time better than any of today's meaner sitcoms.
• Sue Ann is fabulously re-introduced on this episode. On the fake-kitchen set of her TV show, she takes a dessert out of an electric oven that someone forgot to plug in: "Oh, shhh...surely that's not how a strawberry swirl is supposed to look."
• Here is a recipe for Sue Ann's Baked Pears Alicia, on the blog Butter.Flour.Eggs. Apparently, the name was made up for the show, so blogger Michael Klashman created his own recipe:
... not unlike the way an actor finds a fictional character, I found “Baked Pears Alicia.” I started from the outside and worked in. I knew four things that would inform my final result: 1) How they looked, 2) That they smelled good, 3) Sue Ann Nivens, host of “The Happy Homemaker” on WJM-TV made them, 4) They were pears. (I also knew that the main course in that episode, “Veal Prince Orloff” was straight out of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”)
Appearance: they looked simple and unadorned, save for some liquid I thought I could spy in the bottom of the dish. This told me that they gave off a lot of liquid, and that whatever culinary magic Sue Ann wove must have been in the cooking medium.
Smell: I think Sue Ann would have used more than just cinnamon, so I added something that was indulgent, fragrant, and would suit the period: a whole vanilla bean, seeds and pod, plus a good dash of fresh ginger, and a whisper of cardamom. I think these would have been in Sue Ann’s somewhat classical, mid-century culinary vocabulary.
• Some Mary Tyler Moore episodes pop up on YouTube, and early episodes are on Hulu, but "The Dinner Party" seems to be available only on DVD and for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.