'Ff'lo (fflo) wrote,

oh---so THAT's why

Just sat with a bagel & coffee & a new disk of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, figuring half an hour about right for a break before going back into the world. The first episode on this disk, near the end of the third season, is called "My Brother's Keeper"; the brother in question is Phyllis's.

This TV show has long been one of my favorites---and that's still true, despite some cringy moments here and there, as I look at it with my adult, 21st-century eyes (mostly involving sexism, but some other winces, too). It was on in reruns, off and on, for years after its original run, and I thought I'd seen 'em all, at least in part, until this one. I didn't know Phyllis even had a brother, let alone that she tried to fix him up with Mary & that he & Rhoda started going out instead.

So I'm thinking how this catching one you somehow missed is a nice aspect of watching a series in order. And I'm thinking Lars Lindstrom is a precursor of Vera Peterson, who prefigures Maris Crane, and wondering what other sitcom characters share that interesting trait. (Carlton the Doorman has a version of it.) (Know what I'm getting at? Anyone got another? Particularly an earlier one? Was Lars the first major recurring one?)

Then Mary's having a party. I'm remembering that a running joke in the show, later on, was how her parties always had an element of disaster. There may even have been a flashback-filled episode to that effect late in the run of the program. At the least there was a show in which specific disasters were recalled in a narrative way. Nonetheless, I didn't remember this party I was seeing being referenced---and it was becoming clear that Phyllis was going to ruin the party, upset about Rhoda & the brother, Ben. Sure enough, pressed for what's going on with them, Rhoda says "Okay, Phyllis---we got engaged 10 minutes ago and we're getting married tomorrow," clearly kidding, but Phyllis will now make a scene, as we've been prepped for her to do. She does; her crying drives all the guests away, ruining the party. Mary follows Ben downstairs to make Phyllis a drink (perhaps we are to take it that she needs one too), leaving Rhoda alone with Phyllis.

Whereupon Rhoda says she can't believe Phyllis took her seriously. That he's going back to New York, honest, that they've just been having a good time, and nothing will come of it. Then, finally, "Phyllis---Ben's gay."

Big surprise punchline laughs. Smiling eyes onstage. And I'm struck: So that must be why I never saw the show. It must have been excluded from the syndication run. After all, say what you will about Rhoda's outing the guy, the show treats it completely as if his being gay is no big deal at all---as if no decent person would think it was. Indeed, Phyllis is happy; relieved, she hugs Rhoda. The show ends with her and the brother sitting at the piano, happy happy. Can't be showing a gay-positive thing like that into the Reagan/HIV years, obviously.

In its efforts to be progressive about people of color, that series generally went for a similarly naïve, matter-of-fact approach---but at least there it seemed to allow as how, on some level, there were serious sociological issues related to the glossed-over issue.

I'm just shocked, and pissed, that there was somebody queer on that show, even as a sexless punchline, that I never knew about. We remember the series for furthering the women's movement---with regard to which, looking back, I'm hard-pressed to credit it with doing even B+ work (even for the times)---but here, bam, it had had this anomalous, soon-forgotten moment in the politics of queer visibility.

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