Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, 38, has spent much of her professional life covering TV and social issues in entertainment. So who better to offer a definitive look at The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), the classic comedy about a young woman making it in the world of TV news? Armstrong does just that in her new book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted (Simon & Schuster), out May 7. The L.A.-based author chatted with USA TODAY's Craig Wilson.
Q: What was it about The Mary Tyler Moore Show that captured American viewers so? At its height, a quarter of the total TV viewers in the country were watching.
A: It was the characters in the most basic way. Nobody cares about issues if the characters aren't great. And you can see it in the very beginning with that show. They were great.
Q: So you think it was a perfect storm of people -- as you say, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted?
A: Yes, absolutely. It's those characters and the people who played them, and the people who cast them. It turned into the story of a perfect storm. All these things and all the special combinations.
Q: But don't you think Mary could be a little too sweet at times?
A: Yes. But they were reflecting her personality in the character. My feeling is that in order to be this independent woman, which was a new, mind-blowing thing at the time, she in some ways had to be an exceptionally good girl to be acceptable to the audience.
Q: And that's why you say Mary needed a more earthy Rhoda (Valerie Harper) upstairs?
A: I really think that. I identify with Rhoda. Most of us identify with her. Especially younger women.
Q: And Cloris Leachman, "Phyllis," could be a bit needy at times, a bit pushy, always wanting to be in the game?