Mary Tyler Moore is, iconically, the woman who can “turn the world on with her smile,” the woman twirling through the streets of Minneapolis and tossing her beret into the air with sheer glee in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That’s the role she played for seven years on one of television’s most enduring sitcoms, and it’s the persona she maintained in the public eye, in decade after decade of pleasantly inoffensive interviews.
But in 1995, she spent 13 episodes playing heavily against type in the now-forgotten CBS drama New York News.
New York News has a cast so packed with heavy hitters that when you look at the credits, it’s hard to imagine how it could flop as badly as it did: There was Madeline Kahn playing a gossip columnist! Harold Perrineau as a newspaper staffer! And there was Mary Tyler Moore herself as the tough-as-nails newspaper editor Louise Felcott, so cold and so vicious to her staff that she’s universally known as “the Dragon.”
But flop the show did. It ran opposite Seinfeld, which in 1995 was at its peak, and New York News was clobbered. It was canceled after only 13 episodes. Moore, allegedly, was relieved; she was already negotiating with the network to be let out of her contract.
“I didn’t feel that my character in particular was being written as fully as she should be,” Moore told Charlie Rose. “Not that I wanted more time on the air — I liked being just one member of an eight-man troupe — but I wanted to understand a little bit about what an editor in chief does when she’s running a newspaper, and there just never seemed to be the time for the writers to address that.”
But as flatly written as her character might have been, Moore said she relished the chance to play against her usual type. She loved the idea of playing a tough, unapologetically ambitious woman.
“Women like that are not necessarily ruthless,” she said. “They’re just so dedicated to the thing they work for, their life’s breath, that everything else falls by the wayside while they’re guiding that ship.”
Moore didn’t identify with the type herself, but she recognized it. She grew up living with an aunt who worked in television, on whom she based her New York News character. “I watched her make decisions and have to hurt people occasionally,” she said, “but always with a purpose, always with a sense of righteousness.”
You can see Moore wielding a little of that purpose in the single episode of New York News that survives on YouTube. It’s the show’s second episode, and it carries all the calling cards of the mid-’90s drama: earnest handling of an “edgy” social issue (in this case, cross-dressing), power suits, and a jingly smooth jazz soundtrack.
You can already see that the show won’t have the legs to survive much longer — it’s too generic and enamored of its own relevance — but there are two plot lines that rise above the rest.
First, there’s the pleasant bit of fluff that is Madeline Kahn’s gossip columnist character getting seduced by Fabio (LOL 1995), which is a glorified excuse to give Kahn a chance to go full-on camp with her already oversize performance. (No complaints here.)
And second, there’s Moore being forced to submit to an efficiency evaluation from a smarmy middle manager. It’s a minuscule, tertiary plot, but Moore rings every ounce of feeling from it that she can, standing with her spine perfectly straight and her eyes murderous, looking tiny and immensely powerful in her ’70s-by-way-of-the-’90s wool dress. The writing for her character isn’t there, but you can see Moore struggling to create a real living, breathing woman out of sheer force of will, and almost succeeding.
Moore’s plot and Kahn’s plot intersect once at the 39:52 mark, and if you’re only going to watch part of this episode, that’s the part you should watch. Kahn, furious after being stood up by Fabio, runs to Moore and demands that they stop the presses so she can edit her column into a vicious Fabio evisceration. Moore flatly refuses.
“You made a mistake, a stupid mistake,” she says, with all the warmth that only Mary Tyler Moore could pour into a single, mildly insulting line. And then her face turns to stone as she adds, “If Jesus himself walked through that door to announce the second coming, I wouldn’t stop the press.”
In her eyes is that sense of purpose and righteousness she told Charlie Rose about, the kind she learned from her TV executive aunt. It’s a kind of ruthlessness she hardly ever showed onscreen — except in this almost-forgotten role on an almost-forgotten show. But it’s worth remembering along with her famous smile.