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How Mary Tyler Moore changed television

From Cheers to 30 Rock and beyond, here are five shows that wouldn't be the same — or exist at all — without her.

Mary Richards was a huge influence on Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon.

Mary Tyler Moore died on January 25, leaving behind a rich legacy of television that wouldn’t be the same — or possibly exist at all — without her influence.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which Moore produced with her husband and business partner Grant Tinker, was more than just a TV series. Moore played a single woman with a demanding journalism job — a role that, when the show debuted in 1970, stood as a strong rebuke of traditional sitcom gender roles. Mary Richards was single, but she wasn’t a sadsack; she had a career, she was good at her job, she was working hard alongside men. And people took notice.

Mary Tyler Moore and its eventual spinoff Rhoda steadily gained millions of viewers, and both series regularly landed in the top 20 shows of the year. Their success forced the TV industry to reconsider how it was telling workplace stories, and how it was casting women characters in general.

Once TV networks had a successful frame of reference for a comedy about women’s lives at both work and home, other shows were freer to explore the same stories on their own terms. And many did: As Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman said when promoting her wildly successful show’s series finale in 2004, Mary Tyler Moore is still “the gold standard” against which TV comedies measure themselves.

Today, if you look back at the past 40 years of television, Moore’s influence is everywhere. Here are just five of the shows that followed The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s example to tell nuanced stories about work families, working and/or single women, and beloved female friendships.

1) Cheers (1982–1993)

Diane (Shelley Long) and Sam (Ted Danson) starred in one of the best workplace sitcoms ever made.

Cheers is often (and correctly) credited as TV’s landmark workplace comedy, but it’s no coincidence that it premiered just a few years after Mary Tyler Moore ended.

Modeled after the “sharp workplace sitcom” half of Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers fine-tuned the concept of its predecessor’s work family, made it the entire show, upped the sexual tension, and pretty much perfected the workplace comedy formula as we know it today.

Cheers even paid tribute to Mary Tyler Moore’s central friendship; if Diane Chambers and Carla Tortelli took a “Which Mary Tyler Show character are you?” quiz, they’d be Mary and Rhoda and it wouldn’t even be close.

2) Murphy Brown (1988–1998)

The cast of Murphy Brown, or Mary Tyler Moore through the ’90s looking glass.

Ten years after Mary Tyler Moore turned off the lights, Murphy Brown — about a determined single woman working in journalism — essentially picked up where Mary Tyler Moore left off.

Candice Bergen’s iconic character was initially viewed as an older, more experienced version of Moore’s Mary Richards, and Murphy Brown was decidedly more jaded than Mary ever was. But her different stage of life and the show’s ’90s setting allowed Murphy Brown to explore issues that many working women found important; Murphy even decided to have a baby without getting married first, a story that might’ve given networks hives just a few years earlier.

“Mary Tyler Moore really opened the door for women not defined by a relationship, for women trying to have a career,” Bergen told the Today Show on Thursday morning. “And it also opened the door for quality television, ’cause the writing was so exceptional and had so much depth and was character-driven. Mary was an icon unlike any other.”

3) Friends (1994-2004)

Monica (Courteney Cox), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) are all direct descendants of Mary and Rhoda.

When CBS picked up Mary Tyler Moore, executives were so unsure about letting a main female character be single that the network refused to let her start the show as a divorced woman. (They settled for Mary moving to Minneapolis after breaking up with her fiancé.)

Fast forward to the ’90s, and Friends — which opens with Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel running to the city after leaving her fiancé and features three female stars forging their own careers while having tons of casual sex — is one of the biggest shows on television. The CBS executives of yore would no doubt have been appalled at Friends pitch. But 20 years after Mary Tyler Moore, audiences were ready and willing (and eager) to play along.

4) 30 Rock (2006–2013)


30 Rock is one of the most direct — albeit totally weird — descendants of Mary Tyler Moore. As Tina Fey told the New York Times in 2007, she and 30 Rock co-creator Robert Carlock specifically looked to Mary Tyler Moore for an example of how to write a comedy “about the relationships in the workplace, but not the making of television so much”; she also praised it as a “template of a great show.” (Fey said something similar in 2015 about the inspiration for Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which she says directly follows Mary Tyler Moore’s “girl in the big city” blueprint.)

30 Rock switched up the basic details of Mary Tyler Moore, with Liz Lemon living in New York instead of the Midwest and working on a sketch comedy instead of a news program. (Though making Liz a cable news producer was, in fact, Fey’s original 30 Rock idea.) The show was also generally much more absurd and detached from reality than Mary Tyler Moore ever could’ve dreamed.

But Liz Lemon’s ongoing quest to “have it all!” between her dating life and stressful TV job of balancing fragile egos — including that of her gruff older male work husband Jack Donaghy — is still about as straightforward a take on Mary Tyler Moore as it gets.

5) Broad City (2014–present)

Rhoda and Mary, Ilana and Abbi.
CBS / Comedy Central

While there are several shows currently on the air that have Mary Tyler Moore in their DNA (see: The Mindy Project’s working woman conceit, Girls lightly mocking its characters trying to “make it after all” in its very first episode), there is maybe no friendship on TV that owes as much to Mary and Rhoda as Comedy Central’s Broad City.

Mary and Rhoda’s exploits as single women in Minneapolis were usually a push-and-pull routine between Mary’s more reserved nature and Rhoda’s “so what, who cares” attitude, though neither were entirely Odd Couple-style caricatures. Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana follow that tradition to a tee: Abbi is a little more cautious than Ilana, who in turn is known for her brazen self-acceptance.

But their shared defining characteristic is their love for each other, through thick and thin and whatever bizarro turns their lives take. Without Mary and Rhoda, there’d be no Abbi and Ilana.

A true legend. Rest In Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

A photo posted by abbi & ilana (@broadcity) on

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