Some 48 years after its premiere, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is considered a classic series that broke fresh ground in terms of how women were portrayed on television. The show, which premiered in 1970 and aired for seven seasons, followed a never-married, thirtysomething TV producer, Mary Richards (played by Moore), at a time when most women were depicted as housewives.
These days, Moore’s independent character is cited as a harbinger to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City” and Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on “Girls.” But, as Seattle-based writer Matt Baume explains, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” also pushed the envelope for its time by featuring an openly gay character.
In the 1973 episode “My Brother’s Keeper,” Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) attempts to set Mary up with her bachelor brother, Ben (Robert Moore). But Ben instead starts spending time with Rhoda (Valerie Harper), who ends up revealing to Phyllis why she’s just not that into pursuing a relationship with Ben: He’s gay. The news, surprisingly, comes as a massive relief to Phyllis.
In the latest installment of his “Culture Cruise” video series, Baume broke down the refreshingly inclusive tone of “My Brother’s Keeper,” praising the episode as “absolutely groundbreaking” for its time even though Ben never reappeared on the series.
“When this episode of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ aired, homosexuality was considered a mental illness,” Baume, who has previously dissected LGBTQ-inclusive episodes of “The Golden Girls” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” points out in the clip above. “It was a crime in most of the country ― including Minneapolis, where the show is set.”
He continues, “Yet here was one of the most popular shows on television ― seen by the same percentage of TV viewers as the final season of ‘Seinfeld’ ― putting a gay character in front of Americans and showing that he’s perfectly lovely, unashamed and accepted by the straight people around him.”
Interestingly, the queer community experienced a number of fairly profound social strides around the time that the episode aired in 1973. In March of that year, the first formal meeting of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) was held at a church in New York. In a move that helped shift public opinion on LGBTQ people, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses that December.
Watch Baume’s entire episode of “Culture Cruise” above.