The Mary Tyler Moore Show and How Sitcoms Moved to the City

The 1970s comedy series was one of the first to recognize a new economic and social reality, in which white-collar residents increasingly supplanted the urban working class.

Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper as Mary and Rhoda in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, circa 1970. (Bettmann / Getty)

After her death late last month at age 80, Mary Tyler Moore was widely celebrated for portraying one of television’s first modern career women on her eponymous series. But if The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, was a sign of emerging second-wave feminism it was also a harbinger of another related and, if possible, even more contentious cultural change: gentrification.

This may seem far-fetched to contemporary urbanites who equate gentrification with microbreweries and doggy day-care storefronts. In the 1970s, Minneapolis was a demure Starbucks-and bike-free city that resembled Portlandia about as much Anchorage resembles Dubai. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the writers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show managed to sense not just the burgeoning revolution in women’s roles but also its relation to the growth of the white-collar city.

When they started working on the show, the Mary Tyler Moore Show writers certainly didn’t have many television models for understanding the impending change. After World War II, the situation comedy was often a bourgeois suburban family affair. Shows that are now the butt of knowing contemporary jokes like Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Leave it to Beaver comforted a still raw nation with images of middle-class, white normalcy in the quiet safety of the ’burbs. In the early 1960s in The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore herself had played a New Rochelle housewife tending to the pot roast while her husband took the 5:15 train home from his comedy-writing job in Manhattan. The domestic arrangements of Laura and Rob Petrie and their young son on that show were really the same as the Cleavers of Leave it to Beaver, though thankfully the writing for the former was immeasurably wittier.

Television shows set in the city during those decades were generally working-class comedies or mean-street police dramas and reflected the reality of a soon-to-fade urban industrial era. Cops fought crime and vice in The Streets of San Francisco, in Police Story in Los Angeles, and in Kojak in New York City. The best known of the working-class comedies was undoubtedly The Honeymooners, which aired in the early 1950s. Its main character Ralph Kramden, played so memorably by Jackie Gleason, was an everyman bus driver married to an aproned and sharp-tongued wife. Living in the same apartment building in a shabby Brooklyn apartment in the déclassé neighborhood of Bensonhurst was Ed Norton, Ralph’s best friend and neighbor, a sewer worker, as humble an occupation as the writers could have come up with.

Only a few decades later came the last of the urban working-class comic antiheroes, Archie Bunker. In All in the Family, Archie had a day job as a foreman at the docks, but his primary role was to represent the bigotry and obsolescence of the white outer-borough working man in a world poised for change. All in the Family aired on CBS in the same Saturday night lineup as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It may have only been a coincidence, but in one evening viewers jostled between urban past and present. Mary Richards represented an entirely new economic and social reality set to overpower Archie Bunker and his city.

Chances are the show’s producers calculated that a white-bread Midwestern city would cushion the disorientation of viewers unaccustomed to imagining a young woman living alone in an urban apartment. By the mid-1970s, young boomer women were putting off marriage and children in part because they were busy getting more college degrees. Like Mary, with a B.A. in hand, they were eager to keep their own bank accounts and find their place in an expanding white-collar economy.

A city was the only possible setting for the independence and career ambition of a woman like Mary Richards. Though a time of widespread blue-collar malaise, between 1970 and 1982, the number of college-educated workers doubled; single women played a big role in that increase. Ambitious, forward-thinking media women like Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem were already showing the way to places like New York and San Francisco where the most appealing jobs were.

That helps explain why by the late 1990s the young urbanite pursuing a career in media or other creative fields was a television staple. The characters of Seinfeld, soon followed by Living Single, Friends (which took the premise of Living Single and added a white cast, as CityLab’s Brentin Mock wrote), Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, and Suddenly Susan constituted a fictional tribe of what sociologists had begun calling “emerging adults.” The median age of marriage for both sexes soared to record heights to reach 28 for women and 30 for men. A decade or so of urban singlehood and career preparation had become a predictable part of the life course for the educated middle class: You graduated from college, then you moved to one of the cities, including Seattle, Portland, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, that hinted at the promise of upward mobility.

The characters in these pre-adulthood comedies often had fantasy careers clearly designed to appeal to educated young women strivers. Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was a dating columnist who hobnobbed with big shots at fashion shows and Charlotte (a Smith College graduate) managed an art gallery; Suddenly Susan’s main character was a successful magazine writer. The shows had equally fantastic urban settings: often lily white, clean, and safe with impossibly large, well-lit and well-appointed apartments. Still their premise was not mythical. A number of cities, especially on the East and West Coasts, were coming out of their postindustrial funk. Crime was down; restaurants and bars catering to well-travelled urbanites were opening in former dollar stores. Cities were gentrifying, and so were sitcoms.

These days, in the trendiest cities, a new educated work force has almost entirely edged out an aging industrial-era working class. In a similar vein on television in shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, the working-class family has been turned into a cartoon and moved to small towns. The sewer worker is nowhere to be seen; neither for that matter is the dock foreman. Middle-class families still move to the suburbs, of course, and a few television shows have followed them there—including The Middle and, in a nod to the increasing racial integration of such communities, Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat.

But even today the urban single career woman remains a vital character in television land, particularly in sitcoms: 30 Rock is a new classic of the genre, which went on to include The Mindy Project, New Girl, and Insecure. The foursome of Lena Dunham’s Girls and the duo of Broad City work in service jobs as they struggle in a hyper-competitive creative economy—a phenomenon recognizable to many new college grads.

Meanwhile, that house in Minneapolis with the Palladian windows where Mary Richards went when she wasn’t in the office? It’s on the market for 1.7 million. Even the determined Mary might wonder whether she was going to make it after all.