Friday, February 18, 2011

Mary Richards and the Incredible Plant Lady

The husband and I watch all our TV on the internet now. The choices are more limited, and we usually can't watch first-run shows on the night they air, but otherwise it's worked out pretty well for us. The only real problem with it is that there aren't that many shows out there that I consider worth watching, and TV executives have done horrible things to scheduling (13-episode seasons, "daily" shows that are only on four days a week and go on vacation all the time, 8-month gaps in the middle of a season, shows getting moved to different days and times) so some nights we wind up without anything to watch, and have to dig a little deeper.

Fortunately, by now, Hulu has a lot of old TV shows in its archives, and I was moved to check out the page for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which currently has the first three seasons of MTM on-line. The very last episode of the show's third season was titled "Mary Richards and the Incredible Plant Lady," and with a title like that, how could I not watch it? (In the U.S., you can watch the episode on Hulu here; outside the U.S. you may or may not be able to see it: I understand shows on Hulu are often/always only available in the U.S., for some reason.)

The plot, for what it's worth, is that Mary's neighbor Rhoda (Valerie Harper) borrows a lot of money from Mary to start a "plant boutique." ($1300! Which in 1973 was apparently enough to buy a new convertible. I guess I sort of remember car prices like that. I watched a lot of "The Price is Right" as a child.) And then she doesn't pay it back when she said she was going to, so Mary worries about how to say something to her. The plants aren't a major part of the show, though there's an early scene involving an African violet, and a longer scene in Rhoda's apartment, which was, yes, covered with plants.

(What's going on here is, Mary had an African violet which was doing poorly, so she gave it to Rhoda to rehabilitate. In this scene, Rhoda's bringing it back to Mary.)

Anyway. The show originally aired on March 3, 1973, which is before I was born, but I think it explains a lot about me anyway. Somehow. Rhoda's apartment has certain obvious similarities to the inside of the house (though the inside of the house isn't painted red, thank goodness).

Also people tend to react to it the same way when they see it for the first time:

The show makes awful puns, too. When Rhoda is explaining her idea to Mary, she comes up with a name for the place --

(The closed captioning reads: "You know, with a name like Rhoda's-dendron. No, huh? That's --")

that sounds just like something I might come up with. And the episode comes damned close to stealing my blog title from me, thirty-four years before I came up with it:

("You know, they're just like people.")

("Little green people.")

And there's even more anthropomorphization:

("Fine. Thank you. I brought you this plant.")

("It's called a prayer plant." "Mm-hmm.")

("But don't worry, it's nondenominational.")

Now, I'd always wanted to discover a close personal connection to Mary Tyler Moore, but I'd been hoping that it would be more, um, financial than this. Like that she was really my otherwise-heirless grandma or something. But I suppose having Mary Tyler Moore directing my life choices from before I was born should be enough. Certainly I have no reason to expect better. So, probably, Moore has just replaced Helen Hunt as the patron actress of PATSP.1


Anyway. I do have a serious horticultural point to make, which is: all the plants in the show look so . . . scrawny. Or I guess not all: there's a spider plant in Rhoda's apartment that's pretty good size, and she also has a substantial asparagus fern (though surely it doesn't get enough light where she has it?2). Mary has a big Boston fern in her place. But the African violet that Rhoda was holding in the photo above? That single Aglaonema stem in the middle of Rhoda's apartment? I'm assuming these were supposed to look full and lush and overgrown, so Rhoda would have credibility with the viewer as a Person Who Knows About Plants, and yet -- that's the best they could do? They filmed in California, right?

So I'm wondering how to explain this. Has plant-breeding made that much progress since the 1970s, that our cultivars are bigger, freer-branching, bushier, etc.? I mean, it would make sense that forty years of intense plant breeding and selection would result in really awesome plants, in general, I suppose. Have the industry standards changed for what's considered a "full" plant? (I.e., was it once okay to stick a single Aglaonema cane in a pot and sell it, and now you always have to have at least two, usually three?) Are people just somehow that much better at taking care of plants now? I suppose we do probably have warmer, more energy-efficient houses on average than we did in the 70s. Were there no plant-rental places in Southern California in 1973? I know they have plenty of them now.

Anybody have other theories?

Do you even agree with me that Rhoda's plants look kinda sad, or is it just me? (I realize it's hard to tell from the stills: they seemed crisp enough when I took the screen-captures, but once I'd e-mailed them to myself, downloaded them to my computer, and uploaded them to Blogger, they seemed a lot blurrier. If you watch the actual episode, it's clear enough what most of the plants are.)


1 Oh, yeah, you totally have to have a patron actress. Or actor. Whichever. Possibly PATSP's should be Valerie Harper, considering the episode, but I like Mary. Let's go with Mary. (The explanation for Helen Hunt.)
2 Yep. I'm now concerned about the care being received by long-dead fictional plants. (It was a real plant in 1973, but it didn't live on the set of Rhoda's apartment. Or at least I hope it didn't. So that much of it is fictional. You know what I mean.)


Pat said...

They do look scrawny to me. My theory would be that people used to buy plants to grow them. Now people want an instant feature to complement their interior decoration design.

Try watching some of the spin-off series Rhoda and see if you warm to her. Though I remember Julie Kavner more from that one, I was very pleased to see her get a job for life on The Simpsons. I don't remember that her flat was covered in plants, it may have been forgotten after that episode.

Anonymous said...

No, I was pretty much thinking the same thing you were about how scrawny they looked without even realizing I was thinking about that until you said you thought the same thing....
It's Friday, I'm allowed to write long sentences like that without pauses...
Used to watch that show as a kid but can't remember that episode. "Rhoda-dendron's" has a nice ring to it, don't know why anyone would shoot it down. LOL!

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

I honestly don't remember what plants were like in the seventies. I was quite young and didn't care for them at the time. However, they were quite popular (because people were into that environmental stuff even then), and spider plants were a huge hit, so I would have expected bigger, lusher plants. But maybe they weren't; maybe they were scrawny, after all. And maybe as more and more people got into houseplants, there was a demand for bigger, better, fuller plants. I suppose it's also possible that the show was put together by people who have no knowledge of plant care and plants in general, so they didn't make good choices. Because they didn't know better. And because they just didn't care.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Ah, gotta love you, Mr. Subjunctive. You express yourself in writing like a brother I wish I had. What I see is that the show's set-designer had limited funds and probably pulled whatever was hanging around the office before purchasing newbies to fill out the set -- fairly practical and likely done without any serious consideration of what a true plant grower's home would look like. I suspect that certain expectations and social norms, as interpretated by t.v. and movie folks, are invariably a bit off for any individual who takes the time to give a second thought. Look at June Cleaver... who the heck vacuums in pearls, a dress, and high heels while raising 2 boys? With that said, I think folks today are generally more accepting of what's real, perhaps a bit too real and ugly, hence why I don't watch t.v. much anymore, either.

Karen715 said...

You should check out Rhoda, at least the early seasons in her original apartment. They did carry over her love for plants. She had a few plants in her (much brighter) apartment, and was occasionally seen watering them. In one episode, she repotted one, using a straw hat as a hanging basket. All of this was incidental business, while she talked to another character or something, not anything central to the plot.

But they didn't continue with the plant store idea while Rhoda remained on The MTM Show. Her apt. never looked that way before this episode, and never did again, and after alluding to her shop in passing in one or two more episodes, it wasn't mentioned again. In fact, if I recall correctly, they quietly dropped the idea, and she went back to window dressing at Hempel's. I was disappointed, because I was alive, in my early teens, and already interested in plants.

Another connection: Helen Hunt actually appeared in at least one episode of MTM, in the last season I think, playing one of Murray's daughters.

Karen715 said...

Continuing: I think people were both more interested in plants in the 70s, and more casual about them. To me, Rhoda's plants look like plants that someone has had and cared for for a long time (even if they were never seen before this episode) as a opposed to something from a plant service. I assume that was the look they were going for.

Also, people who are not plant enthusiasts have much lower standards for plants than those of us who are. As long as they are alive, green, and not obviously sick or infested, people are happy with them. I'm sure the set dresser thought the plants for the show were just fine.

Yes, AV culture has progressed a phenomenal amount in the last 40 years (It almost makes me cry to realize that the first season of MTM was 40 years ago--how in the hell?) The plants available to the average buyer have gotten bigger (and smaller in terms of miniatures) more lush, and incredibly more varied. And they actually rebloom. Trust me, that wasn't a given back then.

Paul said...

I, for one, welcome this new and glamorous matron of PATSP. Truth be told, I never liked HH.

And yeah, Rhoda's plants looked BEAT. The ones that don't look fake.

I think the houseplant industry is more varied now, but peoples' tastes aren't all that different. Most people I know reference houseplants back to older generations (ie. Grandma's sweet potato vine), so those cultivars endure. It's usually those with a more probing sense of aesthetics and a genuine love for plants that drive new and interesting varieties. And...I guess rich people looking for "unique" add to that too.

[Side note - your avocado post got me 10 points on Yahoo Answers. Many thanks.]

Andy said...

Hey Mr. Subjunctive.
I actually grow plants in a home built in the 1880s, and I've gotta say it's better overall for the plants (at least, my palms and orchids) because the humidity in older houses is usually much higher than in newer, better-insulated homes. The plants don't seem to care much about the temps, but they love the high humidity.

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hydrophyte said...

Even when I was a little kid I was tuned into plants and from what I can remember people were more engaged with their houseplants. Like Pat said nowadays consumers are more likely to just buy a plant to fill a corner, then throw it out when it starts looking bad.

I specifically remember my grandmother sharing cuttings of plants with her friends that grew up into nice mature plants over the course of several years. Nobody would ever do that anymore.

Maybe those ratty specimens in the show were most of somebody's personal collection of houseplants(?).

mr_subjunctive said...


1) I have a name. A fake name, granted, but still a name. Geez.

2) OKAY!!!!!!

3) WHY?

Jenn said...

Ha. I remember that episode. (Oy, me!)

And that doesn't look like a lot of plants in a small space to my eye. They're so spread out. Look at how much room she still has!

That's hardly any plants at all. I have that many plants in my office window. Hmmm.

Gladys Gravyboots said...

Mr Subjunctive, I recently watched Shampoo & couldn't help but notice the plants - many of them seemed very stylized. And most rooms had at least a few.