Mary Tyler Moore calling, to save a failing show. Star believes in her new TV sitcom, despite low ratings

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``If I go down, at least I will go down with my head held high,'' says Mary Tyler Moore, as she fights for the survival of her new TV series, ``Annie McGuire.'' In a 1988 season dominated by such new TV faces as Roseanne Barr and Candice Bergen, Miss Moore (my own all-time favorite sitcom star) has reappeared in a fine new series which, despite its high-quality scripts and unusual production values, is doing poorly in the ratings. Last week, for instance, ``Annie McGuire'' ranked 65th out of 72 in the Nielsens.

The new MTM show has been embraced by practically all the nation's television critics, even though many argued that the program was airing too early in the evening - 8:30 to 9 on Wednesdays on CBS (but preempted tonight by a special).

The early time slot may be the major reason viewership has been so low: The series needs the kind of sophisticated, mature adult audience that usually isn't watching at that hour. Matters are made even worse by the fact that the lead-in program, from 8 to 8:30, is the slapsticky ``Van Dyke Show,'' which got even lower ratings.

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``Annie McGuire'' is hard to categorize. On the surface, it might seem just another variation on several previous MTM series. But this time Moore, as Annie, plays a woman of approximately her own age, rather than a much younger person; she is not always perky and adept at problem-solving; she has character flaws. Her unusual relationship with her left-wing mother is lovingly antagonistic, the one with her right-wing father-in-law, shaky. Her relationships with her new husband, his children, and her own child are fraught with all the usual difficulties, which she fails to resolve just about as often as she succeeds.

Story lines range from totally realistic to gently fantastic: One concerned her unwilling involvement in caring for the homeless, another her try at coping emotionally with past infidelities of her new husband.

Next week's episode delves into a kind of ``Murder, She Wrote'' fantasy situation, with Annie solving the mystery of a tainted fish her father-in-law, a restaurateur, once served to 1948 presidential contender Thomas Dewey, which, in this story line, allegedly caused him to lose the election.

About the only thing viewers can be certain of is that each episode will reflect the intelligence, curiosity, and commitment of Mary Tyler Moore, who has taken control of the direction of the series. (After all, she owns the company that produces it.)

As an admirer of the show, who is worried that it may soon be canceled in this era of quick fixes in TV schedules, I commiserated with a CBS publicist. Then a few days ago, at lunch-break time on the West Coast, my phone rang. There was Mary Tyler Moore herself on the line.

``I believe in this show so much I want to do everything possible to give it its chance,'' Moore said.

``Of all the series in which I have been involved, `Annie McGuire' reflects my input most. I never really got involved in any production aspect of the `Dick Van Dyke' show or any of the `Mary Tyler Moore' shows. This time around, I thought: `Well, I want to do something a little different.' ... I decided to be an integral part of it.''

Moore agrees that the early time slot is working against the show. But she doesn't blame CBS, because ``the first episode we showed them was not anything like the subtle adult show we do now. It was recast and refilmed. ... I believe we are a 9 or 9:30 p.m. show, and I would like to be placed in the midst of `Bob Newhart' and `Designing Women' on Monday nights. That would be just dandy.''

Is the new show reaching for more contemporary relevance, then?

``No,'' says Moore. ``What we are going for is intelligence. And I believe that encompasses all aspects of comedy, some of it real, some of it totally frivolous. But we are not to be confused with the `dramedies' of last year, simply because the show does not use a laugh track. I just want to give audiences credit to know when something is funny. Then, if they choose not to laugh, so be it.''

How does Annie differ from the Laura Petrie and the Mary Richards of previous series?

``She's a very different charac-ter..., much more creative, less organized, not at all as sweetly rigid as the other ladies. ... Annie is a mother herself, a woman taking on the mothering of two stepchildren, and a working woman, fitting many aspects of life into her day.

``And she doesn't always succeed. She's not a perfect mother, not perfect at her job. She feels the pressure of not being able to let her own child go now that he has a stepfather. Annie is closer to the real me, if for no other reason than that we have grown together. Annie is a woman in her late 40s. I am 50; so I can identify with her much more than I can with Mary Richards, who was in her 30s, and Laura Petrie in her 20s.''

Moore doesn't call ``Annie McGuire'' a feminist show. ``I think it is an intelligent, sensitive show. Unless you are an anti-feminist person, you have to agree that everybody deserves a fair shake. Annie has a career and a home, and she does both. ... That's what the show is all about - real life, not feminism.

``Reality is important to me in Annie's life. The other day, there was a morning scene in which Annie was supposed to prepare bacon and eggs for the kids before dashing to catch the ferry from Bayonne to Manhattan. I said, `No, these children are perfectly capable of fixing breakfast for themselves.... I am not going to cook them bacon and eggs. That's something Annie might do on a Saturday as a special treat, but we are not going to paint an unrealistic picture here.' And we didn't do the bacon-and-eggs bit. I don't want Annie to become Harriet Nelson.''

Moore is proud of the on-camera relationships between Annie and her husband, played by Denis Arndt, and her mother, played by Eileen Heckart. ``They are the most comfortable and yet exciting scenes I have ever played ..., alive with electricity and honest speech patterns that let us overlap naturally, just as real people do.

If ``Annie McGuire'' doesn't make it, will Moore call it quits with series TV?

``I couldn't even begin to answer that right now. But I do know this: As opposed to the early part of my life, the latter part has a lot more inviting, interesting, stimulating things to lure me. My husband of five years and I live in Manhattan but have a wonderful home in Millbrook, N.Y., with horses and a vegetable garden. My husband travels to the coast for long weekends now and then, and whenever I have a hiatus, which is about every two weeks, I go back to New York.''

Aside from attracting large audiences, what would Moore like ``Annie McGuire'' to accomplish?

Without a moment of hesitation, she says, ``I would like to make people say, `Hey, I never thought of that!' or `Wow, what an interesting reaction Annie had!' I just want to turn people's heads a little bit, as I make them smile. It may not work; it may not prove to be commercial.''

Sample ``Annie McGuire,'' and I guarantee a kind of cerebral ``Hey'' and ``Wow''; it'll turn your head and make you smile.

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