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

By Arthur UngerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 23, 1988

New York

``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.

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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.

``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.''