A Love Letter to Georgette Franklin, The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Daffy, Determined SweetheartPhoto Courtesy of CBS TV Features
I can’t think of a sitcom character I have ever loved more than I love Georgette Franklin.
Winsome and bright and in possession of a much steelier spine than any stranger would dream of giving her credit for, Georgette—played as she is with wide-eyed sweetness by the inimitable Georgia Engel—is wholly singular. Nevermind that she, like so many archetypal “sitcom girlfriends” both before and after her, is blonde and bubbly and terminally in love with a crass and undeserving man. In a sea of sweet-but-predictable sitcom archetypes, Georgette Franklin stands alone. And so, with another Valentine’s Day on the horizon, let me take this opportunity to give her her flowers.
Incredibly, despite the fact that she will eventually go on to feel as indispensable to the Mary Tyler Moore Show formula as anyone not named Mary (Richards or Tyler Moore), the first time Georgette officially hits the scene, it feels like a one-off. Ostensibly the other window dresser employed by Hempel’s, her sudden appearance in Mary’s apartment in the third act of the classic Season 3 fake-out, “Rhoda Morgenstern: Minneapolis to New York,” serves mainly to lend Rhoda’s surprise not-actually-going-away party an extra layer of believability. Does she prove a delightfully daffy foil to Lou Grant’s gruff stoicism? Sure. Does her cheerful ingenuousness manage to soften even Ted Baxter’s coarser edges? Absolutely. But for all (narrative) intents and (comedic) purposes, Georgette materializes to underscore not just how real Rhoda’s original plan to move had been (this is the person she was willing to leave in charge of dressing six whole windows all on her own??), but also how significantly her ultimate change of heart ought to be read.
Of course, Engel’s Georgette ends up being the exact opposite of a one-off. Three episodes after her first introduction, she’s managed to slide herself in seamlessly as Mary and Rhoda’s genial third wheel; an episode after that, in an outing literally titled “The Georgette Story,” she finds her Main Character moment, unapologetically holding her ground against a cowed and cowardly Ted (Ted Knight) in what ends up being a successful effort to define their relationship in her own terms. Honestly, by the time Rhoda (Valerie Harper) really does get up and move back to New York City late in the fourth season, the idea that Georgette would take herself on a solo, overnight road trip to join Mary at the wedding of the decade makes more sense than just about anything else regarding Rhoda’s TMTMS departure.
Now, if you’re already a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, you don’t need me telling you how delightfully vital and eternally surprising Georgette is, both as a friend to Mary and Rhoda and as a romantic partner to the lout that is Ted Baxter. If you’re someone who hasn’t spent much time in Mary Richards’ Minneapolis, though, I can imagine there might be some tension between what’s generally understood to be the series’ legacy—that is, in normalizing the existence of confident, funny, single working women—and a woman like Georgette, whose character arc seems, from the start, to be almost entirely driven by her relationship with a man. I mean, isn’t that meant to be the whole point of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? That women could just thrive on their own terms, men and marriage be damned?
But that’s just the thing. No matter who she is (or isn’t) with, Georgette does thrive. It’s just that, given the choice, she’d rather do that thriving with Ted by her side. That this choice is utterly inexplicable is a given; Ted’s awful! But once she sets her boundaries and presents him with her specific (if low) expectations, he treats her the way she wants to be treated—up to and including leaving her alone to do her own thing and make her own choices whenever she sees fit. Like, for instance, getting in her car to drive alone overnight to New York City to be there in time for Rhoda’s wedding in Season 4 (she’s afraid of flying), or, for another instance, acting as a cheerily non-judgmental work friend/mentor to the ex-sex worker acquaintance Mary sets up with a job at her car rental company in Season 5 (it’ll be fun!).
Honestly, Georgette is, if anything, the purest example of an ingenue the sitcom world might ever get: A lovely, guileless naïf whose apparent obliviousness to the rotten parts of life often ends up being her superpower. At the same time, her well of self-knowledge runs deeper than that of anyone else on the show. I mean, just take the placid equanimity with which she responds in Season 4’s “Best of Enemies” when Rhoda, only half-jokingly, suggests that if Georgette is so worried about Rhoda no longer having a best friend while she and Mary are on the outs, Georgette can go ahead and take up the mantle herself. “Oh, I don’t think so, Rhoda. I don’t think I could handle a big responsibility like that. First I’d have to start with someone easier, and then after I got some experience, then maybe I could be your best friend. But right now I think I’m a little green for you.” Adorable? Of course. But more importantly, that’s a woman who knows herself!
Similarly, while she’s eternally willing to stroke Ted’s ego/humor Ted’s moods, she’s just as eternally unwilling to lie about the fact that that’s exactly what she’s doing. Does Ted want Georgette to tell Mary that “she” wants the lady newscaster job that opens in Season 5’s “A Girl Like Mary?” Yes! Does Georgette immediately tell Mary that it’s Ted who wants her to want the job on his behalf? Also yes! See, too: All the lies Ted exhorts her to whip up to excuse his bad back, his unwillingness to do laundry, and his bone-deep aversion to shelling out good money for anything, even their dates. Georgette is perfectly happy to go along with all of it… and to tell all their friends about it as she does.
Much of Georgette’s success as a character, of course, comes down to Engel’s performance, which is so sweetly earnest that you’d be forgiven for being on constant alert for some other shoe to drop. But it never does! Engel plays Georgette’s daffy guilelessness so straight, in fact, that her scene partners—especially those whose comedic contributions are of the gruffer and/or more acerbic variety (looking at you, Asner and MacLeod)—are in constant danger of breaking. By the time we get to the sixth season, and Engel’s got Georgette up on stage at the annual Television Editors’ Awards going all Bob Fosse in a sexy solo performance of “Steam Heat,” she plays it so straight it’s like she’s even daring us in the audience not to break. I mean, when I say comedy genius!!
Look: I’m under no illusions that, with a supporting female cast that includes the likes of Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Betty White, I’ll manage to convince the world that it’s Georgia Engel’s Georgette Franklin who deserves the most Mary Tyler Moore Love—nor would I want to! But it is Valentine’s Day, and Georgette is the biggest sweetheart of them all. And so I say again: Give this woman her flowers.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is available to stream now on Hulu.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.
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