one of Marlo Thomas’ minidresses, That Girl perkily sashayed into TV
history as a feminist-era earthshaker. It gladly took credit for bravely
paving the way for the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and even –
according to this DVD’s liner notes – Murphy Brown and Ally
could argue and bicker about this all day if you want – but the thing to do
is watch the first season of this gentle giant and write an essay
determining if you’re watching a pioneering landmark or simply a
hyper-condensed Doris Day movie. And while we’re at it, is the Marlo Thomas
character a strong, independent woman – or a spoiled brat?
Sure, the concept was novel for 1966 (the original title of this series was
Miss Independence). Despite the dizzying social upheaval that was
happening – and “happening!” – by that decade’s midpoint, prime-time
television was not only slow to change, but decidedly resistant.
party line was this (and it was a pretty dull party): enough bad news was
happening in the real world; viewers opted to trade off one type of madness
for another at the end of a hard day. This explains the popularity of such
mild fare as Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies and Family
Affair, which accompanied That Girl on that very cozy,
tiresome-as-cornflakes television schedule.
Programs like these would lull you off to sleep before the eleven ‘o clock
news. As an average sixties person, you would never realize that there was
an immoral war being waged, and both an increasingly influential youth
movement gaining momentum and a women’s liberation front gathering steam.
However, in That Girl’s Manhattan, the heaviest thing stated to wit
was by Ann’s ditsy neighbor, who said, “don’t you know there’s a population
However, despite punches being pulled left and right, Ann Marie was the girl
with something extra (Ann Marie was Marlo Thomas’ character’s name – and
yes, Marie was her last name, based on the nomenclature of Ann Margaret).
She was free to be you and me, but her claims toward feminine liberation may
be too strong a term, at least for this first season, which still focused on
the cute and the adorable.
here’s where the show detours from the humdrum: this That Girl moves to New
York and dreams of being an actress (that’s not the novel part) but – and
dig this if you can – she has absolutely no designs to get married!
Her career – such as it is – comes first, and she actually means it. Yes,
she has a boyfriend, but no, they don’t ever sleep together and very rarely
discuss getting hitched. As Liz Smith says, only in New York, kids! Only in
don’t care anyhow, since there would be nothing really to see, would there?
The boyfriend, Donald Hollinger (everybody say it together: “oh, Donald!”),
was played with nervous energy by the late, great Ted Bessel. In the pilot,
he was known as Don Blue Sky, but skittish network executives insisted he be
painted whiter. As well, her parents in the series’ pilot (one of them being
the terrific veteran character actor Harold Gould) were considered “too
ethnic” by network a-holes. Apparently, for all the talk of groundbreaking,
on both counts Thomas caved.
an episode amazingly written by James L. Brooks (responsible for The Mary
Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons, among others!), That Girl and
her boyfriend get stranded at a faraway lodge in a snowstorm, and have to
deal nervously with sleeping in separate rooms, since they are not married.
The comedy begins when it appears that they will, after all, have to share a
room, and maybe even a bed. It’s moronic, but ultimately kind of sweet,
considering the sitcom sexual obnoxiousness that is to come and bore us to
tears in future decades.
“I’ve never seen your ankles before,” Donald says of Ann in another episode,
which is code for us to be reassured that they have never been intimate. In
fact, according to Thomas in the commentary track, network censors were
constantly worried that it didn’t look like Donald was leaving Ann’s
apartment and going home for the evening.
delights in its own sexual revolution, void of sex: she gets a job at The
Caveman Club, which is based on The Playboy Club, but the most action she
sees is a gangster fistfight and a night in the slammer; of course all as a
result of a comic misunderstanding.
Girl and that boyfriend are more like brother and sister than Manhattan
lovers, but their chemistry is so right-on that it never sticks in the craw.
And let’s face it – would you really want to endure a proto-type
will-they-or-won’t-they storyline, a la Sam and Diane or Ross and
Rachel? Be thankful to Thomas that she at least spared us that. Now
However, the real co-star of this series is not her boyfriend, but her very
false false eyelashes. And let’s not forget those sunglasses worn on the top
of the head (how can we?).
Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, Thomas wears outfits that
no self-respecting New Yorker would ever, ever wear, and more often than
not, the clothes look like they are wearing her.
Thomas says (actually out loud!) on the commentary track, “I don’t remember
much about any of these shows, but I remember the clothes!”
Although Sex and the City matches That Girl for its
less-than-real take on a real life in
Manhattan, at least Thomas takes measures to depict her character
trying to earn a real living the way real people do (waitressing, catering,
shoe sales, and appearing in thankless, low-level, low-paid roles on
However, like Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, how she manages to live
alone in a swell one-bedroom apartment on East 78th Street is
what fairy stories are made of. Additional funding probably comes from her
biological parents that she doesn’t resemble in any way (played by Lew
Parker and perennial TV-mom Rosemary DeCamp).
overprotective dad is a pain in the ass to the point of distraction, but
that’s nothing compared to her boyfriend’s mother, played by Mabel
Albertson, the same woman who played Darren Steven’s pain-in-the-ass mother
on Bewitched (was there actually a shortage of actresses who could
play pain-in-the-ass mothers?).
also contributes – or rather, takes away from – the show’s claim to being
groundbreaking is its insistence on giving the glamorous main character a
dowdy, ugly-duckling best friend (a la Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show
and LaRue on Gidget). This is to reinforce the leading lady’s
humiliating duty is dropped in the lap of actress Bonnie Scott, who goes
redhead midway through the first season, though it doesn’t help us to warm
up to her. And, for all its aspirations toward sophistication, the Japanese
maid still says “herro” instead of “hello.”
New York’s last glimpse of pure, Breakfast-At-Tiffany’s-type glamour,
a civil world of dining and dancing and eveningwear, before that city sunk
into its dark night of crime, bankruptcy, graffiti and an X-rated Times
Square. That Girl’s dark unbelly is actually white and smooth: the
seediest New York criminal Ann Marie encounters is a blonde, bumbling Jerry
Van Dyke, who goofily holds her up at pretend-gunpoint.
You’ll marvel at the stunning exterior shots that accent the cosmopolitan
feel of the series, from the dazzling, Broadway-overture style opening to
the fashion-toned closing credits (she throws food at pigeons, and they all
respond by rising up in the air. It will take some research to determine
whether this was cliché before or since).
Incredibly cool footage also includes amazing vintage traffic and real-time
film of Broadway at its very peak (a sign reads, “Funny Girl In Its Third
Smash Year!”). It’s a disorienting, Olde New York, long gone – filled with
only white people, especially men in suits, and women in day dresses. No
jeans, no tattoos and no languages other than English. Archeologists should
be studying this.
color on which this series is filmed is vibrant, almost thrillingly so, and
a full orchestra optimistically provides the incidental music (unlike
today’s tiresome synthesizers).
troubling curious moment, though: in the opening credits, Thomas is not too
busy being perky to stop in her tracks and help lift a toddler up so that
the baby could get a drink from a water fountain. This is marvelous in
theory, and is meant to endear That Girl to us as a nation. However, ask
yourself this: what is this small baby doing by herself, right next to
traffic on Columbus Avenue, with absolutely no parent or guardian within
range? And even more infuriating, Thomas puts the child down and continues
on her rushed, perky way, leaving the child again endangered by oncoming
Equally troubling: her father, worried about her getting home safely, says
to her, “I’ll take you back to your place and I’ll spend the night at a
Turkish bath.” Uh, okay.
worth the price of admission: Carroll O’ Connor (only a few short years
before Archie Bunker) playing a temperamental Italian opera singer (this is
not a misprint); Rob Reiner, in one of two appearances, channels an
obnoxious New Yorker (big stretch); an extremely well-groomed Bernie Kopell
offers fortune-cookie logic like, “As I always say to someone who don’t
know what they’re doin’, ‘you know what you’re doin’.”
You’ll also witness Dabney Coleman, very young and hardly recognizable, as
Thomas’ dependable doctor-neighbor; Richard Dreyfuss playing
an exuberant actor/waiter (with a failed mission to charm us and not annoy
us); and Jerry Seinfeld’s “Uncle Leo” (Len Lesser) playing a tough security
guard (“That Girl! Hello!”). And what sixties series would be complete
without Paul Lynde, in extreme Paul-Lynde mode?
episode most fondly remembered by our collective culture is the one entitled
“This Little Piggy Had A Ball,” and it’s available on this collection. In
it, That Girl gets her toe stuck in a bowling ball (long story) and has to
go to an awards dinner to make an acceptance speech for another actress –
she’s all decked out, sixties style, with the bowling ball stuck on her
try to shake the ball loose, she takes an overdose of muscle relaxants –
with absolutely no side effects, except for one, which is a doozie: she runs
into Rob Reiner and Teri Garr, looking intensely sixties (how would you
like to go back in time and explain the future to all of them?).
drug overdose causes no physical or emotional consequences whatsoever, and
in the end, rather than a visit to an emergency room or a detox unit, her
boyfriend simply sighs to himself and says, “oh, that girl.”
main highlight of the entire DVD is not the series itself, but a promo reel
from its original network, ABC (you’ll want to replay all of that sixties
energy – it’s deliciously dated and pure feel-good). And don’t miss a
pre-hippie and handsome George Carlin, appearing only once as Ann Marie’s
dippy but well-groomed agent, in an episode with the great and
not-yet-famous Sally Kellerman, who acts rings around everybody.
Ultimately, though, what fills us with intense anticipation is the regularly
scheduled set-up in the initial scene, as we wait for someone – anyone – to
point to Marlo Thomas and say, “THAT GIRL!” We are not disappointed, ever,
as what was meant to be a one-time event became a weekly writing challenge
and a series signature throughout its five-year run (example: “Which girl?
This girl?” “No – THAT GIRL!”).
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: June 26, 2006.