Far be it from me to step into Hallmark card territory, but I think there’s truth to the idea that life is really about the small moments. Maybe it’s a quick cup of coffee with your dad, an unexpected phone call from a friend, or that presentation you nailed at the office today. These are the experiences that carry us through the humdrum existence that makes up the other 99 percent of our time.
If art imitates life, great art captures the Hallmark moment with snippets so sublime that they rise out of, and in some cases above, the work that contains them. Eric Clapton pulling notes from the air like tears with his guitar slide on “Let It Grow.” Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel sizing each other up as rivals for Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver.” Paul Newman breaking down when he realizes he’s been suckered in “The Color of Money.” Such moments stand alone, as strong as any personal memory.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” has a well-earned reputation as one of television’s finest sitcoms because of its ability to stage life’s beautiful snippets. The series benefited from uncannily spot-on casting, which contributes to the genuine nature of the characters’ relationships. That’s on full display when, for instance, it falls upon Mary to explain the facts of life to Phyllis’ daughter Bess. Or when Edie leaves Lou in one of the more heart-breaking exchanges in television history.
But my favorite “Mary” moment comes early in the episode “Once I Had a Secret Love,” in which Lou confides in Mary about his one-night stand with Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens. The scene, which takes place entirely in Lou’s office, highlights his innocence and Mary’s comparative worldliness in a reversal of their usual roles. The acting is masterful. Lou’s sexual naiveté is believable, while Mary’s mix of concern and amusement probably reflects the reaction of most viewers. There’s a natural friendship, an abiding respect and love for each other that will be tested later in the episode. The drama that plays out only enhances the longing for those cherished 4 minutes and 40 seconds, in Lou’s office with the door closed, that set the story in motion. It’s no surprise that’s where the two return to resolve their differences in another memorable scene to end the show.
Here’s the full episode. The scene I’ve described runs from 1:00 to 5:40.