In Jane Feuer’s article “Genre Study” she suggests three different styles of sitcom: aesthetic, ritual, and ideological. What each of these analytical frameworks has in common is basic format including the half hour time slot, the humorous basis, the “‘problem of the week’ which causes the hilarious situation that will be resolved so that a new episode may take its place next week” (146). The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and for the sake of this posting, the episode “Toulousse Lautrec is One of my Favorite Artists”) observes each of these conventions and for this reason can be considered the ultimate, and one of the original, sitcoms.
This is problematic when considering Grote’s aesthetic approach to the sitcom. Grote argues that the sitcom is “by nature a conservative and static form” whose goal is to “reaffirm the stability of the family as an institution” (148). Under this definition, the Mary Tyler Moore Show might escape the sitcom genre. The MTMS, while essentially conservative by modern standards in the way that it caters to but never moves beyond audience expectations for spectacle and controversy, was very controversial and new in its time. The show was based around the life of a single woman, a premise previously unaddressed due to the still dependent status of women. Additionally, Mary had a sex life that was not a result of marriage, a plot line that moved way beyond the typically conservative television of 1970. Finally, the MTMS only reaffirmed a sense of family in that Mary was aware she did not have one. While she sought out male partners, she was never essentially dependent on them and rarely discussed wanting a family.
According to Horace Newcomb, who takes the ritual perspective in relation to the sitcom genre, the sitcom is a rigid format which must involve “the funny thing that happened this week and the only movement is that which is toward the alleviation of the complication and the reduction of confusion.” In this way the MTMS and the specific episode mentioned above fit rightly within the sitcom genre. In” Toulousse Lautrec is my Favorite Artist” the issue of the week circles around Mary’s inability to reconcile with the small stature of the man she is seeing. The issue is resolved when she realizes her problem is not his shortness but her relative height. The next episode does not reference the previous and this episode makes no reference to any other prior episode that is significant to a non-regular viewer.
For David Marc, the sitcom genre has immense ideological power. This power lies in the subversive potential of the author. By working within the conventions and format of the sitcom, the author has the potential to extend a message to the audience beyond their awareness. Under this assumption, so long as the program fits the format, the audience will not seek to unpack it. This potential works in the other direction also. The sitcom has the ability to satire cultural conventions, to provide the audience with a voice that contradicts the nature of society at a given moment. In this way he makes a similar point as Newcomb in reference to the MTMS. The fact that Mary is a single and independent woman works against social norms of women in subordinate and dependent positions, reliant on strong male figures. Mary is a strong female figure and in this way the show has brilliant idoleogical potential.