"You did a wonderful job helping me grow up, but now I'm up." - Ann Marie
September 8, 1966 is one of those dates etched into the memories of countless television fans. At 8:30pm EDT, NBC aired "The Man Trap", the first episode of Star Trek, and a science fiction revolution was born. Often forgotten, however, is that immediately after, at 9:30pm EDT on ABC, another revolution was beginning with the premiere of That Girl, the Marlo Thomas vehicle that would help reshape the way women could be presented on television. For 5 seasons, That Girl followed the sitcom hijinks of struggling young New York actress Ann Marie (Thomas) as she moved away from home and sought personal independence. The good folks at Shout! Factory now bring that first 30-episode season to DVD in "That Girl - Season One".
As the daughter of show business legend and television star Danny Thomas, Marlo Thomas had a unique understanding of the television industry, even before her parents allowed her to pursue a career as an actor. Her father was not only the star of one of the longest running and most popular family sitcoms of the 1950s and '60s, but he was an incredibly successful producer as well, developing The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show alongside the great Sheldon Leonard. It was the latter series that ultimately provided Marlo with her greatest opportunity, as she came to know producers Sam Denoff and Bill Persky. When a successful test for a failed ABC pilot inspired the network to develop an entire series around her, she turned to Denoff and Persky to write the initial episodes based on a novel concept (at the time) that she envisioned. Instead of another show about a hapless housewife, Thomas wanted to do a series about a single, career-driven woman who had her own ambitions and wasn't defined by the men in her life; and in a nice parallel between art and reality, Marlo created her own production company -- Daisy Productions -- and executive produced the new series from day one.
That Girl features Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas), a talented 20-something actress who has just moved away from home to pursue her dream in the bright lights of New York City. Her parents, Lou (Lew Parker) and Helen (Rosemary DeCamp), are conservative types, and while they do not necessarily approve of their daughter's life choices, they support her the best way they know how. Also providing support for Ann is her "friend" Donald Hollinger (Ted Bessell), who is essentially her boyfriend, but there is enough vagueness attached to their relationship early on in the series to imply that they both are free to see other people. In the original pilot episode, Donald is not only her "friend", but her manager as well. As the show was redeveloped for series, however, the character's responsibilities were smartly trimmed down, and he became a journalist for Newsview magazine.
The series begins in an interesting way, with a premiere episode that isn't particularly representative of what the show would largely become. "Don't Just Do Something, Stand There" seemingly takes place before Ann has moved away from home, where she is working as a candy clerk in a high-rise office building. It is here that she meets Donald for the first time, and the two of them playfully fight over the right to purchase a unique roll-top desk. Ann wants to get it for her father, while Donald needs it for a writing desk in his own office. The entire piece is setup for the relationship between the two leads, and none of the other series regulars are featured in the episode, but it works very well and effectively creates the dynamic that would dominate the series for 5 seasons.
It isn't until the second episode, "Good-Bye, Hello, Good-Bye", that the series establishes its core locations and characters. Here, Ann actually does move away from home into a cozy New York City apartment, a place she can afford on her new waitressing job apparently because people in TV Land are such great tippers. In this episode and the next few, the series establishes the characteristics of her doting parents, most specifically her father Lou, who remains very close to his daughter even after she has moved away. These early episodes also establish Ann's neighbors, the perpetually perky Judy Bessemer (Bonnie Scott) and her husband Dr. Leon (Dabney Coleman). Each of these characters comes and goes depending on the plots, and there are even episodes where Donald doesn't show up at all, but it is the relationship between Ann and Donald that comprises most of the comedy.
Much of what makes the show so entertaining is the chemistry between these two lead characters. Ann is often clumsy, getting herself caught in awkward situations, but she is also very responsible with her life and talented in her desired profession. Donald is also clumsy and good-natured, and the two of them make a perfect fit; although there are times when it seems that his only purpose in the Universe is as a servant to Ann. The two of them work well with one another and enjoy each other's company, but Ann's life does not hinge on what Donald is doing, and it's this aspect of the series that sets it apart from so many of the era. She really is on her own, finding acting jobs on her own (with help from her agent) and making a life for herself that may or may not include the man she is dating.
As with most shows of this nature, all of the characters are genuinely good people, and most of the plots are fairly saccharine in nature. Ann hops from one awkward acting job to another, setting up the potential for lots of outrageous comedy, and Donald is rarely far behind, always there to stumble into or create some clumsy situation of his own. All of it is nice and positive, and Marlo Thomas is so eminently likeable in the role of Ann Marie that most of the episodes prove to be pretty entertaining. Coupled with her good chemistry with Ted Bessell as Donald Hollinger, the first season of That Girl is a fun collection of episodes (including the classic "This Little Piggy Had a Ball" where Ann gets her toe stuck in a bowling ball), and it makes for a pleasant stroll down Memory Lane through a simpler time in our television heritage.
"That Girl - Season One" is spread across 5 discs, each with different colored labels depicting the iconic two-color drawing of Ann Marie and her stylish hair. The discs are housed in a 4-panel foldout, with two overlapping discs in the central panels and a lone disc on the right. When folded, the panels slide into the side of a cardboard casing with a footprint width of just over an inch.
Both the audio and video presentations on this release leave a lot to be desired. With a color series 40 years old, it is understandable there would be some quality issues, and the colors on these episodes are expectedly muddy. How much of that is due to the original source material and how much is due to the production of the DVD I cannot say, but it is not a particularly impressive look. Worse, there is a substantial amount of grain and more than a few visible flaws in the compression, particularly with the high-rise building shown in the opening credits. As for the audio, this set provides Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and it is pretty unremarkable, including numerous episodes the exhibit crackling in the soundtrack.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
In addition to the 30 episodes in the season, there are a couple of interesting special features, most notably the inclusion of the original pilot. This pilot episode is not rare by any means, but it is good to have it included here as it shows what the series was originally supposed to be before the network starting changing things around. That Show ... That Woman ... The Creation of That Girl (24:26) is a nice featurette that is essentially segments of an interview with Marlo Thomas clipped together with important scenes from the series. It is pretty informative about the genesis of the series and definitely worth watching.
Additionally, there are four Audio Commentaries with Marlo Thomas and Co-Creator Bill Persky on the episodes "Good-Bye, Hello, Good-Bye", "Anatomy of a Blunder", "What's in a Name?", and "What are Your Intentions?" Disappointingly, these are not particularly good, simply because these two dynamic and interesting speakers are largely wasted. The danger with a commentary on a series this old is that the speakers get so caught up watching a television episode they haven't seen in so long that they forget to tell us anything interesting from behind the scenes. That is essentially what happens here, and I wouldn't recommend spending any time listening to them. It really is unfortunate, as Marlo Thomas in particular speaks with such intelligence and is a very engaging personality.
There is another featurette with Thomas and Persky titled That Girl in New York (9:24). Not much more interesting than the episode commentaries, this is simply a bunch of footage from their New York shooting locations spliced together with the two show creators providing audio commentary. It is relatively short and might be worth a look. Finally, there are two minutes of ABC network spots promoting the series when it first aired. I was hoping to see some of the promos where ABC paired Marlo Thomas with Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched (and later Sally Field from The Flying Nun) showcasing the beautiful women they had on Thursday nights, but those are not included on this set.
That Girl is rightly credited with being the series that paved the way for so many successful sitcoms featuring career-oriented working women who had an identity outside of simply being a stay-at-home mom or the sidekick to a more dominant male star. While not as strong a series as The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Murphy Brown in terms of consistent writing and social importance, Marlo Thomas's Ann Marie is one of the most likeable characters ever on television, and That Girl is largely entertaining in spite of its repetitiveness, especially in this first season when many of its plots were fresh. If you were a fan of the series when it originally aired or caught it in reruns over the years, I think you'll enjoy revisiting this pleasant and often very funny piece of television history -- I know I did -- but considering the light slate of features and the poor audio/video quality, I somewhat reluctantly suggest you Rent It.