Friday, July 19, 2013

(Re)Construction Worker Wanted: Reconsidering Joe Gerard on Rhoda

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Please visit the Classic TV Blog Association's website to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go here to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

After the first two successful and extremely hilarious seasons of Rhoda, the writers decided that a complacent and married Rho was not in the makings for sitcom-bliss. In a December 1976 issue of TV Guide, one of Rhoda's producers, Charlotte Brown spoke about the difficulty they were having with creating storylines. She said, “Sometimes we’d sit around for days to think up a single story with some conflict that could focus on Rhoda.” This led to the third season separation storyline where Joe decides to tell Rhoda that he’s been "feeling restless" and wants the couple to live apart. At the time, David Groh, the actor who played Rhoda’s husband Joe Gerard, thought it was a great avenue to explore. In the same TV Guide article, Groh commented, “At first I thought there would be a divorce and I’d be out of the show altogether. As it is now, with just the separation, I’m getting a chance to do some real acting for a change. There were times last year when I was reduced to the role of the wife in the old situation comedies, just walking in and saying, ‘Hi, babe’.”

However, Groh’s contentment with the change in the series was short-lived. In a March 1977 interview with the Associated Press he was asked if the divorce story was a mistake. Groh replied, “Without a doubt. They’re tampering with something the public went for.” He even received letters from fans of the series who wanted to see the couple reconcile, because the separation was a “big downer.” Groh was told he was being written out because if appeared in an episode, the ratings would go down.

Rhoda had ranked in the 6th and 7th place in the Nielsen's for the first two seasons, but fell to #32 during the third season. While it bounced back a bit in the next season, the show was cancelled mid-way through their fifth year because of the horrible ratings. Losing Joe was an obvious mistake. Of course, Rhoda, the series and the character, was successful and continues to resonate with audiences because of Valerie Harper’s chaotic but pitch-perfect portrayal of the self-deprecating beauty who always felt like she landed in second place. I could watch Rhoda eat a sandwich for an hour and feel entertained (granted, her relationship with food only adds to my viewing pleasure). But the series also featured a bevvy of delightful supporting characters, Joe being one of my favorites. It doesn’t hurt that I have a pretty big crush on the actor, who embodies everything I love about 1970s machismo (also, he reminds me of my husband, whose look is also comprised of 70s finest). But aside from drooling every time he appeared on screen, David Groh made Joe charming, even when he was frustrating.

Me-TV Promo for Rhoda: 

The couple met in the very first episode, and sparks immediately flew. In one of the promos for Me-TV, Rhoda tells Joe she’s from Minneapolis and he playfully replies, “Oh yeah, I could tell from the accent.” This sets up the fun, if impulsive, courtship the couple would enjoy. Joe was all to often the straight guy, but his deadpan delivery made for some chuckle worthy moments, such as the one I just mentioned.

Joe owned the New York Wrecking Company, and often collected pieces of the buildings he tore down. He gave Billy Glass (Jack Gilford) a piece of the men’s room from the original Madison Square Garden, and once gave Rhoda bingo balls from a church he demolished. I found that small character trait to correspond perfectly with Rhoda's visual flair. They both seemed to be attracted to stuff and things (for lack of a better phrase). He lived modestly until he married Rhoda and they rented out a gorgeous apartment in Brenda’s building. He was divorced and had a young son, and his failed marriage made him antsy when it came to popping the question.

Rhoda and Joe were married in the eighth episode, which was aptly titled Rhoda's Wedding (OAD: 10/28/74) This episode was, at the time, the second most watched moment on television (surpassed only by the birth of Ricky Jr. on I Love Lucy). It was an incredible episode, probably best remembered for Rhoda running through the streets of New York in her wedding dress because Phyllis had forgotten to pick her up! The joke was repeated when Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) also neglected to pick up Mother Dexter for her wedding on Phyllis’own series.

One of the most progressive aspects of their marriage was that they were complete equals. Both were business owners (Rhoda started Windows by Rhoda at the end of season one), and the couple shared different problems but worked them out in a surprisingly mature, and sometimes perhaps in a little un-Rhoda-like fashion. Well, not so much in Mucho Macho (OAD: 9/25/1975) when the couple squared off in an adorable nerf-club match. Underneath the talks about how to make the marriage work, there were always doses of passion and humor, which of course, is totally Rhoda!

For the most part, Rhoda had settled into wedded bliss, but the show kept up with her insecurities as the couple faced various challenges. In Rhoda Meets the Ex-Wife (OAD: 9/15/1975), Rhoda handles the encounter with style and grace. Marian (Joan Van Ark looking stunning) is everything Rhoda is afraid of. It may be no mistake that Marian is close to the name Mary, as she is also uber-chic, if a lot more removed than Rhoda’s old Minneapolis BFF. Through her usual self-deprecating wit, Rhoda is able to warm Marian up a bit, but in the end, she realizes that what the ex has to offer isn’t what Joe is looking for. When Marian asks Rhoda to give Joe her best, Rhoda quips, “I’ll do better than that, I’ll give him my best!”

The tables are turned in Strained Interlude (OAD: 1/20/75) when Rhoda’s old boyfriend asks her to meet him for a date. Joe asks Rhoda if she would be uncomfortable if he met up with someone from his past and she reminds him that she is indeed uncomfortable every time he sees Marian. In this episode, both Rhoda and Joe work through these issues, and Joe is able to begin letting go of his jealousy. Rhoda, of course, continues to struggle with her insecurities and delivers a knockout monologue about the woman Joe might be with in the episode A Night with the Girls (OAD: 12/1/75). It turns out Joe was running late because of a flat tire. Oh Rhoda! We love you because we understand you. 

Yet, underneath all that vulnerability was a pretty strong marriage. In the episode The Party (OAD: 10/6/1975), the couple host a gathering. The set-up is very realistic – a bunch of people who have little in common end up at a party where nothing seems to go right. Each couple is revealed to be suffering from their own issues, but Rhoda and Joe have this chemistry that you can practically peel off the walls! The episode takes a shocking turn when Susan (Beverly Sanders), Rhoda’s old high school chum, reveals that she thinks her husband has turned her into a baby making machine. Conversely, Rhoda and Joe show off their unbridled passion for each other during a group-encounter session. To me, this is an episode that really defines Rhoda and Joe’s marriage. It feels solid and secure and sexy as hell!

However, the seeds had already been planted in the second season opener, Everything I Have is Yours, Almost (OAD: 1/27/75), where Joe reveals he has been seeking professional help because he has a hard time dealing openly with his emotions. This issue will arise in the sad separation episode from season three, simply titled The Separation (OAD 9/20/76). Joe admits that something doesn't feel right (a recurring theme throughout his run on the show) and wants to live separately. Groh only appeared in eight more episodes and the couple quietly divorced, leaving Rhoda to spend the next couple of years shooting zingers at the many new cast additions.

All these years later, and I still can’t get over the fact that Joe and Rhoda didn’t make it. In terms of reflecting the culture of the 1970s, it would be hard to deny divorce rates weren’t rising, and the series captured that. Certainly, Joe and Rhoda had a fast, whirlwind romance before jumping into marriage. But it just doesn’t sit right. In my Rhoda-luvin’ eyes, I see her romance with Joe as lovely, real and wonderful to watch. As daring as television was in the 1970s, I personally think it would have been more radical to have them work through their issues and get back together. Maybe I’m just a romantic at heart, or maybe I just see a lot of myself in Rhoda (and some of my husband in Joe) and I am blinded by their chemistry. I recently watched the Mary and Rhoda reunion movie and remember my heart breaking a little when I found out that Rhoda had a baby with another husband. Ah, what could have been.

After Rhoda, Groh starred a comedy series in 1978 with Joan Hackett called Another Day. The show was short-lived however, and Groh admits that he received mail from bitter fans who wondered why he left Rhoda! Afterwards, he continued to work steadily as a character actor. My second favorite role of his would have to be his scary turn as D.L. Brock on General Hospital from 1983 - 85. I remember thinking, "That's Joe?!?" 

Promo for Another Day: 

I haven't seen the full run of Rhoda in a very long time, but I remember enjoying the series after Joe left, although it took some adjustment. I'm thrilled that Me-TV is running Rhoda, so I can relive all the happiness and heartbreak again. Maybe Joe got tired of saying it, but every time Rhoda graces the screen I am tempted to say, "Hi, babe." 

Rhoda Trivia: Did you know that when Rhoda and Joe moved into Brenda's building in 9-E is Available (OAD: 11/11/74), they were renting from the guy who would go on to chase Harper around the desert in the creepy made for TV movie Night Terror?

I hosted a Valerie Harper Blogathon a couple of months ago. If you are interested in reading more about Harper or Rhoda please click here.


Crafty C said...

Wow! Great post Amanda! I always thought Joe and Rhoda were great together too. I find it hard to believe that the ratings would go down when he made later appearances. I'm pretty sure it had more to do with that perm Rhoda had in the last season. :)

Unknown said...

I agree.. I don't think this show was quite the same after Rhoda's divorce. I think, the later episodes lacked the fun it once had and turned more into a drama, rather than a comedy.

Unknown said...

Great post! I, too, agree that Rhoda's divorce was a mistake. When I think of this show, I always remember watching Rhoda's wedding with my mom and how much we both enjoyed it.

Joanna said...

Unfortunately, every story needs conflict and Joe got thrown under the wheels. However, I like Rhoda and her sister Brenda--someone even more cynical and self-depreciating than Rhoda herself. LOVE watching the show on Me-TV. Thanks for writing this essay.

Rick29 said...

Terrific post, Amanda! It was a brilliant idea to focus your RHODA article on Joe. I think it's always a challenge when TV series writers come up with a good premise and then see it coming to an end. It reminds me of Sam and Diane on CHEERS. They spent one season getting together, one split up, and one getting back together. But after that, there was nowhere for those characters to go. I think RHODA's writers experienced a similar dilemma and took the risk of gradually writing out Joe. It didn't work, but I salute them for their effort!

The Lady Eve said...

Love this piece. I'm currently watching "Rhoda" on MeTV - for the first time since it was on network TV - and loving it. Completely agree with you about Joe and Rhoda and the mistake of breaking up their marriage. It killed the series. I can't believe there weren't other, more Lucy-like or MTM-like ways to add some conflict to the show. I know I lost interest in it when they split.

On a happier note, I must add that I experience a sweet wave of nostalgia whenever I here the words, "This is Carleton, your doorman."

DominicInOhio said...

Great post! I always really liked the chemistry between Joe and Rhoda, as well as between Brenda and Rhoda. Those 3 would've made it a great show on their own! It would've been nice if the show's creators had kept Joe around for longer--there was so much they could've done with Joe and Rhoda (even as divorcees). I haven't seen the series for a while either, but it always felt like the show switched gears to post-Joe too quickly.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

You only have to look at some of the people Rhoda dated after the break-up with Joe to see that the writers screwed up royally. I hated Ron Silver's character (Gary Levy) and why they kept bringing back that "Johnny Venture" idiot I'll never know.

The writers had started to shift toward Brenda storylines by then because they saw her as Rhoda, Jr. If I wanted to watch a series called Brenda I would have.

Jeff Haggar said...

Great post Amanda. I have to admit that I never really got into the Rhoda show (was never a big fan of spinoffs in general), but always liked her character on the Mary Tyler Moore show. I learned a lot from your entertaining post and should probably attempt to give this show a look.

Amanda By Night said...

Hi everybody!

I can't believe all the comments! Thank you! You know, in the back of mind I thought Joe was not going to be a popular subject. For whatever reason, I thought he wasn't a well liked character, so it completely warms my heart to see how well received he really was on Rhoda.

I don't remember too much about life post-Joe on Rhoda, but I do remember Ron Silver's character. I'm excited to be able to relive the series again, but I'll need some hankies when one of my favorite couples calls it quits.

Thanks again! I appreciate every word left here!

Anonymous said...

Joe was hot! He was a very startling, first, unique type of machismo that wasn't something you got to see before, really, on TV sitcoms in primetime. Closest I can think of, on a '50s scale, would have been Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy. I thought that when he left the show, it was a loss. But I could see where it was about the focus needing to be on Rhoda, who was the show's focal point and star, not to mention ably adept at handling her own charisma-star self.