Mary Richards-Cronin returns to New York City after spending four months in Europe (“Italy, mostly,” she tells a cab driver) following the death of her Congressman husband, Steven Cronin, in a rock-climbing accident. Rhoda Morgenstern-Rousseau also returns to her native New York to make a fresh start as a photographer after having lived in Paris for several years, where she has recently divorced her second husband, Jean-Pierre Rousseau.
After decades of separation, Mary and Rhoda start to look for each other and eventually reunite outside Mary’s apartment building in the Upper West Side of Manhattan (“84th and Central Park West,” Mary tell a cab driver in an opening scene, though 415 Central Park West, at West 101st Street, was used for the building’s exterior shots). The old friends visit Manhattan together and share the events of their lives over the intervening years; Mary then invites Rhoda, just returned to New York, to stay with her in her duplex apartment.
Mary reveals that following her departure from WJM-TV in Minneapolis as a news producer, she earned a master’s degree in journalism and worked as a studio producer for the ABC network in New York, until her daughter, Rose, was 12 and she decided to quit her job (eight years previously) to spend more time at home. Both Mary's and Rhoda's daughters are now in college — Mary's Rose is an English major at NYU and Rhoda's Meredith is a pre-med student and living in residence at Barnard College — and are trying to build lives of their own, independent of their mothers.
Mary and Rhoda must also each revive their careers, as Rhoda is newly divorced and Mary has learned that her late husband of 20 years spent much of their money on his congressional campaign(s). Both women dread their prospects, as Mary is now 60 and Rhoda is around 58 and lacks confidence in her work as a photographer.
Mary finds a job as a segment producer for WNYT in New York, where she works under the station founder, Jonah Seimeier, who is little more than half Mary’s age, and comes into conflict with the ethics of a vain anchor/field reporter, Cecile Andrews; Rhoda finds work as a fashion photographer’s assistant, where, in addition to “schlepping," she mothers the young models and begins to take on more responsibility in the studio, as well as to exhibit her own photography independently; Rose suddenly quits school to try her hand at standup comedy, with a poor initial reception; and Meredith breaks off from her boyfriend.
Ultimately, all four women learn to conquer challenges in work and relationships, to forge their own identities and stand up for themselves.Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards-Cronin
Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern-Rousseau
Elon Gold as Jonah Seimeier
Christine Ebersole as Cecile Andrews
Bethany Joy Lenz as Rose Cronin
Marisa Ryan as Meredith Rousseau
Viewer reaction and reception
The film's producers reportedly wanted to make the characters “current," and as a result, little time was spent in the characters discussing their former life in Minneapolis. This disappointed a number of longtime fans, as did the fact that former Mary Tyler Moore Show characters Lou Grant, Ted Baxter, Murray Slaughter, Phyllis Lindstrom, Georgette Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens were never directly referred to, nor were Rhoda's sister, Brenda Morgenstern, or her father, Martin Morgenstern. (Indeed, Rhoda is shown staying at the “Chester Hotel” when she first returns to New York, although she presumably still has family and friends in the city other than her daughter.) The only character from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda to be mentioned was Ida Morgenstern, Rhoda's mother, though not by her name.
Anticipating strong viewer interest, ABC scheduled the movie to air during February sweeps and considered it a pilot for a weekly series. The program attracted 17.8 million viewers, beating out its main competition, CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond, but critical reaction was so adverse ABC decided to abandon the project.
Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper announced in November 1997 that they had signed with ABC to reprise their roles as Mary and Rhoda in a new sitcom slated for the fall of 1998. ABC had ordered 13 episodes for the new show which featured Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern as widows reunited by chance in New York after many years of estrangement, who each have a 20-something daughter named after the other (Mary's daughter is Rose Cronin and Rhoda's daughter is Meredith Rousseau).
According to reports, ABC executives were not pleased with the pilot episode and the proposed sitcom was scrapped altogether. By 1999, it was confirmed that Moore and Harper would reunite instead in the two-hour made-for-TV movie Mary and Rhoda which began filming on October 18, 1999.
Mary and Rhoda was released on DVD in Region 1 on April 20, 2004 by Studio Works Entertainment.