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''Mary Tyler Moore Show'' inspires new TV trend

”Suddenly Susan,” ”Life’s Work,” and ”Townies” all take inspiration from the classic career girl

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Oh, Mr. Grant! More than two decades after Mary Richards first tossed her beret into the air, a new generation of TV execs are gamely trying to find another woman who can turn the world on with her smile. Look closely at the TV offerings planned for next season and you’ll see — besides one too many X-Files rip-offs — a preponderance of series about endearing, spunky career girls. ”Who knows how these trends happen?” says Fox Entertainment Group president John Matoian. ”It does seem to come in groups on all networks.” Among the women who may be on the verge of a Mary breakthrough:

Friends guest star-turned-Must See TVer Brooke Shields will play a newly single literary agent on NBC’s Suddenly Susan. In one not-so-subtle pilot scene, Susan watches The Mary Tyler Moore Show and tosses her remote in the air — only to have it clock her on the head. ”Susan and Mary both have strength and a slightly endearing awkwardness,” says Shields.

— Stand-up comedian Lisa Ann Walter is an assistant state’s attorney trying to balance love and a profession in ABC’s Life’s Work.

— Eighties refugee Molly Ringwald is a small-town New England girl on ABC’s Townies. ”There are similarities between my character and Mary,” Ringwald admits. ”I’m the glue that keeps everyone else together.”

— Recent NYPD Blue dropout Gail O’Grady is a marketing executive with a chaotic love and work life in a series Fox will likely pick up as a mid-season replacement.

Interestingly, the networks are in hot pursuit of a new Mary, even though — with the exception of Roseanne — sitcoms focusing on female characters have not fared well in recent years. The ratings for Ellen DeGeneres’ Ellen — once thought of as a female version of Seinfeld — have dropped precipitously over the last year. Murphy Brown, a top 10 staple during its first three seasons, has now entered the MacGyver zone. And one of last year’s new single-girl shows, the irritating Caroline in the City, starring Lea Thompson, will likely slip in the ratings once it vacates its cushy post-Seinfeld slot for the less appealing Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.

So why not just find the next Murray Slaughter? ”Two years ago we identified a goal: a sitcom with a woman at its center,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. ”Step one was Caroline in the City. But that wasn’t the be-all and end-all of that goal.” Surely, Littlefield must have also found some inspiration in the ratings for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, now rerunning on Nick at Nite and one of the network’s most watched shows. (It has garnered such an overwhelming response that the cable channel began airing its two spin-offs, Rhoda and Phyllis, on May 10.) Plus, a woman-led series offers the folks on Madison Avenue a direct route to the real buyers in the home. ”There are more women willing to watch than men, which is good for marketing,” says media analyst Porter Bibb, managing director of Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co.

Though executives welcome the Mary comparisons, the leading ladies sound nervous at the prospect. ”It’s definitely a heavy responsibility,” says Shields. ”I have big shoes to fill — literally and figuratively.” Then again, notes at least one other leading lady, maybe Mary’s not the ticket after all. ”My feeling about it is everybody wants to be Mary, but the world is made up of Rhodas,” says Life’s Work‘s Lisa Ann Walter. ”I certainly wouldn’t mind being America’s sweetheart, but I don’t think I could ever wear hip huggers the way our Mary did, not on these child-bearing hips.”