(CNN) — Few TV stars burned brighter than Mary Tyler Moore, whose association with two for-the-ages sitcoms burnished her Hall of Fame credentials. Her broader significance as a cultural icon is more open to debate, and receives a workout in “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” a dutiful HBO documentary devoted to her life and career that’s at its best when illustrating her comedic gifts.
Running two hours, the film has the luxury of taking some time to do just that, with a long section devoted to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in general and the “Chuckles the Clown” episode in particular, rightfully considered one of the best sitcom episodes ever.
The broader conversation also includes considering the mores of the time, among them how the network was uncomfortable with a show built around a divorced woman, one reason why the breakup that brought Mary Richards to Minneapolis remained a trifle vague.
Director James Adolphus makes the case that Moore’s persona in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” broke significant ground, with series creator Carl Reiner (who famously grabbed her by the head in elation, having found his Laura Petrie, in the middle of her audition) allowing the wife character to be funny, in a show that transformed Moore into a fashion template and an object of admiration and lust in near-equal measure. (It’s noted that women liked her so much they didn’t mind that their husbands crushed on her, something to which almost every male interviewed who grew up watching her freely admits.)
Questions regarding Moore’s status vis-à-vis feminism prove less clear-cut, and the not-so-subtle sexism she faced is evident in some of the cringeworthy clips from obnoxious TV interviewers she endured in her heyday.
The film also makes a strong case that Moore’s movie career never really got off the ground because she was ill-treated by the studio with which she had signed, Universal, though she did later earn an Oscar nomination for the family drama “Ordinary People.” The happy ending to that, of course, is that her hat-in-hand return to television produced one of the great sitcoms of all time.
Produced with Moore’s third husband, Dr. S. Robert Levine, who was with her until her death in 2017, “Being Mary Tyler Moore” enjoys extensive access to private video footage, part of the biographical material that includes Moore marrying young and later dealing with the tragic death of her son.
Moore’s left a mark beyond just her work on screen, championing quality TV through MTM, the production company she founded with then-husband Grant Tinker, as well as speaking out on women’s-rights issues and advocating for diabetes research.
Among the tributes to Moore, another one of the documentary’s producers, writer-producer Lena Waithe, nicely articulates her legacy by noting that she was “meant to spark fire, with a very delicate match.” As these productions go “Being Mary Tyler Moore” doesn’t quite catch fire, but it does provide a warming glow in celebrating a signature talent who did, indeed, make it after all.
“Being Mary Tyler Moore” premieres May 26 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.