[3 May 2007]
The recent spate of smarter, smarty-pantsier comedies—Scrubs, Arrested Development, and The Office among others—have made the crummy sit-com competition look silly. You watch something inane like The War at Home and you think—who needs a laugh track when you can have, well . . . laughs?
But there was a time when TV comedies were even better, perhaps. And that time began in January of 1976, when Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman started to run every weeknight for almost two years. For some folks, this was a period of five-a-week bliss. And when the era ended, after 325 episodes of madly deadpan parody, it was hard to believe that the show had vanished into no-rerun, no-video-cassettes, no-DVD thin air.
Now, to no fanfare and limited acknowledgment, Mary Hartman is back. And it’s rather like watching your old man go in the backyard and throw a baseball again after all those years—and the guy can still pop it in the glove.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman emerged from the producer Norman Lear, who was riding high on the critical and popular success of All in the Family, Sanford and Son and other shows—shows that used the sit-com form to push the limits of what TV could tackle. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, however, was less about controversial subject matter than it was about form. It was an unflinching parody of daytime soap operas, an absurd and bold exaggeration that managed to be finger-on-the-nose accurate, but equally funny utterly on its own.
Mary Hartman is a suburban housewife in Fernwood, Ohio. Her daughter is a depressed, kidnapped brat, her husband is an impotent simp, her sister is a tramp, her best friend is a would-be country superstar, her mother passive-aggressively talks to her plants, her grandfather is a flasher, and her neighbors—and their chickens and goats—were mass-murdered. And that merely summarizes the first few episodes. The show was frank enough about topics such as masturbation that it aired on local stations at 11pm in most markets, running against the local news as a strange, private pleasure for viewers. But the dirty bits were never the point. The show was about sending up a ridiculous style of entertainment and, miraculously, doing it perfectly while simultaneously being hilarious.
Watching the show again, 30 years later, it is actually funnier and better crafted than memory suggests.
As a soap parody, the show gets all the details right. The production values are purposely low—sets are used repeatedly and there are few extra actors. The camera moves in for frequent close-ups, and the actors stare across its gaze in rapt silence. The theme song drips with sentimental strings, and the music swells between scenes. The plot is both littered with strands and yet moves at a snail’s pace. And the story—one crisis after another—is somehow never the point. The point is Mary herself: a naïve and yearning mirror on which the show projects its view of the American culture.
Mary Hartman is played by Louise Lasser, the quirky comic talent from the great, early Woody Allen movies. On the one hand, Mary is a deluded consumer, obsessed with her kitchen floor’s famous “waxy yellow build-up” and the advice she gleans from Reader’s Digest. On the other hand, she is the only island of clarity in her family’s chaotic life. As the whole group grows more and more agitated while at the police station because of “The Fernwood Flasher”, Mary calms them by exclaiming, “Everything is all right! And afterward we’re going to go the House of Pancakes!”
Lasser commands the show with neurotic focus. In the scene in which she is interviewed by a reporter about the mass murders, Mary insists on telling the “hilarious’ story of the first time her husband Tom spoke to her”, except that the story is completely unremarkable. The laugh is in the story not being funny, and Lasser makes this kind of gag pay off several times in nearly every episode.
As the country singer, Loretta Haggers, the young Mary Kay Place, is central to the show’s complex self-consciousness. Loretta is mostly convinced that she is on her way to stardom in Nashville, though her best gig is singing at the Capri Lounge in the Fernwood Bowling Alley. Her performances—in the lounge but also simply in her living room wearing lingerie—are somehow simultaneously winning and pathetic. She is lovingly cheered on by her older husband, Charlie. She tells him, “Oh, baby boy, I love you more than a hundred million frozen Milky Ways”—a sentiment both absurdly funny and, well, sweet.
A crucial part of watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 2007 is realizing that it is both locked in its historical moment and self-mockingly above it. When Tom and Mary go to the Capri Lounge on a date, of course he wears a leisure suit. But it is plain that the show is aware that Tom looks ridiculous. The script makes knowing reference to non-cholesterol “egg substitute” and Mary offers her daughter breakfast this way: “Here, dear, have some cereal—it’s endorsed by Billie Jean King.” In short, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartmant was glibly wise about its own era long before its era passed. This cool distance would seem to be a product of the show’s impeccably smart writing—for which Ann Marcus, Jerry Adelman, and Daniel Gregory Browne won Emmys in 1976. As veteran soap writers with roots in TV’s earliest days, the writers seem always to know what they were making and understood that if it was to mock its time it had stand apart from it just enough. And the show does.
A major difference for many when watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartmant on DVD will be color. For many of us, those 325 before-bed episodes were enjoyed on a questionable Zenith black-and-white. The show, of course, was filmed in a dense, saturated color. Mary and her mother’s hair is richly red. Mary’s signature gingham blouse and jumper are garishly blue. Tom’s boyish red-blue cap reminds us of Charlie Brown come to Technicolor life.
Volume One of the show on DVD contains the supremely confident and dry—and belly-laugh good—first 25 episodes on three discs. That’s 12-plus hours of media parody and cultural cleverness: a month of leisurely enjoyment or maybe a serious weekend Hartman Festival. For under $30, this has got to be the best value out there today,
But, then again, I would feel that way. Maybe I was always a little in love with Mary, wishing she’d get me a Schlitz out of her ‘70s fridge at the end of each day. In the world of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the cleverness and irony is somehow dealt out with a good deal of affection. It’s well earned by one the best shows in TV history.