Television shows with cult followings are typically odd, individualistic programs that either weren’t noticed during their original airing or have never appealed to anyone outside a niche audience. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is unique in that it was a hit that has since been almost totally forgotten; its cult status stems from its being little seen or available since its original run. Shout! Factory has now tried to correct this by releasing the complete series on 38 DVDs, a move as ambitious and ludicrous as the show itself.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman follows the daily lives of Mary, her family, and fellow citizens of Fernwood, Ohio and is a satire on soap operas, mass-media culture, and the disconnect between “real” and sensationalized life as presented on television. It had a relatively brief run, from 1976-77, but during that time the show was a word-of-mouth success and appeared on the covers of Newsweek, TV Guide, Rolling Stone, and People and star Louise Lasser hosted Saturday Night Live.
The central conceit was to appropriate the form of a daytime soap in order to both send-up its foibles while using its long-term storytelling opportunities and subject matter as dramatic fodder. The show’s makers did not take this approach in half-measures. The program aired five days a week in syndication and was shot in the style of a soap opera with regular cliffhangers and melodramatic arcs. There was no laugh track and the comedy was relentlessly deadpan.
That the show was produced by Norman Lear in his heyday was probably the only reason it made it on the air. (In the booklet accompanying this set, Lear writes that the show “had been percolating in me for years.”) This linear five-day a week approach made Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, like the daytime soap operas it spoofed, impractical for use as reruns and is the reason it has hardly been seen since.
In the first episode Mary (Louise Lasser) is introduced as the pure embodiment of the American housewife, mopping the floor with a bottle of cleanser in hand, eyes glued to the soap on the television. Her sister (Debralee Scott) enters and they have a long conversation looking at the “waxy yellow build-up” on the floor. They speak with a slow, numb cadence pushed to an abstract level of dry humor. Sirens continually blare in the background.
Then Mary’s best friend Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) bursts in, announcing that there has been a murder on the next block. In the conversation that follows more concern is shown for the chickens and goats that were also killed, along with the lingering problem of the waxy yellow build-up, than the murder of Mary’s neighbors.
The subtext to this scene would be repeated throughout the series. When creating the show Lear writes that he asked himself, “What was the impact on the average American family of the relentless bombardment of commercial products via the multiple television sets that broadcast throughout their homes for so many hours every day?” The answer seems to be an inability to separate fact from reality, questionable judgment when ordering your priorities, and a tendency to dwell on the most inconsequential details in order to avoid dealing with difficult emotions.
Repeatedly, when finding out that their grandfather is the town flasher or that somebody is having an affair with the town priest, the characters’ response is to wonder about the reception on the television or to stare lovingly at something they’ve just bought. The presentation is comic, but the implications are tragic.
This sounds like the show could have been condescending, but it managed to tread an extremely delicate line between social and media satire and sensitivity towards its characters. Though the series shied away from sincere explorations of social issues in the style of Lear’s other sitcoms like All in the Family, and Maude, it could be daring and touching in addressing the characters’ vulnerabilities: the frustrating lack of sex in Mary’s marriage, her husband’s (Greg Mullavey) impotency, extramarital affairs, and alcoholism. As with soap operas, there was a level of honesty in dealing with the types of problems encountered in daily life – even if these matters were dealt with in conjunction with hostage situations and a character drowning in a bowl of chicken soup.
Mary’s central struggle is between retreating into a fantasy world and facing her problems. Lasser, a quirky performer primarily known for playing the romantic lead in Woody Allen’s early films, was a unique fit for the role. She makes Mary sympathetic, constantly put upon, and desperate for any agency with which to gain control over her life. In her most remarkable performance, over a single 11-minute shot, Mary has a nervous breakdown on a television talk show, but not before putting up a valiant fight, yelling, “I am not a victim!”
This storyline would be one of the key moments in the series. Mary is appearing on the show, hosted by David Suskind, to represent “America’s typical consumer housewife.” Mary, as a worshipper of all things television, is thrilled at the opportunity. She gushes about TV Guide: “I think they’re wonderful, wonderful. They condense material… I mean what a time saver.”
But the other panelists, a satiric cross-section of self-important New York intellectuals (based on real-life figures like Susan Sontag and Marshall McLuhan), are unsympathetic and thrash her for what they perceive to be her consumerism and unfulfilling life. It was the show’s most explicit exploration of how television was affecting America, and its most careful balancing of satiric, absurdist, and naturalist tones as a way of resisting any pat answers.
With this turn, at the end of the first season, the show’s meta tendencies were pushed far out. Fernwood, a fictional town obsessed with Hollywood artifice, would subsequently try to make itself real through the entertainment industry. Mary’s friend Loretta is an aspiring country singer; the actress Mary Kay Place not only recorded a country album in character as Loretta, but received a Grammy nomination for it. A summer spin-off series, Fernwood 2 Night, was presented as a low-budget late night show featuring Martin Mull and Fred Willard as Fernwood’s polyester-clad answer to Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. (Ten episodes are including with the DVD set.)
At the beginning of the second season, Mary finds herself in an insane asylum dreaming she’s in a Nielsen family and the show’s many conceptual flips seem to be emanating from this fevered imagination. The show’s adventurousness in this regard still feels modern and fresh, putting stunts like James Franco’s appearance on General Hospital to shame.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ultimately imploded from the pressures of a ceaseless production schedule and the struggle to match its conceptual brilliance on a daily level. Watching it today, it is still incredible, often looking more like an Andy Warhol production on cable access than a nationally watched sitcom. The show always tried to work on the level of a soap opera, but like soap operas it can drag on when watched in succession, particularly the episodes that aired during the middle of the week.
This show absolutely deserves to be rediscovered by a younger audience, but I’m afraid it might be too difficult a task to rise from the vaults of television history.