Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman - Volume 1

The never-forgotten '70s soap send-up emerges for the first time for home viewing -- a welcome reminder of a certain kind of glory day

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman - Volume 1

Distributor: Sony
First date: 1976
US Release Date: 2007-03-27
Last date: 1977

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Award-winning folk artist Karine Polwart showcases humankind's innate link to the natural world in her spellbinding new music video.

One of the breakthrough folk artists of our time, Karine Polwart's work is often related to the innate connection that humanity has to the natural world. Her latest album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, is largely reliant on these themes, having come about after Polwart observed the nature of a pink-footed geese migration and how it could be related to humankind's intrinsic dependency on one another.

Keep reading... Show less

Victory Is Never Assured in ‘Darkest Hour’

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) (Photo by Jack English - © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

Joe Wright's sharp and only occasionally sentimental snapshot of Churchill in extremis as the Nazi juggernaut looms serves as a handy political strategy companion piece to the more abstracted combat narrative of Dunkirk.

By the time a true legend has been shellacked into history, almost the only way for art to restore some sense of its drama is to return to the moment and treat it as though the outcome were not a foregone conclusion. That's in large part how Christopher Nolan's steely modernist summer combat epic Dunkirk managed to sustain tension; that, and the unfortunate yet dependable historical illiteracy of much of the moviegoing public.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.