The networks have passed up Producer Norman Lear’s new idea, too. [Referencing an earlier part of an article discussing syndicated television programming and the networks’ choice to skip “Space: 1999,” a Science Fiction program distributed as a syndicated program in 1975] “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is a soap opera with a difference. In the first two episodes, Housewife Mary, the thirtyish, pigtailed and sex-starved heroine, receives a number of rude shocks. No sooner has she seen her boyish but impotent husband Tom off to work at the Fernwood auto plant and settled down to watch the soaps than her sister, Cathy, drops by. “Say,” observes Cathy, “your floors have waxy yellow buildup.” A stunned Mary replies: “But the can says it’s a lovely even glow.” Cathy knows what the matter is; “It’s Tom, isn’t it?”
Mary hardly has her breath back before her neighbor Loretta, an aspiring country singer and child bride of the bald but virile Charlie, drops by to report a mass murder. “The Lombardis, their three kids, two goats, and eight chickens.” An astonished Mary says, “What kind of madman would kill two goats and eight chickens?”
Fernwood Flasher. That night Mary snuggles up to Tom, who is in bed loading a pistol he has bought to protect his family from the mass murderer. She nibbles his ear. Barks Tom: “Cut it out.” Mary replies, “It’s been five weeks.” The Reader’s Digest has counseled her to assert herself, but Tom has different advice: “Act like a woman.” “You mean do nothing?” asks Mary. “That’s right,” says Tom.
Dawn has hardly broken over the unhappy Hartman household when the phone rings. It is the police, who have arrested Mary’s Grandpa Larkin as “the Fernwood Flasher.” A shocked Mary says, “I can’t talk now; I’m on the phone.” Meanwhile, Tom is at work being regaled by Charlie with the song that his Loretta wrote about mass murder – from the murderer’s point of view. “That’s not a subject for singing,” says Tom. “Course it is,” replies Charlie. “Country and western is all about real things like murder, amputations, faucets dripping in the night...” Then he breaks into “I’m an Engineer.”
To the 9½ million soap followers, the fast and funny scenario may sound too good to be true. The average soap has a tortuously slow plot so full of digression that weeks can go by before the heroine is forced to decide whether to paint her nails pink or red. Sex and violence only simmer; it can take years for marriage and divorce merely to be broached.
For seven years, Norman Lear has longed to change all that. In between producing “Maude,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons,” he mulled over the soaps. Then last fall CBS put up $100,000 for a couple of episodes. He told writers to work up something with mass murder, exhibitionism, and impotence. They thought he was joking, but he denies it: “It isn’t satire – that’s five minutes on a variety show. I wasn’t trying to get comedy from mass murder or impotence – they aren’t funny – but from people’s reactions to them.”
Finally, Ann Marcus, a veteran soap writer, came up with a script that met all Lear’s requirements. He then persuaded a reluctant Louise Lasser, Woody Allen’s ex-wife and co-star in Bananas, to play Mary. “I was a little afraid of the material at first,” says Lasser, whose lethargic portrayal of the permanently stunned Mary is a comic turn on its own. Before long, she fell in love with what she calls “the Frankenstein soap.”
So far, “Mary” has attracted inquiries from local stations, but no takers. Lear is a patient man, however. It took him four years to get rid of that show nobody even wanted to look at let alone buy. Its name: “All in the Family.”