City of San Francisco
Hail Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
The First Work of Modern Art in Commercial TV
By Garry Goodrow
Maybe it’s news to you that “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is a half-hour, “slightly bent soap opera” starring Louise Lasser and produced by Norman Lear, which runs every weeknight at 11:00 on Channel 44. Or is yours one of the 130,000 sets in the Bay Area that tunes it in regularly? Making it second only to the 11 p.m. Channel 7 “happy talk” news in the local ratings. (Poor Van Amburg, Van Amburg!) If you do watch it every night, perhaps you’d agree with bartender Bob Lancey: “I can’t decide if it’s the best or the worst thing on television. It’s one or the other—no in between.”
“MHMH” is eliciting that kind of response all over the country and has already been the subject of think pieces in the Village Voice and the New York Times (the Voice writer claimed it was better than Scenes From a Marriage). There will be many more think pieces written, mountains of analysis probably, because this is a very peculiar, very original show, and it may well be carving out a new form. It is certainly the most modern show in commercial television.
It is impossible to reproduce its flavor here. If I were to tell you that recent episodes have dealt with mass murder, exhibitionism, training bras, masturbation, impotence, orgasms, VD, drunken nuns, incompetent doctors, and yellow waxy buildup (on the kitchen floor) you’ll think it’s just another of the “new,” “outspoken” programs that have been around since Norman Lear gave us Archie Bunker. For that matter, I could be describing a regular soap; they are full of “taboo” subjects these days. Well, it’s more than that.
The characters speak half the time in Basic Lowermiddleclass, and the other half in whacked-out non sequiturs. And they do it without a laugh track, which makes it possible to listen to them. Sometimes the jokes are so bad that it is to wince; sometimes the situations are so contrived that we mutter “it’s satire” to ourselves sarcastically. And after every show, we sit and wonder, “What the hell was that? What am I watching?”
This show, which started out as a fairly slick spoof of the soaps, is developing to a skewed, inside vision of the agonies of our pop culture, the terrors inherent in batting back and forth, day after day, between the Reader’s Digest and The Joy of Sex, between Archie Bunker and Eric Sevareid, between Tammy Wynette and Henry Kissinger. The best raises more questions than it answers. And if there is a mirror being held up to nature, and if it is a distorting, funhouse mirror, what’d you expect? Ain’t this Disneyland?
The route Mary Hartman had to travel to reach your screen is one indication that something is up. When all three networks turn down flat the latest offering of the most successful producer in television history, he must be doing something right. That is, he must be doing something new.
As long ago as 1967, when he was getting together the first pilot of “All in the Family,” Lear had a commitment to produce a pilot for a comedy soap opera. But when at long last he came up with “Mary Hartman,” the networks looked embarrassed and said no thanks. CBS did offer to run it in prime time and shoot it with a studio audience—in other words, they were willing to let Lear produce another variation of his earlier successes. Lear turned them down. He now says, “It was a different form. And I didn’t want to violate that form.” As a last resort, he flew the executives of twenty-five independent television stations i.e., non-network, such as San Francisco’s KBHK (Channel 44) to Los Angeles and showed them his two pilots of the show. They bought. How could a station which makes its money from re-runs resist an original show from Norman Lear?
“Mary Hartman” is now playing in some fifty markets across the country. In thirty-one cities, it runs at the time it was originally designed for: in the afternoon. This has led to some cute situations. In Des Moines, Iowa, it was moved up from a late evening slot to 2:30 p.m., and that caused a furor. The mayor made angry speeches, the newspapers made angry editorials, and people started picketing the station. Meantime, the show was running up the highest ratings of any program in the area. Presumably, the pickets went home between 2:30 and 3:00.
Why did Norman Lear have to go the independent route, particularly given his fantastic track record as a producer? Because he was not dealing with theatrical entrepreneurs, who are gamblers, but with network television executives, who are accountants.
Jackie Gleason had a variety show in the ‘50’s sponsored by The Ford Motor Company. The show opened with a marvelous panning shot of the New York city skyline minus the Chrysler building! The airbrush had been wielded by the damp hand of the ad man, which has ruled American television from its earliest days.
When movies first came along, there was a sudden outbreak of “genius” among glove salesmen from the East who settled in Los Angeles and manipulated the huge demand for this new form until a few of them more or less owned the whole process. At first, anything they made could be sold, but some things sold better than others, and they trained sycophants to interpret business shrewdness as artistic genius. (A businessman’s idea of an artist is another businessman who reads novels.) The moguls attempted over the next thirty years to systematically eliminate any true artist who tried to go his own way in films (e.g. von Stroheim, Orson Welles). They weren’t completely successful of course, but by the late ‘50’s they had almost completed the job of draining the lifeblood from the industry they themselves had created.
The motion picture industry was one of the last great ventures of free enterprise capitalism, and artistic freedom was never even considered to be a possibility. The new medium became a playground for the factitious “science” of the ad game, and indeed there have been stretches in that thundering river of shit which is TV when the only glimpses of wit or style were to be found in the commercials.
By the time of the various social explosions of the ‘60’s the television profession had produced it own breed of cultural Stalinists, living, like the ad men, in a highly-paid dreamworld of mutual fear, where a sponsor’s belch might be arbitrarily interpreted as a death sentence, and a stroke of “genius” today could be transformed into a fatal mistake tomorrow by some sorehead’s write-in campaign.
The basis of television censorship was and is a desperately held conviction among studio and ad agency executives that they know precisely how to separate the American public from its money. Any deviation from the amorphous rules, any lapse into realism or good taste, is viewed as a threat to their status as experts and destroyed forthwith. Unless, of course, somebody manages to try it anyway and it works. Naturally, if it draws a big audience, the rules change.
Norman Lear changed the rules for them. A bit. That was with “All in the Family.” Maybe the reason it was permitted to go on the air at all was that the basic material wasn’t original—it was already popular in England as “‘Til Death Do Us Part.” Still, ABC turned it down, and CBS made a lot of hassles before they plunked it gingerly in prime time (with a voice-over disclaimer before the show). And suddenly, there was Archie Bunker introducing us to the novel experience of hearing our TV sets talk like the old fart next door. (Well, not exactly like him.)
With “Family” a huge success, Lear borrowed again from the BBC “Steptoe and Son,” about a cockney junk dealer, and created a vehicle for Redd Foxx. These two shows have been followed by a slew of spinoffs and original situations, until the Lear Empire stands at seven current shows, with three more in the oven. All of them deal in one way or another with words and subjects that would have caused cardiac arrest in studio brass just ten years ago.
But it’s only in subject matter that these shows differ from what went before. In most other ways, they are formula sitcoms, “three camera shows” shot twice before live audiences and the best pieces edited together, the soundtrack “sweetened” with canned laughter. They follow a basic joke format—set up, set up, punchline—and in general each episode tells a complete story, with a problem presented and resolved.
Lear has really put his foot in it now, though. In “Mary Hartman,” all the forms are torn up and thrown at us in pits and pieces. At times, it is like a scrapbook of television styles. A straight dramatic scene, a beautifully acted husband-wife bedroom crisis, will alternate with the black surrealism of a highway accident involving “a station wagon full of nuns” who are “lying scattered about the road like popsicles” as a TV newsman gabbles and the cops try to sort it out. The overall effect is a strange realism; the kind of disturbing realism that Ed Kienholtz achieves with his white-on-white plastic people.
Louise Lasser is the show, which is not to fault the rest of the terrific cast in the least. It’s just that she sets the pace. She has an instinctive grasp of the possibilities in this material, and is ready to take the chances necessary to realize them. With her Raggedy Ann pigtails and sincere, spacy blue eyes, she projects a kindness and a ravaged decency which seem to spell out the difficulty of surviving in this dopey world of conflicting imperatives.
Mary Hartman’s mind is often elsewhere, reacting to the hysteria of others with helpful little side comments, offering interesting facts and observations, encouraging everyone to treat their most terrible moments as if we were all merely philosophical spectators of our own lives. She is the Great Consumer. She believes in quoting authorities (like the Reader’s Digest) and in the midst of the worst crises, she assumes an air of pensive objectivity that makes us expect that at any minute she’ll use the professorial “we.” (“We have studies this problem and we have found…”) Mary, like most of us, is confident that there is an answer—somewhere. She dredges through the evening news, the magazines, the books of the month, the backs of cereal boxes, gleaning clues.
Louise Lasser is more interesting than Mary Hartman, but just as funny. She has that vulnerability which is the occupational hazard of actresses, and if she were dumb, she’d be exactly the type of artist that television is looking for, to squeeze like an orange. She is intelligent, skinny, full of talk, and more than a little crazy (as poets are said to be crazy). She’s quite capable of playing the overbearing prima donna, but will forgive you in a minute for having witnessed it, and is too acute not to laugh at her own performance eventually. She’s a knockout.
The logistics of producing this serial are really insane, as compared to most television work. For twenty-six weeks, it is a half-hour show a day, five days a week. In the soaps, the actors use cue cards. In fact, on a soap opera set you will find pieces of the script pasted everywhere—on the backs of lamps, in plates or coffee cups, even on the shoulder of another actor. But here, everyone memorizes their lines, which means that you work all that day, then go home and memorize for tomorrow. And the writers are hustling too, churning out scripts that are all the more difficult because they don’t fit any of the usual formulas.
It is this intense pressure, so many good heads zeroed in on a novel project, that makes it possible for the show to evolve. Lasser says that there were conflicts at first, but now everything is going quite smoothly. In this, I’m sure she’s just trying to keep the peace.
I went to Los Angeles recently to interview Louise, in my capacity as cub reporter. As might be expected with a talker who is into the ninth week of twenty-six weeks of hard work, she is voluble on the subject of the show. And what she has to say is very interesting.
“No, it doesn’t really get easier. I find I’m just as exhausted at the end of the day. A lot of it is very embarrassing, but I find it less so than most other things, including movies. Here, it’s all over in no time. There isn’t time to use technique on this show. There’s so much to do, when you do a take you don’t care anymore. And I don’t think too much like an actor on this show. I don’t go revving it up. I just sort of do it. I watch it, and a lot of it is terrible. But I’m always surprised that it’s not as humiliating as I thought it would be.
“And we’re lucky in a way, we’re lucky as actors, because we have a chance of being better as actors at the end of this. That’s almost impossible. You’re on the series, and you know you’re selling part of your soul.
“I really get offended at the idea that we’re satirizing. If this is a satire, then I’m wasting my time—that’s how I feel. I don’t want to do satire—I want to do the thing itself. It’s not a satire on society. It’s presenting the society.” And “a soap is more of a spoof on a soap than this is.”
Those remarks indicate how far the show has evolved. (They are now shooting twenty shows ahead of what you are seeing.) The further they have got from slick spoof, the more arresting the material has become.
In the first shows, the parody was very apparent. The pacing of the scenes and of the actions within them was truly that of a soap. It was the events that made the difference: Grandpa was revealed as “the Fernwood Flasher”; the five members of the Lombardi family were massacred together with their two goats and eight chickens; Mary’s husband had been impotent for over a month; neighbor Loretta, in a cerise negligee from Frederick’s of Hollywood, spent her afternoon rehearsing dreadful country-western songs in her living room, using a fireplace scoop as a microphone.
These things (in endless permutations) are still going on, but the pace has picked up and there are more scenes of straight (if sometimes weird) human contact. Also, the specific references to the soap form are used more sparingly and to greater effect. Now, if they happen to use a typical soap organ-music fill at the end of a scene, it brings everything into delicious focus, whereas before such touches were expected. Now reality is the soap opera, and while reality is no less silly than melodrama, it is far more interesting.
(I have to issue a caveat here. I mean, about “reality.” Just to give you the flavor of the “reality” we are dealing with, here is a rundown of the last two shows: Mary and her husband Tom are having a screaming bedroom argument about the fact that he has not made love to her in eight weeks…meanwhile Loretta and her husband Charlie (they think she is pregnant) are on their way to Nashville to line up a “million dollar contract” for her…the Hartman’s fall into one another’s arms and make love at last…Charlie has a head-on collision with a car full of drunken nuns, and she is hurt…back at the Hartman’s, post coitus, the phone rings. It is Mae, the girl at the plant that Tom has been sleeping with. She has something important to tell him she says. When she hangs up, the phone rings again, with the news of the accident…at the hospital, with everyone worried about the unborn child, the doctor apologizes. He got the urine samples mixed up. Loretta is not pregnant, she had a “fibroid tumor”…next morning, on his way to work, Tom stops to talk to Mae. She tells him she has given him the clap (which means that Mary got it last night)…at the hospital again, Loretta tells Charlie her ether vision: when she becomes rich and famous in Nashville, she plans to open a “home for unwed pregnant country-western singers.” Then Charlie tells her she was never pregnant. Well, you see what I mean by reality?)
Louise Lasser understands the changes in progress: “After forty-some shows we’re just beginning to get a look at ourselves. Suddenly, there’s a fusion happening. We’re just beginning to read articles where we way, ‘Oh!, Uhhuh, that’s what we’re doing! Oh Good! That’s what we had in mind!” But secretly, you know—well, we didn’t have this much in mind, but we will tomorrow!
“Of course, there’s a danger in that, because then you start to become other-directed. Really, I think the show says ‘Fuck You.’ It’s made more to please ourselves, although believe me we’d be very depressed if we were not doing well, but we don’t make the show with that in mind.
“The reason that the show hit in New York and San Francisco is that it’s alive. It’s not trying to reproduce something that’s already dead. New York is Old World. New Yorkers always respond when somebody tries to break new ground. They instinctively sniff it out. In San Francisco, it seems to me, they’re trying to make it, they’re trying to make it work, and a lot of people are succeeding at it and a lot of people are failing at it. A lot of people are committing suicide at it. And when they see someone doing it right, they don’t seem to be bitter, they seem to cheer for them.”
And amid all the exegesis and analysis that I and others have been doing, here is what Louise says:
“There is something more philosophical, something more existential about the show that is beginning to happen, in that it’s portraying a society where one value has no more meaning than the next value—where brushing your teeth is not that much more or less meaningful than someone’s death.”
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” seems well on its way to becoming established as the first genuine work of modern art in commercial TV. With my obvious prejudices against the video business world, I find it hard to clap Norman Lear on the back, etc., call him a “genius,” etc., or to give him credit for fully intending the excellencies of this show. But damn it, he has done it. He has introduced several clearly new things to the medium, and that’s a lot more than all of us grousing smart mouths have done about television.
Makes a fella feel like a snob.