Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Mary Hartman is currently suffering through separation from her husband, exposure to venereal disease, and the lack of tranquilizers around the house. But how is she, really? For all her troubles, very well, it seems. Norman Lear’s soap-opera send-up, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” is now in its seventh week, the most talked-about new show of TV’s numb-drum season. Most followers of loopy Mary and the other soap-flake characters of Fernwood must indulge their new addiction either in the afternoon or late at night. Shunned by the networks, the syndicated five-day-a-week serial appears on nearly 70 stations, generally in non-prime-time slots; 30 more stations will start showing it soon. The program is averaging a 10 rating in major cities – healthy for its time slots, though obviously less than what a prime-time hit registers. In Los Angeles and New York, “Mary, Mary’s” share of the audience has topped the local news of the CBS affiliate – a fact Executive Producer Lear must relish, since CBS first backed – and then backed out of – the series.
Slapstick Tragedy. The most obvious thing about the show is its broad exaggeration of soap-opera calamity. Mary is held hostage by a crazed gunman, then propositioned by the rescuing police officer. Her friend, Loretta, who dreams of a career as a country singing star, is battling paralysis after her car was struck by another car full of nuns.
But slapstick tragedy is not the only reason why people are watching “Mary Hartman.” The show’s fascination lies in its oddly shifting tone. Almost all of the characters are confused. Mary herself is usually slack-jawed with bafflement – about her sister, who has fallen in with th local massage-parlor king; her grandfather, “the Fernwood Flasher”; and most of all by her stolid and truly enigmatic husband Tom. Though he is having an affair with Mae, a comely co-worker at the plant, he is impotent with Mary. The situation makes him terse and glum. If he can’t do it, poor, dead-voiced Mary wants to talk about it. In one of the show’s more venturesome scenes, written by Lear himself, Mary complains that she cannot masturbate while Tom fumes with silent humiliation. “I can’t do it and you can’t talk about it,” she says finally.
No matter how many car crashes or family arrests occur, the atmosphere in Fernwood is torpid. Many of the laughs stem from people’s misunderstandings of the simplest things. The real threats come from the family and close friends. Mary’s kitchen telephone is an instrument of bedevilment. The wonder is that she still picks it up; she has rarely heard any good or even neutral news over it. Many lines, especially in the kitchen scenes, can seem funny and pathetic at once. Informed by a caller of yet another crisis. Mary replies, “I can’t talk now, I’m on the phone.” Actress Louise Lasser somehow turns that Gracie Allen yuk into a more everyday kind of bewilderment. Even Mary’s usual costume can be described several ways. A silly little mini with a Peter Pan collar and puffed sleeves, it could be a saucy nurse’s uniform, a chaste skating costume, or just a child’s dress.
All these ambiguities are catnip to critics, especially those with a sociological bent. Many observe that the show is a kind of barge to float all the garbage of American culture out to sea. Yale English Professor David Thorburn, who uses the show in one of his courses, has called the Hartman family “an American house of Atreus,” although there has been no slaughter so far. Several enthusiasts have compared the show with Ingmar Bergman’s film, Scenes from a Marriage – to Bergman’s disparagement. Perhaps because he wears a warm-up jacket, Tom has been likened to John Updike’s puzzled hero, Rabbit Angstrom. Commentators have noted, almost with reverence, that the characters are “human” and that Mary is “vulnerable,” as if these qualities were very rare. With tough, raucous programs like “All in the Family” dominating prime time, perhaps they are.
Norman Lear, who gave Archie Bunker to the world, is now in love with “Mary Hartman,” an idea he thought up seven years ago. He does not see “Mary” as soap satire; it is a way “to show humanity and comedy true to life in society – but perceived through a bent glass.” He spends more time on the show than on any other project. In fact Lear may even be Mary. Says Chief Scriptwriter Ann Marcus: “If Mary sees an article in a magazine, that usually means Norman saw the article in a magazine.” But despite suggestions from Lear and virtually everyone else on the set, Marcus finds the pace leaves hardly any “time to work out where the story is going.” The original 60-page “bible” that traced planned story lines was expected to last at least six months. Restless “Mary” consumed it in three weeks. At the moment the writers are only a harrowing eight scripts ahead of each day’s taping.
Crude News. Like any good producer, Lear loves the controversy that has surrounded the show. Mini-campaigns have broken out across the country to get it banned or at least limited to a time when the kids are not around. But only in Richmond, VA, where “Mary played at 3:30 p.m., was the reaction of worried parents enough to get the show canned. Suburban Seattle Housewife Christine Matkovick has been calling executives of companies whose products are pitched on “Mary,” at 5 p.m. locally, and at least half a dozen sponsors have pulled out. But with youngsters deserting the competition – “Leave It to Beaver” reruns – the Seattle station is so far standing pat.
Still, “Mary Hartman’s” most fitting habitat does seem to be opposite the late news. Chicago Sun-Times Columnist Bob Greene thinks that time slot lets viewers avoid “the merely hesitatingly genuine entertainment in the classic Chicago tradition: crude, snickering, dirty, and easy to follow.” Greene may be right. “Mary” is doing fine late at night. For a show with a soap-opera format, it is quite contrary. Quite contrary.