The Mary Hartman Craze
By Harry F. Waters with Martin Kasindorf
Never has a soap stirred up so much lather. In Richmond, VA, the public outcry against “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was so intense that station WTVR was forced to jettison the TV serial after only six episodes. In Little Rock, AR, the show sparked the largest protest in station KARK’s history – 1,200 names on petitions and letters and another 1,000 telephone calls. General Foods, Colgate-Palmolive, Campbell Soup, and a dozen other major corporations have refused to let their commercials run on daytime airings of “Mary Hartman.” And an editorial in the Daytime Serial Newsletter, the soapers’ Bible, castigated the show as “a continuing insult to the viewer.” The most sustained media barrage has been mounted by Boston Herald American critic Anthony LaCamera, who devoted four consecutive columns to establishing that “there is something sick, sick and twisted, twisted about ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’.”
On the other hand, never has a soap gathered so many bouquets. “MH2,” as it is called in the industry, has been rhapsodically likened by some critics to the best of Chekhov, Cervantes, James Joyce, John Updike, and Ingmar Bergman. A Presbyterian minister in Evanston, IL, reverently sermonized that “MH2" is a “theological model of the Judeo-Christian system – doing good, beginning to hope for and work for solutions.” The show’s appeal has move The New York Post and a Baltimore disk jockey to provide daily synopses of the plot developments. There are Mary Hartman T shirts, bumper stickers, and fan clubs, one of which publishes a monthly newsletter complete with a trivia quiz (“How does Mary Hartman take her coffee?” Answer: “Black with cream.”) In San Francisco, the Commission on the Status and Rights of Women now adjourns its meetings precisely at 10:30 p.m. – to watch “MH2" at 11. “Mary embodies the national spirit,” says commission member Carolyn Reilly. “If she ran for president, I’d vote for her.”
Love it or loathe it, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is the nation’s latest pop-culture craze – a sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience. Norman Lear’s comedy soap opera is the most talked-about new TV series since America was assaulted by his Archie Bunker. To the TV industry, the four-month-old soap spoof represents a radical departure in form – and a potential threat to the networks’ oligarchic dominance of entertainment programming. After the show was spurned by all three networks, the indomitable Lear personally peddled it to local stations on a syndication basis. At last point, no fewer than 105 stations were airing “MH2" and, for the most part, they were enjoying an unprecedented ratings boom.
In big cities, where the serial usually is shown in late-nighttime slots or after the network soaps have departed the afternoon, the average station has seen its Nielsen numbers more than double since Mary came aboard; at Cincinnati’s WXIX, the ratings increased a staggering sevenfold. To add to the networks’ gloom, “MH2" is siphoning off viewers from another tragicomic series – the late-night news. In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, “Mary Hartman” occasionally outrates at least one of the competing news shows, and in L.A., it has even spawned its own news spoof – “MetroNews MetroNews,” a bizarre half-hour of soft-core items about nudity, prostitution, and vasectomies. To producer Lear, who has six sitcoms in prime time, the improbable success of his “slightly bent soap” is the sweetest of all. “It’s lovely,” Lear says with a chuckle, “to see that the American people will turn to something different if it’s offered to them.”
“Mary Hartman” certainly is different. Its heroine, played with hilariously understated desperation by Louise Lasser, is a befuddled, angst-ridden housewife residing in the mythical blue-collar town of Fernwood, Ohio. Mary’s daily travails include an impotent husband, a promiscuous younger sister who is hung up on a lecherous cop, a 12-year-old daughter who wants to drop out of school to join an all-girl rock band, and a gaga grandfather known to police as “the Fernwood Flasher.” Most of the action takes place in the Hartmans’ squeaky-clean kitchen. There, when not fretting over the “waxy yellow buildup” on her floor, Mary grapples with the horrors of marijuana and masturbation, venereal disease, fraudulent faith healers, open marriages, and a neighborhood mass murder triggered by a bad “knock knock” joke.
Thematically, the serial is something of a mishmash, and even the show’s creators seem at a loss to define exactly what they are trying to do. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences seems equally confused; this month, it nominated the show for an Emmy, not in the daytime or nighttime categories but in a special class called “distinguished achievements in television.” Lear originally envisioned “MH2" as a kind of split-level soap. On one level, it would be a reductio ad absurdum of every soap opera convention, including the inane commercials. But the show would also be human enough to make viewers care for its characters – just as they feel for the folks on “As the World Turns.”
It was an audacious game plan, but one probably destined to miss as often as hit. At its best, “Mary Hartman” is a biting satire on our mass-consumer society and a wacky, surrealistic evocation of contemporary life. Unsure where the commercials on her TV leave off and her own life begins, with her psyche constantly flashing overload, Mary can never manage to get her priorities in order. In the midst of worrying over her kidnapped daughter, she pauses to ponder the relative merits of freeze-dried versus fresh-perked coffee. Held hostage by a mass murderer in a Chinese laundry, she suggest that his incessant headaches might be caused by low blood sugar. That sort of schizophrenia has won “MH2" a rabid cult following among the trendy. From Manhattan high-rises to the Hollywood hills, the hottest new dinner-party game is discovering who can come up with the most outrageously subterranean profundity in the Hartman saga.
Nonetheless, “MH2" does have its serious undercurrents. At times, the show’s impact is as wrenchingly poignant as Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. Mary is no deep thinker; her favorite gurus are Abigail Van Buren, Joyce Brothers and the Reader’s Digest. Yet she is perceptive enough to sense that her life en famille is out of synch with her glossy expectations – the product of a lifetime’s diet of junk food for thought.
Mary may make light of her suspicion that her daughter detests her, but her anguish is apparent enough for thousands of viewers, haunted by exactly the same fear, to experience instant empathy. Mary does not know how to talk to her boorish husband about his connubial dysfunction so she brings in a sex therapist to act as a “surrogate.” The plan collapses when Mary belatedly discovers what sex surrogates actually do. Even so, the two weeks of episodes – flavored with fumbling discussions about “performance anxiety” and “sensate focusing” – comprised a superbly nuanced treatment of a common malady TV rarely touches. The mirror that “Mary Hartman” holds up to our neuroses may come from a funhouse, but its reflections can be unnervingly sharp.
At its worst, however, the new hybrid inhabits a deadly dull vacuum between comedy and melodrama. Half the characters of the cast clowns and mugs its way through the factory-town soap like high school amateurs. As the show’s satirical shots misfire – and they frequently do – perplexed viewers are returning Mary’s perpetually blank stare.
Whatever its failings, “Mary Hartman” belongs to Louise Lasser, and her performance is reason enough to root for it. With her bangs and braids, puff-sleeved minidresses, great doe eyes and dreamy, somnambulant voice, Lasser’s Mary is the apotheosis of a child-woman trying to grow up before she cracks up. The role is perfectly tailored to the 35-year-old actress’s real persona. The ex-wife of Woody Allen, Louise has undergone fifteen years of psychoanalysis to ease her own Mary-like malaise. She tends to think of herself as an “orphan,” schlumps around in children’s clothes and has worn her hair in braids for many years. Observes head writer Ann Marcus: “She’s so vulnerable herself, and has made Mary so vulnerable, that you just want to put your arms around her. I find myself saying, ‘Louise, you’re so thin – eat’.”
Initially, Lasser had grave doubts about playing Mary. “It’s like driving on a road where there are tremendous dangers,” she still says of the role. “It’s dark and it’s foggy and no one’s ever been there before.” But the part seems to have given the waiflike, fiercely intelligent actress a mooring for her inner confusions. “The acceptance of the show proves to me that I do fit into society,” she muses. “I’m amazed that any American family would take Mary Hartman into their home. And if they would take Mary in, they’d take Louise in.”
All Norman Lear productions are populated by strong supporting casts. “MH2" is no exception, and its back-up characters are loopy enough to suggest an “Our Town” written by Mel Brooks. The eight other regulars:
· Tom Hartman (Greg Mullavey): Invariably clad in a red-and-blue baseball cap and Fernwood High varsity jacket, Mary’s husband comes across as an intellectually stunted ex-jock for whom high school will always represent the best years of his life. Sexually, Tom is able to perform with a secretary at his auto plant but strikes out at home. When Mary snuggles up, her husband turns away to his copy of Handguns magazine.
· Loretta and Charlie Haggers (Mary Kay Place and Graham Jarvis): The Hartmans’ down-homey neighbors are the perfect foils to the Weltschmerz of Mary and Tom. Ol’ Charlie may be an oaf, but Loretta – the archetypical Southern sexpot – adores him because in bed he gives her “four minutes of skyrockets plus.” Everything befalls Loretta. She is temporarily crippled after her car collides with a station wagon loaded with nuns. She cuts a hit country-and-western record but blows her career by innocently making anti-Semitic remarks on “The Dinah Shore Show.” The episode has Loretta graciously thanking the Jewish agents and promoters who have helped her. Then she gushes: “I can’t believe those are the same people who killed our Lord.”
· Martha and George Shumway (Dody Goodman and Philip Bruns): Mary’s dotty mother talks to her plants and her ironing but has trouble communication with her family. After husband George strays with a hooker, Martha angrily informs him that, although she can’t stand looking at him any more, they can still make love – as long as it’s in the dark.
· Cathy Shumway (Debralee Scott): Mary’s oversexed sister ricochets from lover to lover and job to job. Her most harrowing experience comes as a massage-parlor hostess. Cathy’s first customer opens a large valise, hands her a meter maid’s uniform and then produces a 4-foot rubber hose.
· Heather Hartman (Claudia Lamb): The Hartmans’ only child is a cheeky little brat who, suffering the onset of puberty, continually yammers about her menstrual cramps and lack of “bazooms.” When Mary finds a love letter addressed to Heather’s social-studies teacher in the 12-year-old’s pocket, Heather cites the Constitution’s guarantees against “illegal search and seizure” and threatens to call in the ACLU.
· Grandpa Larkin (Victor Kilian): The household’s senile octogenarian projects a weird poignancy. “The hardest decision I have to make each day,” he grumps, “is whether to play checkers in the park or go down to the Safeway and watch them unload melons.”
At Lasser’s urging, the show’s writers have added more dimensions to the central character. Mary still utters inane non sequiturs. She is apt to inform phone callers: “I can’t talk now...I’m on the telephone.” But of late Mary is fitfully emerging from her catatonic trance to confront her doll’s-house condition. Her solutions have ranged from calling directory assistance to inquire whether she actually exists to joining a nonsense-spouting, “est”-style group called “stet.”
Mary also has taken to Miss Fixit meddling in the affairs of others – invariably with disastrous consequences. When neighbor Leroy Fedders, the high school’s cantankerous basketball coach, came down with the flu, Mary insisted that he try a huge bowl of her chicken soup. While Mary chattered away with his wife, Leroy – sedated on Seconal and Jack Daniels – suddenly slumped over, plopped his face in the bowl and quietly drowned.
Only Norman Lear has the power – and the chutzpah – to bring such a mind-blowing mélange to television. As the sitcom packager with the best track record in TV history, Lear has given the networks what they want while remaining one of their severest critics. (Lear recently filed a $10 million suit against the networks for their anti-sex and -violence “family hour” regulation which, he says, violates the First Amendment.) Nevertheless, it took an ego-deflating seven years for the ex-comedy writer to get his sudsy satire on the tube.
In 1969, Lear sold ABC on two proposals: a pilot show for what eventually became “All in the Family” and a commitment to finance ten scripts for a comedy soap. To its everlasting dismay, ABC subsequently turned down both. Lear kept plugging the soap, turning his idea over to Gail Parent, author of Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, and later to Ann Marcus, a former writer for ABC’s “Peyton Place.” After seeing their scrips, Fred Silverman, then head of CBS programming, agreed to put up $100,000 for two pilot episodes. But after viewing the results, Silverman dismissed the series as “too weird.” NBC had a different reason for snubbing “Mary Hartman.” Lin Bolen, NBC’s former daytime programming director, recalls the show struck her as “a spoof on the women who watch daytime TV. I couldn’t commit to a show that depicted my women as fools.”
Undaunted, Lear took a historic step. Last summer he flew 25 television executives representing 100 independent stations to the coast for a candlelight dinner on the lawn of his Brentwood home. Following a screening of “MH2,” Lear made an emotional pitch for his end run around the networks. After an agonized pause, the owner of a five-station chain rose to announce he would buy “Mary Hartman.” Within a few weeks, 51 stations had signed up and, although that was far short of the number needed to support production costs, Lear boldly gave the go-ahead for tapings.
Landing the finicky Lasser was Lear’s second big problem. “Not only did I think playing in a soap was humiliating,” recalls Louise, “but I just didn’t get the material. It was too different.” After turning down the part several times, Lasser finally was lured aboard by a $5,000-a-week contract and the freedom to drop out after a one-year run.
Unlike her video alter ego, Lasser enjoyed a privileged, big-city upbringing. She was raised in a spacious apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue, the pampered only child of S. Jay Lasser, a wealthy tax expert. Her parents divorced while Louise was in her 20s, and her mother subsequently committed suicide. But by then the culture-minded couple had carefully molded their daughter’s sensitive spirit. Louise attended exclusive, progressive grade schools and a series of far-out summer camps. “I went to every left-wing camp that ever existed,” she laughs. “Whenever I got off the bus, Pete Seeger was standing there with a guitar.”
After three years at Brandeis University, where she cut her theatrical teeth in student musicals, Louise abruptly called her father to announce she was dropping out. “I had a great time until I left,” she explains. “But there’s a part of me that is a runner. I get up and leave the room and never come back.”
Lonely and adrift in New York, Louise met Woody Allen through a friend. She promptly bought him a new trenchcoat and they lived together for the next five years, finally marrying on Groundhog Day in 1966. Wedlock with Woody was predictably bizarre. “We had a cook, a maid, and a chauffeur – and no cash,” she recalls. “One weekend, when the servants were off, we completely ran out of money. We were stuck with television and tuna fish the entire weekend.”
The couple divorced in 1970, but remained close enough for Louise to co-star in two of her ex-husband’s films. “People assume that I must have resentment,” she says. “But I like Woody. I came to see a lot of things through his eyes.” Allen himself once proclaimed Louise “brighter than I am, funnier than I am...and the only person who can cheer me up.”
Lasser became a minor cult figure for her deft performances in Allen’s Bananas, Ingmar Bergman’s video drama “The Life” and the movie Slither, in which she played a dizzy, Hartmanesque housewife. The mass audience first became aware of her wacky comedic strain when she portrayed a cloyingly sympathetic wife in a Nyquil commercial (“You’re a good wife, Mildred.” “I know, I know.”) Louise also did TV pitches for car parts and cheesecake.
A quintessential New Yorker, the private Lasser seems as disoriented as a beached carp in her rustic rented house atop Los Angeles’s Benedict Canyon. “It looks like a set,” she mutters. “And there are no fingerprints out here. They all keep getting cleaned off.” With little time to date, Louise unwinds by reading Camus, Dostoevski and Kafka – but her TV role seems difficult to shake off. A typical Lasser phone call to L.A. information is pure Mary Hartmania: “Hello, operator, give me the number of Jacopo’s Pizza Parlor in Beverly Hills or somewhere...And my house is on fire.”
In at least one way, the willowy, laryngeal actress is the antithesis of the thoroughly passive Mary. “She laughs my laughs and cries my tear,” says Lasser. “But I express hostility more openly than she does. I am one of the most independent people I know. I’ll say ‘F- - - you’ to anybody.”
That side of Louise has not gone unnoticed on the “MH2" set. Due to the star’s sudden shifts of mood, and her perfectionism and tendency to direct the work of others, the atmosphere at rehearsals resembles a continuing psychodrama. During the first episodes, Louise’s confusions about her character led to retake after retake. Even after she got over her acting jitters, she would spend weekends rewriting entire scenes. On set, she would patronizingly advise her co-workers on how to read their lines. When tempers flashed, Lasser would flounce off to her dressing room and the company of her affable pet mongrel.
“We’re getting on to her game,” sighs Greg Mullavey, who plays husband Tom. “The crises she precipitates really mean ‘Help me!’ Underneath that little-girl Mary Hartman costume is another human being who is scared to death. It’s all ritual. Louise is a kvetch.”
In fairness, Lasser’s volatility seems at least partly due to the show’s grinding production pace. To put together five episodes each week, the cast must toil all morning at rehearsals and three hours every afternoon at tapings. The scramble sometimes produces episodes that come up short of the 21-minute requirement. On one occasion, Lear hurriedly ran a sheet of paper through his typewriter and dashed off a five-minute scene to fill a hole.
The pressure so taxed Lasser that her vocal cords recently gave out and an entire week of episodes had to be taped without her. “I’m physically and emotionally exhausted,” she croaks. “You just can’t conceive you’re going to do this many shows. I get trapped feelings. It’s almost like dying.”
The show’s sexual explicitness is partly attributable to its off-network status. Although a few local stations have bleeped some scenes and other have responded to parents’ complaints by shifting the serial to time slots beyond children’s bedtimes, the heartland’s acceptance of “MH2's” kinky tone has been remarkably placid. Lear himself voluntarily censors borderline material. As for Lasser, her favorite moments are her faltering pillow talks with Tom. “I just love the bedroom stuff,” she says. “Those scenes ache.”
“Mary Hartman’s” success could have a revolutionary impact on the way the TV industry works. Some West Coast producers, irked at the networks’ play-it-safe approach, are talking about copying Lear’s method and selling their more offbeat shows directly to independent broadcasters. At the same time, the independents themselves have already begun banding together into coalitions with the financial muscle to purchase series that the networks reject. That combination could produce a spate of “instant networks” and deal a sneak blow to the Big Three’s lock on what America sees – and doesn’t see.
Fittingly enough, “Mary Hartman’s” own future is as confused as its heroine’s life. To persuade the local stations to buy the show, Lear had to offer it to them at bargain-basement rates (as little as $100 per episode). Accordingly, the show’s surprise ratings have enabled most of the stations to reap healthy profits by charging advertisers far more than they normally would pay for that time slot. Lear, however, will lose $1.2 million on the series in the first half-year, and to come out of the red he must renegotiate his deals with the stations once their 26-week contracts expire in early July.
The 53-year-old producer also has to renegotiate his contract with Lasser, who is not sure how long she will continue on the show. Lasser will probably ask for an appreciable raise. “It’s not just because I could be getting more money somewhere else right now,” she says, “but more in terms of thank-you’s and compensations for working this hard – and finally, when it’s over, having a certain freedom.” For now, Lear plans to lessen the money drain – and his cast’s combat fatigue – by dropping thirteen weeks of summer reruns, either a “Best of Mary Hartman” or an edited version of the original 26 weeks.
Will Mary Hartman, like Archie Bunker, spawn a brood of spin-offs? The show’s serial form has helped fuel what looks like the tube’s next big trend. NBC has at least three prime-time soaps in development, and last week ABC announced it will bring back two equally experimental “continuing dramas” – “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Family” – in next fall’s schedule. But the impact of “MH2" goes deeper than any urge to cash in on its unique mix of suds, sex, and insanity. Once again, Lear seems to have inspired his peers to reach beyond fatigued formulas. Says Garry Marshall, producer of ABC’s “Happy Days”: “I think other creators will be developing new ideas because, traditionally, if a guy like Norman does it, the other guys all try it.”
Meanwhile, back at Lear’s Stage 5, cataclysmic events are in store for the Hartman folk. The show’s architects are considering having sister Cathy embark on an affair with a local priest and her mother Martha could, according to one writer, “become involved with an older black gentleman.” Loretta seems destined to work for the “Worldwide Missionary Crusade” as a talent coordinator for an 8-year-old evangelist. Young Heather may run away to the streets of New York and, each week, send her mother $300 in mysterious earnings. As for Mary, perceptive viewers who have concluded she is headed for a nervous breakdown will not be disappointed. Confides Lasser: “It’s very important that she fall apart to a degree.”
Yet Hartman lovers need not fret. By now it should be apparent that contrary Mary is a born survivor, as impervious to life’s buffetings as Stella Dallas or Mary Worth. You can be sure that one day, perhaps just as Mary is enmeshed in some inchoate “Cuckoo’s Nest” trauma, she will once again throw up her hands and pronounce with that patented, spaced-out chipperness: “Everything’s going to be all right...And afterward, we’re all going to the House of Pancakes.”