Can Mary Hartman Find Happiness on Local TV?
By Ann Woodall
Six years ago Norman Lear, television’s iconoclastic producer, decided to shake up the tube. He attacked the long-held myths about the kind of shows audiences wanted to see by producing “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son,” and all their assorted offspring. The rest is history. Critically, Lear became the new standard-bearer for television comedy programming and the Neilsens affirmed that audiences loved the shows.
So one could almost safely assume it would be smooth sailing from then on: that Lear simply proposed a new project, got instant network approval and had another hit on the air. Right? Wrong. All three major networks rejected Lear’s recent offering: “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” The Lear organization claims the show was turned down because the networks didn’t think the public was ready for such a show. Now I’m not about to go to the front and defend the networks rationale for anything but perhaps, just perhaps, they didn’t like the show because it isn’t very good.
“Mary Hartman’s” creators see it as a trend-setting breakthrough but the only “breakthrough” I can discern is that it’s the first Norman Lear production to come to us syndicated and on local stations instead of a major network and, for the most part, opposite the eleven o’clock news instead of at prime time. A strange circumstance, but then “Mary Hartman” is a strange show. To begin with, I have not yet found it accurately defined. The press releases say: “a slightly bent soap opera,” and L.A. Times critic calls it “satire,” and Al Burton, creative supervisor for “Mary Hartman” and director of new projects for Lear’s company, TAT Communications, modestly says it is “the American comedy.”
According to Burton it was Lear’s original intent for the show to be taken on two levels: (1) as straight soap opera (Lear said he wanted it to play “as a believable story for addicts who take their stuff seriously”) and (2) as satire which could then be appreciated by that audience who preferred its television with a sense of humor.
Well, if Webster’s definition of satire is anything to go by, (a work in which vices, follies, stupidities, abuses, etc., are held up to ridicule and contempt) “Mary Hartman” isn’t a satire. “All in the Family” is a satire. We can laugh at Archie Bunker, but we are always aware that a world full of Archies is a dangerous and unhealthy place to live. But “Mary Hartman’s” characters are too innocuous to be satirical.
To me the show hovers, somewhat falteringly, between a sitcom-without-a-live-audience-or-a-laugh-track and a parody of a soap opera. Define parody. A work which imitates the style of some other work but treats it in a nonsensical manner. Yes, that is “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” And that’s the problem with it. As parody it cannot be taken as seriously as Mr. Lear would have it, and it isn’t funny enough to be an out-and-out situation comedy. As soap opera spoof, I rate it second to Carol Burnett’s wonderful sketch, “As the Stomach Turns,” in which she portrays Marion of Canoga Falls. Despite every possible calamity in the course of her day, Marion manages to offer endless cups of coffee and give wise counsel to whomever needs it. In the case of Mary Hartman, she, herself, is in desperate need of wise counsel and, as lethargically played by Louise Lasser, a large injection of adrenalin.
Fade in…Fernwood, Ohio (is it just a coincidence that the Norman Lear offices border on Fernwood Avenue in Hollywood?). After we hear the loony-bin voice of Dody Goodman calling: “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” we soon see our heroine, Mary, an average American housewife going through her average American soap opera day (she even loves the soaps on TV—how’s that for a multi-leveled show?).
On this typical day she is distraught because her daughter was kidnapped by the neighborhood’s mass murderer (when he demanded $100,000, Mary suggested, “He should go on a game show”); her husband did not come home the night before and that can only mean ONE THING; her grandfather is on probation following his arrest as Fernwood’s resident flasher; her oversexed younger sister has fallen in love with a deaf mute (is this supposed to be kinky?); her hapless mother is incapable of coping with anything and frequently faints (as Mary scolds her with “You really should take an iron supplement!”); Mary’s floors have waxy yellow build-up, and she fears her husband Tom’s impotence won’t be cured before she’s too old to remember what their sex life was like. So much for an average day.
It could possibly be funny if it were played for laughs—but to take it seriously?? Can Norman Lear honestly expect the dedicated soap audience to tune in “Mary Hartman” and believe it is plumbing the depths of their reality?
Bryna Laub who publishes Daytime Serial Newsletter (a magazine for soap opera devotees) says “Mary Hartman” insults the soap opera viewers by contending it can be taken as straight drama. (Even a network executive agreed the show “puts down the daytime audience.”) Laub claims the one-dimensionality of “Mary Hartman’s” characters “are more reminiscent of early radio melodrama types and to take ‘Mary Hartman’ seriously is to say that nothing has changed in 20 years.”
Soap operas today, she says, usually put so much depth into the characters that it takes a year to figure out what characteristics belong to whom. “By comparison ‘Mary Hartman’ is like stick figures in a first grader’s drawing.” Laub also maintains that “soaps are about the audiences who watch them.” And today that means mostly college-educated wives of professional or semi-professional husbands. These are the only women who can afford to stay home and watch the soaps. “If we are to believe that the audience is Fernwood, Ohio, then the majority of men in this country go to work in baseball jackets and caps.” (Tom Hartman’s ritual outfit. I even think he goes to bed in it.)
Then there is the way in which Mary copes: on one hand we have her glazed reaction to a situation and on the other we see her take-charge ability typified by her promise to her screaming relatives that if they quiet down and behave themselves, “We’ll all go to the House of Pancakes!” Laub says the show’s creators “think this is how women’s minds work, and that’s both gender and common-sense insulting.”
But it isn’t only Mary who’s simple-minded. Almost everyone on the show seems intrinsically dumb. (At least Archie Bunker isn’t stupid. His problem is a recalcitrant ignorance which makes him all too human and real.) Mary’s downbeat husband, Tom (played by Greg Mullavey), seems incapable of any concern beyond what he can or can’t do in the bedroom and just wants his wife to take care of the house and be a “happy contented thing” (a new low for male chauvinism). As Mary’s mother, Dody Goodman lands somewhere between Gracie Allen and a parody of Edith Bunker (if that’s possible).
The others—Martha’s husband, George, grandfather Larkin, and the two female adolescents—are all sitcom stereotypes. Especially the two girls, the Hartmans’ petulant fourteen-year-old daughter and Mary’s boy-crazy sister. The Haggers (best friends and neighbors of the Hartmans) fare a bit better. As played by Mary Kay Place and Graham Jarvis, they at least display the quality lacking in all the other characters—vulnerability. Real vulnerability. Not the superimposed kind that Mary exudes. Loretta Haggers is the archetypal undiscovered country and western singer for whom it is Nashville-or-bust. And both she and her husband, Charlie, are dedicated to making her a star. What makes them poignant is the fact that we know what they don’t know—that Loretta is never going to make it.
And then there’s Salome Jens as Mae Olinski who “works in payroll” at the auto plant (where the lead male characters all work) and is Fernwood’s “other woman,” currently having an affair with Tom. (Ah-hah, he wasn’t impotent after all—just a little matter of finding the right sex partner.) Jens is a fine actress who plays Eugene O’Neill heroines as if to the manner born, but with her earth mother face, throaty voice, and Amazon body she is as wrong for the pathetic Mae as Sandy Duncan would be for Lady Macbeth. Besides, Jens plays the role with too much intelligence. A fact which Al Burton says “is the very seriousness which underscores the reality of the show.” But I fail to see how one down-to-earth person in a cast that’s basically “off the walls” is going to give the show its needed credibility.
And so, Mary Hartman, of the cute pigtails and little girl dresses, when will you grow up and stop being dull and dimwitted? Burton insists that she is headed toward consciousness-raising “first via Readers Digest, then Family Circle and, one day, Playgirl will show up on the coffee table and there will be a whole new exploration of Mary’s growth.” In fact, he says it has already begun because in a very early episode “Mary was the aggressor in the sex act.” (A lot of good it did her.) I believe he is referring to a morning scene when Tom was headed out the door for work and Mary stopped him with an offer to “do it” right there on the kitchen counter. Tom declined but who can blame him? Couldn’t Mary at least have suggested the living room—the bathroom—a closet? Any place is sexier than the kitchen.
But never mind the sex act, Messrs. Lear and Burton: what about the life act? Burton insists that “if the show succeeds it’s on the basis that Mary Hartman et al have reality within them.” If that’s true, when does Mary get it together there and stop behaving as though she’s had a lobotomy? Burton assured me that “Mary’s ability to cope will be etched more and more.” The show is receiving the same negative early reviews that “All in the Family” did, but he is not worried. “We’ll look back one day and see that we’ve arrived at yet another form for television.”
Will “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” ever become a recognizable portrait of American life?
Will she become a household word or a cancellation after 26 weeks?
And will “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” ever stop masquerading as a serious soap opera?
Tune in tomorrow, folks…