August 28, 1976


The Nation




Peter Sourian


Producer Norman Lear’s daily half-hour series, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” is at present on vacation. Meanwhile, selected episodes from its first season are being rerun until September, when Mary’s frayed future will resume its unraveling.


One persuasive argument in favor of having a look now at a serial which everyone has written about, is that Lear was unable to sell his unprecedentedly open soap-comedy combination of genres to the networks, considering himself lucky to peddle it to independent stations at a loss. To the presumable chagrin of the bigwigs, his hybrid caught on with the mass audience they try so hard to fathom, and will make both him and the independent stations a lot of money this coming year.


I accuse Lear of being a closet scholar. Like most creators with the broad touch necessary for quality-cum-success, he seems sure enough of his own originality not to hesitate to steal from past masters. His earlier shows, still running, reflect this. “The Jeffersons”’s black bourgeois dry cleaner, marvelously played by Sherman Hemsley, is movin’ on up so nearly in the footsteps of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, that it is hard to believe that Lear has not been rereading the Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  Furthermore, both Jefferson and his white counterpart, Archie Bunker of Lear’s “All in the Family,” are typically Molièresque central figures: authoritarian male family heads, narrow-minded and covertly decentish in their willful ignorance.


Like the comedies of the rival MTM Productions, each of these shows is classical in that the laughter results from discrepant human engagements with an implicit moral norm, which norm is (usually too blandly) re-established by the end of each episode after a (usually too even-handed) degree of social criticism and topical commentary along the way.


But “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is different. It is not classical. It is dark and it is grim, even though millions of people watch and laugh. There is no norm, and Lear avoids restorative climaxes simply by seeing to it that there are no climaxes at all. Instead of a discrete half-hour unit per week of continuing characters but new episodes, he’s running a relentless narrative that is always promising resolutions and conclusions that absolutely never arrive. As a compound of the situation comedy and soap-opera genres, with their respective modes of sensibility, “Mary Hartman” becomes a genre unto itself, which – like the novel at its beginnings – permits fresh art to exercise itself where it could not do so within an older rigidified convention. Thus, good as some of the other sitcoms are, they are becoming as formal as the sonnet, with only fine ensemble acting to permit them life.


To illustrate what I mean about there being no norm, only a dreadful abyss: the recent season’s concluding episode left Mary on the edge of her daily nervous breakdown, this time in New York where, selected as America’s Typical Consumer Housewife, she is about to go on the “David Susskind Show.” (“But I’m separated from my husband, and my daughter hates me.” “That’s great. According to our statistics that puts you right in line for the title.”) Mary wanders into F.A.O. Schwartz and asks the price of a big doll’s house there on display. When told it’s not for sale, she insists hysterically that she must have it, with each little doll, every chair, table, plate, knife, fork perfectly in its proper place. She desperately craves a norm. But it is not a norm, this doll’s house interior; it cannot be had. The point is that Mary is insane to keep on insisting it can be had, when it’s only a display item in the greatest toy store in the world.


“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is recognizable as a Norman Lear production in that it too displays plenty of creative “stealing.” I repeat my closet scholar accusation, with further specifications: Lear has read Flaubert on received ideas, heard Chevhov’s characters talk self-absorbedly past one another in comic-tragic scenes depicting the fatal erosion of a society too removed from the most ordinary truths, applied and even developed Marx’s concept of alienation. He’s had the nerve to exploit these systematically in a tough mass market not only because he has sensed that this may be where we are at but also because he believes that we have sensed that this may be where we are at: in no-norm’s-land.


At this point, I know, I stand accused of projecting all sorts of pedantic claptrap onto poor Mary Hartman, already as beset as Richardson’s Clarissa. Any sensible person will say to me: Look, what Lear and his writers have really been doing to make their daily deadlines is sit around desperately chewing gum and racking their brains for a new episode. Maybe so, but even if Lear doesn’t consciously lay such heavy stuff onto an audience whose unconscious he risks a fortune trying to reach, the result is there for me to detect, if not as a bomb then as fallout. I believe he’s a subversive, cagey fellow, fiercely determined to express the fine things which occur to a fine sensibility, and make much money at the same time.


He gets to say his fine things, but he never insists; delighted if audiences are simply laughing and/or crying, he won’t complain ungratefully, like Shaw, that he’s not being taken seriously. For example, in an early episode an athletic coach with a very bad cold drowns on screen in a large bowl of chicken soup that good-neighbor Mary has brought over. As he lies across the table with his dead face in the soup, his wife hastens anxiously to assure Mary that she really mustn’t feel badly; it’s not her fault. I have no doubt that Lear wished to say something about how far from our emotions a massive diet of received ideas on how to behave can carry us, but he had a lot of people, in no way consciously concerned with such fine notions, laughing like hell in the bar in Kinderhook, NY, where I was watching.


TV people have begun to realize that there is a blue-collar class out there, 65-million strong, with frustrations, hidden injuries. Comparitively recent shows like “Movin’ On,” though it is false and sentimental, and “Laverne and Shirley,” heavy with soothing nostalgia, attest to this awareness. But “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is the first and only working-class soap-opera to come to grips with blue-collar frustrations and despairs.


Mary (Louise Lasser) lives in Fernwood, where her husband Tom (Greg Mullavey) screws dome lights on an automobile assembly line but is impotent with his wife, though he manages to pick up syphilis elsewhere. Who would admit, before Norman Lear came along, that working-class stiffs in windbreakers might actually be impotent? Tom naively (had he been watching a TV series?) stands up against union corruption and management abuse, without realizing that union and management are in cahoots. He loses his job. 


When Mary’s grandfather, the Fernwood Flash [sic], is arrested for indecent exposure, she meets cop Dennis Foley, a Don Juan who becomes engaged to Mary’s sister in order to get a closer shot at seducing Mary – all in the name of overflowing love and with the blessing of Mary’s dim mother. Again, Lear in Shakespearean fashion manages to be all things to all men; while I think I know that Dennis Foley is a Tartuffian monster, the June issue of Soap Opera Digest has an earnest profile on him as TV’s Newest Heartthrob.


Incidentally, there is no show which so insightfully and deliberately depicts TV itself as an important part of the lives of people. During a mass murder right down the block, showing live on TV, Mary frets over the “waxy yellow build-up” on her kitchen floor, unable to distinguish between the news and the commercials. Such off-the-point reactions are a staple feature of the show, akin to Lear’s Chekhovian dialogue, and Marxist in their underlying sense of the anatomy of alienation possible in a large-scale capitalist society.


Foley the cop is at last about to make Mary when he falls to the floor with a heart attack. He subsequently manages to get her into his hospital bed and there they copulate. Mary has told herself that exercise is important for sick people – a Flaubertian received idea, consumed willy-nilly but not digested by America’s Consumer Housewife, soon to be rewarded with a trip to New York and an appearance on the Susskind show. Such ideas have a more compelling place in Mary’s brutally one-dimensional existence than either desire or fidelity, kindness or venality. Yet – and this is the sweet and terrible pathos of Lear – we know that, steam-rollered as she is, Mary has plenty of frantic desire, fidelity, kindness, venality.


Lear’s Marxism has to do with the notion of man’s alienation through certain kinds of work. Tom, screwing in the dome lights for which he can have no feeling, is unable to touch his wife, for whom he has a kind of drowned but real feeling. Lear sees virtually everything in our culture – even and especially that which is most intrinsically valuable – being ground up into a commodity to be packaged and sold, regardless of need or real appetite, and he is busy depicting the manifold extensions of this fact. The goods must be moved off the shelf, and no matter whether or how they are absorbed. The cups of instant coffee are gobbled up by people who may at bottom legitimately desire to sleep, not stay awake. The people who do not love nor wish to love buy paperbacks on how to love and study them hard. The chicken soup is slurped up by men who have been told it is good for them; the fact that they may be drowning in the stuff is incidental to the system, since they are incidental. 


These monster manufacturers are constantly rising up in Lear’s show. But his best general insight is that, more damaging than the possibly useful and quite efficient household appliances, waxes, polishes and foodstuffs, are the ideas, originally of value, but now ground up, packaged, purveyed, swallowed and scarcely digested. We are the most sophisticated people in the world, even those of us who live in Fernwood, yet we know nothing; we are intolerably burdened with ideas, a most heavy baggage, without even a rudimentary sense of their use. See “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” on group therapy, for example, or on telephone help lines for people in despair. The therapy groups are the opposite of community; the help lines come down heavily on people’s heads. These defenseless people suffer more at the hands of the group therapists than at the hands of those who drove them there; a girl’s “lover” hates her more than does her rival; the policeman may actually be more dangerous than the mass murderer who keeps him in business by killing a goat and two chickens; the religious guru (aged 8) leaves his suppliant with the spirit squeezed right out of her.


For the genial Lear it’s no joke. He likes his characters. He hates what has happened to them and in an ironic way this forces him to end up with distaste for the characters he likes. It is a bitter, bitter business – so much so that I will no longer watch “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

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