New York Times Magazine
Mary Hartman recycles our garbage.
No longer merely a spoof of soap opera, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” begins its second year already enshrined as a cultural signpost.
By Ted Morgan
Mary Hartman, who is in a mental clinic recovering from a nervous breakdown, might be cheered to know that, starting tomorrow, the second year of her show will be shown on 125 independent stations reaching a potential audience of 55 million households, and that her stepfather, TV producer Norman Lear, expects to make up the program’s first-year loss of $1.2 million.
The first 26-week series of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (or “MH2,” as it is known to its production team) was sold at bargain rates to 65 independents after CBS, NBC, and ABC had turned it down. This year all three networks showed interest, but Lear remained loyal to the independents (although he did jack up the rates). In successfully syndicating his own product, Lear, no stranger to the networks, with eight other shows on this season, including “All in the Family” and “Happy Days,” [sic] has become the first independent producer to loosen their garrote on American viewing habits. “I don’t think we’ve struck fear into the hearts of the networks,” says MH2’s creative supervisor, Al Burton, but some interesting things are happening. Large corporations like Gillette, disenchanted with the quality of network programming, would like to discuss helping Lear fund new projects and are talking about “a fourth marketplace.” In a time of “alternatives,” MH2 represents a form of alternative television.
For those who have somehow managed to avoid her, Mary Hartman is a “copeless” housewife beset by assorted calamities in Fernwood, Ohio. Tom, her husband of 14 years, rejects her sexually. She gets kidnapped by a mass murderer. Her grandfather is arrested as the Fernwood Flasher. She has a nervous breakdown on the David Susskind show. Her father, George Shumway, rails against Jews and liberals, while her mother, Martha Shumway, talks to plants; Heather, her 12-year-old daughter, brings home joints from school; and her lover, Sgt. Dennis Foley, a member of Fernwood’s finest, should have a revolving door in his bedroom.
Inhabited rather than played by Louise Lasser, Mary does and says the things Louise would say and do. “Louise is hyper – very neurotic,” a friend says. “She dwells on things you don’t need to dwell on – like that the room is yellow. You just have to wait it out. It’s her way of expressing herself.” When Miss Lasser played her big scene – Mary s nervous breakdown – she was able to connect it with recent events in her own life. Arrested for possession of cocaine in May, she was placed on probation (no previous arrests) on the condition that she see a psychiatrist three times a week. She lost her voice and “MH2”’s production was held up for five days; her house was robbed. There is an odd parallelism between Mary on-stage and Louise off-stage. As Miss Lasser repeatedly says: “Mary Hartman cries my tears and laughs my laughs.”
Viewers, too, consider themselves Mary Hartman’s alter egos. “You must have planted a microphone under my kitchen table,” they write in an say. A woman from Bloomington, Ind., wrote: ‘I’m just your normal maladjusted 33-year-old single parent, with an 8-year-old daughter who wants to be a pro goalie.” Sometimes they say that Mary Hartman reminds them of a friend: “I once knew a Mary Hartman. She washed the lettuce with detergent.” Or they give Mary advice: “Mary should be more careful not to expose her underpants. She should wear capris.” When high-school coach Leroy Fedders drowned in a bowl of Mary’s chicken soup, one letter writer commented: “If you’d been in bed with Dennis where you belong instead of skipping around the neighborhood like a demented yenta, it wouldn’t have happened.”
All over the country, it’s Mary Hartman time. There are Mary Hartman fan clubs and bumper stickers that read: “Honk Honk If You Love Mary Mary.” There are daily synopses in the newspapers and arguments in bars when someone would rather watch a hockey game. In Washington, a tense moment in the Senate was shattered by a page coming onto the floor and calling for Mary Hartman. At the Sumner County prison in Tennessee, inmates banged on their bars when deprived of “MH2” and almost caused a riot.
The show succeeds because it provides a cathartic experience. Mary and her fellow players recycle our society’s garbage. As we watch her failing marriage, her dismal love affair, her disjointed attempts to break out of her kitchen, as she sinks and cries for help in the swamp of consumerland, we find relief from our own emotional stresses.
No longer merely a television program, “MH2” has become a cultural event, in the same league as those other sociological signposts that culture-watchers and think tanks and Whither America specialists are always on the lookout for to help us explain ourselves.
The ultimate accolade, the enshrinement of a cultural event, is when it finds its place in a college curriculum. This year, the University of California Extension Course is offering “Mary Hartman and the Rest of Us – a Nervous Journey into Television Land.” The participants, including dramatist Abby Mann, CBS newscaster Bill Stout and lawyer Mark Lane, will discuss “the dreams and nightmares of the American people [as they] are reflected darkly, through the glass of Mary Hartman – can a culture survive a nervous breakdown? …”
With this kind of attention, it should come as no surprise that, whether it is slotted A.M. or P.M., “MH2” is punching holes in the network ratings. In Washington, it tied for first against “The Waltons” in its January debut. In New York, against the 11 P.M. news, it tied for the lead in May and pulled ahead in June. In San Diego, opposite a real soap, “Search for Tomorrow,” at 11:30 A.M., it has been getting a 43 percent share of the viewers. In San Antonio and Kansas City, it has been doing consistently better than the first half an hour of Johnny Carson. In Los Angeles, it is in second place against the network news, and in Chicago, is known as a strong news town, it is in third. Mike Royko, the Chicago columnist, was pleased. “They actually thought,” he wrote, “that people were eager to see some speech-school graduate sitting behind a plywood prop desk and reading a brief news story that somebody else wrote for him.” The lackluster style of television news is not enough to explain the shift of millions of viewers to UHF, PBS, and other non-affiliated stations, however.
The point is that “Mary Hartman” is the news. It’s the news about how Americans live, complete with airing of issues like impotence, alienation, homosexuality and adultery, and with references to Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, Howard Hughes, Presidential elections (in the new series) and whatever else happens to be going on. In contrast, the news that is presented on TV tells us practically nothing about people’s lives. As Martha Shumway puts it: “You can always find something on the evening news to take your mind off life.”
Lear originally intended to make a soap opera that would play on two levels. “I thought,” he said, “and this was kind of an elitist thought, that there would be people who would dig the humor and other people who would be gripped by the story. …But now I’m beginning to believe that a lot of my fellow cerebrants – and if that’s not a word it should be – who watched the show as a funny satire, are gripped, because my phone rings all the time: ‘Is Loretta gonna walk?’ (Loretta Haggers, Mary’s best friend, was paralyzed in a car accident). ‘Is Dennis gonna go to bed with Mary?’ Those people who started enjoying the satire, they’re hooked on the stories, and I think the same thing is happening in reverse.”
It’s not all applause, of course. A lot of people aren’t gripped by “Mary Hartman.” Stations in Richmond, Va., and Salt Lake City cancelled the show. Little Rock’s station weathered a 1,200-name protest petition. In Seattle, there was an energetic campaign to boycott “MH2” advertisers. When Toledo gave Mary a low profile and switched her from a 3:30 P.M. slot to a 2 ½-hour marathon session from Saturday night to Sunday morning, a Toledo woman wrote: “This is too much to expect anyone to endure,” and added, “My husband tore the front cover off the TV Guide and threw it into the trash because it had her picture on it.”
Those who love “MH2” and those who hate MH2 have something in common. They have a hard time defining it. Take the women’s movement. It is split on “Mary Hartman.” The pros see it as a strong feminist statement, the ultimate depiction of a woman struggling against the system. They see Mary, not as a champion of the cause, but as the cause, as proof that they must get on with the business of liberating women. The cons see her as just another dumb housewife on the tube. They want role models, like Barbara Jordan, and Mary is a lousy role model.
As a prism disperses light, “Mary Hartman” disperses interpretations. The magazine Sexual Medicine sees it as a seminar on sexual dysfunction, treating sex for what it is, a part of people’s lives and self-esteem. “I don’t want to do a rotten job,” said Tom, who by now has become the best-known sexual casualty since Jake Barnes, the antihero of “The Sun Also Rises.” “This isn’t a job,” Mae Olinsky, Tom’s girlfriend from the payroll department, says. “You can’t do a rotten job. Just relax and enjoy yourself.”
Some people get upset about the sex, and one viewer from Detroit wrote: “If we want to see so many beds we can go to a furniture store.” But Sexual Medicine believes that “MH2” may be “the greatest development in sexual education that adult America has ever experienced,” and that it will help doctors discuss their patients’ sex problems.
Peter Sourian, a novelist and teacher, and television critic for The Nation, sees Norman Lear as a Marxist who is chronicling the decline of capitalist society. “In our society,” he said, “you get substitutes. You want love and you get a product. Lear is obsessed with the alienation that Marx said would result from capitalist society.” When I told Lear about this theory, he laughed and said: “I mean, I can’t tell you what a Marxist is. I dropped out of Emerson College in Boston after two years to join the Air Corps.”
Donald Freed, the novelist and prize-winning playwright who is coordinating the University of California’s “Mary Hartman” course, has an existential interpretation, which is set out in a paper he wrote with Halina Charwat, titled “The Monster and the Spectacle.” Freed sees “MH2” as an example of what he calls “The Society of the Spectacle,” in which television reduces all of life to a meaningless spectacle that can be turned on and off. “The waxy buildup on Mary Hartman’s kitchen floor, where stunned and defeated she sinks down again and again,” Freed writes, “becomes the equivalent of Sartrean nausea.” Mary’s uneasy feeling that things should be different is a form of existential awareness. She is, writes Freed, a divine omen indicating misfortune.”
There is something of a gap between these highbrow suppositions and the way the show gets put together. Take the scene where Mary makes love to Dennis in his hospital bed. Freed writes that “the nihilistic self-image of America is self-evident when Mary moves to confront death and sexuality by crawling into her lover’s hospital bed in the coronary ward.” Actually, the scene was the result of an intramural dispute between Lear and his writers. “Norman did not want Mary to be unfaithful,” Al Burton recalls. “The writers said people are always going to bed with each other on the soaps. Norman stalled for time. He did not want his heroine defiled. The writers kept insisting. Finally, he said let them get together, but give Dennis a heart attack. The writers thought this was a cheap shot. Norman said, ‘Give him the attack and they can make it in the hospital.’ It was a trade-off.”
Also the object of esoteric speculation, one of “MH2”’s most outrageous episodes came about as the result of a casting problem. Norm Alden, who played coach Leroy Fedders, was going on tour with a stock company. The writers had been building up his character, but he was leaving. “We might as well kill him,” Lear said. “He’ll drown in a bowl of chicken soup.” So he did, and is now lecturing on the college circuit on the ramifications of his unusual demise.
When he asked writer Gail Parent to give him a script treatment, the idea for a comic soap opera had long been nagging Norman Lear. Miss Parent came in with an outline called “The Life and Times of Mary Hartman,” but Lear did not like the title. “Wait a minute,” he said, “I think I’ve got it. You know the way a mother leans out a window and calls a kid – “Marty Allen, Marty Allen.’”
ABC gave Lear the money for script development but declined to tape the scripts. Fred Silverman, then of CBS, now entertainment president of ABC, put up $100,000 for two pilots in December 1974, but thought the show was “too weird.” The other two networks said, “We like it but our viewers won’t.”
In August 1975, Lear flew 25 independent-station executives to his Brentwood, Calif., home where he wined and dined them. After he made his pitch, Al Flanagan, a conservative broadcaster who oversees seven stations, stood up and said: “I’ll buy it.” Others followed. With 51 stations committed, Lear went ahead.
“Reach for the outrageous,” Lear told his writers, on the theory, that whatever they came up with – from the Fernwood Flasher to drowning in a bowl of chicken soup – It couldn’t match what’s in the papers. When I went to see him, on his desk was a clipping with the headline: “Call Girl Ring Reported Based in New York City Morgue.” Lear, a white-haired, avuncular 53, said: “now, we’re not doing anything on ‘Mary Hartman’ more outrageous than that.”
With academics now scrutinizing “Mary Hartman,” Lear is worried about critiques that call him a subversive for exploring the dark side of a sick society. “To my toes I believe that this program is affirmative,” he said. “I look at people as survivors. It astounds me how much people survive. Loretta survives being a cripple to become a superstar. Mary survives her breakdown and learns that she’s really quite strong…In the past, TV shows ignored race riots, the bad economy and all the things that were wrong, and what was important was a lost skate key and how to keep Poppa from finding out. There was something subversive about that, about telling people who had lost their jobs and were delinquent in their mortgage payments and had runaway children that it didn’t matter because look how lovely life is.”
I recently watched the 65-episode summer version of “Mary Hartman” in four eight-hour sessions at Norman Lear’s Los Angeles headquarters. One of Lear’s assistants asked me whether I was doing it for the Guinness Book of World Records. Actually, I was doing it because I wanted to see the series the way I read a book I can’t put down, to get a cumulative rather than an episodic effect. I came away from the experience with eye strain and a mysterious two-day fever which my doctor diagnosed as Hartmanitis.
I also realized that “MH2” is not a parody of a soap opera. Sure, it mocks the form with portentous organ music, iris dissolves to close sequences and perplexed expressions on the faces of the actors as each episode ends. But a parody is a burlesque imitation, good for a sketch like Carol Burnett’s “As the Stomach Turns.” It can’t be sustained for over two years. “Mary Hartman” uses the soap-opera form to deliver the ultimate slice of life, without patronizing its viewers. Like a 19th-century novel, whose author is writing for serialization and is being paid by the word, its humor is not based on situation but is developed out of characters. To understand “Mary Hartman,” it’s best to start inside the characters and work out.
A thread that runs through the show is that the experts, “the authority figures, the leading citizens, the wise men – those who have a responsible role in society – are charlatans and phonies. It’s US (the common folk) against THEM (the experts). Among the “Mary Hartman” gallery of overeducated villains we find:
· A minister who cheats on his wife, carries a pint of whisky in a hollowed-out Bible and has to be blackmailed into helping Mary get away from the mass murderer.
· A doctor who gets the pregnancy tests mixed up and tells Loretta Haggers she’s pregnant when what she has is a fibroid tumor. (The doctor calls the tumor benign. Loretta wants to call it Charlie Haggers, Jr.)
· A specialist who gets his kicks by telling patients how badly off they are and is delighted to inform Loretta’s husband, Charlie, that “your Loretta will be crippled for the rest of her life.” (Charlie later learns that this specialist bungled his wife’s operation, and files a malpractice suit.)
· A lawyer, handling Charlie’s suit, who, when he sees that Loretta is able to get out of her wheelchair, says: “Sit down, you’re throwing away $100,000.”
· A plant counselor who tells Tom “my specialty is understanding,” and then, when Tom tells him he may have given Mary V.D., yells, “You mean to tell me that you gave your wife a social disease! Why that is the lowest…that is so ugly, so disgusting I ought to get up and walk away. …”
Contradictory messages from authority figures: Psychiatrists call this the “double bind,” and some research has found that it is a pattern in the childhoods of schizophrenics. The central characters in “Mary Hartman” have to put up with it all the time. No wonder they’re overwrought.
Unlike most soaps, which portray fashionable people pursuing romance, the heroes and heroines of “Mary Hartman” are blue-collar people who see themselves as middle class.
Grandpa Larkin, the oldest, is an 83-year-old Navy veteran who lives with his daughter and son-in-law. A peanut-butter freak, he sees himself as useless. His voice is of self-deprecation. “Anybody home?” George asks, and Grandpa Larkin replies: “There’s nobody home unless you call me somebody.” The discovery that Grandpa is the flasher should not dismay us, for it is completely in character. It is Grandpa’s attempt to remain visible in a country where youth is on a pedestal and old people fade away. Grandpa Larkin gets a lot of mail from the Gray Panthers.
After 35 years of married life, George and Martha Shumway are suffering from terminal cases of inanity. Whole areas of Martha’s brain are lying dormant. She responds only to products, prices and plants. She has become a consumer robot lacking Mary’s glimmer of awareness that something is wrong. George has hard-hat attitudes. He comes home, takes a pillow proclaiming “Hooray Daddy’s Home” off the wall, sits down with a can of Schlitz and sounds off. Combining a know-it-all stance with profound ignorance, he mispronounces words, saying “cornea” instead of “coronary.” When Tom decides to fight union corruption and run for office, he runs against father-in-law George, the straw man. When Tom is assaulted, George deserts him. George, like Martha, is unreclaimable.
Charlie and Loretta Haggers, the couple who have moved to Fernwood from Nashville, represent whatever remains of American innocence. They have a naïve faith in themselves and the rest of humanity. Loretta believes that this is the greatest country in the whole world. She trusts in the Lord. With indestructible optimism (“Even a blind hog can find an acorn somewhere”), she knows that someday she is going to be a Country and Western superstar. Charlie, the No. 1 devoted husband, knows it, too. Theirs is a marriage that casts no shadows. Charlie, in Loretta’s song, is “my big ol’ baby boy, my precious bedtime toy,” though, in fact, he is almost twice her age – she is 22 and he is 43. Their sex life, which Loretta describes, to Mary’s dismay as “four minutes of skyrockets” every time, is a burlesque of sex. Loretta wears short pink nighties because of their “sexual stimulus.” Charlie says that the first time he kissed Loretta “if they had just put a needle in my arm so they could feed me intravenously, I’d be kissing her yet.” No matter how infantile they are, the strength of their convictions will see Charlie and Loretta through. They are true believers.
With his Charlie Brown baseball cap and his Fernwood High warm-up jacket, 37-year-old Tom Hartman dreams of his year on the basketball team, the best year the team ever had, when they won 18 and lost 17. But Tom is also dimly aware that the old, hard-hat verities he grew up with are no longer valid. This is the origin of his confusion. He has a two-track mind. At home, he clings to worn-out ideas, such as an insisting that he should make the sexual advances. But in other matters, he has a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam mentality. He shocks Fedders, his old high-school coach, by daring to say that the United States lost the Vietnam War, and at the plant where he works, he fights union corruption.
Born April 8, 1944 (an Aries with Libra rising), Mary Hartman, 32, married Tom when she was 17. She reads six magazines a week. She wants to be a good mother and housewife, but she can’t do anything right. She listens to offscreen voices in her head. Like Tom, she is a case of arrested development. Her gingham mini-dresses with Peter Pan collars and puffed sleeves seem borrowed from daughter Heather’s wardrobe. Every episode begins with her mother calling her the way mothers call their children.
Mary is brainwashed by consumerism. Her response to every situation is expressed in the language of commercials and products. Much of the humor in her character comes from the way she is able to reduce every problem to a consumer problem in a series of inspired non sequiturs. Her comment on one of the victims of the mass murder is: “We never seemed to be shopping in the same section. I’m usually in frozen foods.” Her explanation for the mass murder is: “People with low blood sugar get depressed very easily.” When Dennis asks her when she is coming to pick up her shoe, she asks: “When will it be ready?” When Tom is beaten up, she says: “I have a husband with a defective face.” When Dennis says, “I don’t want you this way, Mary,” Mary replies: “What way? Do I look bad? It’s just water retention.”
Also like Tom, Mary has a two-track mind. On one level, she really believes in products and the Reader’s Digest credo. She sends away for a book guaranteed to improve her emotional health. She has faith in Max-Pax pre-measured filters and in all the other brand names she recites. On another level, she sees that the brands and books are not delivering what they promise. She is a mass of unrealized aspirations. “We should be happy,” she says, “but we’re miserable.” She tells Tom: “Maybe I’m just trying to find out if there’s more to life than-” “Than what?” Tom asks. He informs her that she has a garbage disposal, a washer-dryer, a two-slice automatic toaster and an automatic can opener. “I want something more,” Mary says.
Mary’s breakdown is the price she pays for awareness. She begins to behave strangely. She hears the paint peeling. She utters strangled cries. She crawls into the cabinets under the sink. She tries stet (Survival Training and Existence Therapy), but it doesn’t work. The outside world conspires against her. The flight pattern changes at Fernwood Airport, and jets start flying over her roof. The mirror in the living room falls and breaks. The sewer people dig up her front lawn. Her TV set is on the blink. “The whole world is just becoming like a bad connection,” she says.
Mary breaks down on the screen that has saturated her with pretense. “It’s just such a wonderful world,” Mary says. “I did bad. I did bad. I did real bad. Could we go off the air now? I don’t know…” and she starts rocking back and forth. Convinced that her pain was real, I was reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s remark: “The torment, formerly diffuse, has acquired name and address.”
After Mary Hartman’s breakdown, several television columnists wondered whether it symbolized the breakdown of American institutions. Norman Lear picked up the idea. In the series starting tomorrow, Gore Vidal (who says he took the part “to annoy Truman Capote”) will come to Fernwood to see whether there is a book in the larger meaning of Mary’s breakdown. When he knocks on Martha’s door, she will give him the garbage to take out.
Mary, in the meantime, will be in the clinic’s day room, commenting on network TV’s new season. Her experience will show that it is a good idea to get out of a mental clinic as fast as possible. George and Martha will drive to the clinic to visit her, and George will get out of the car and vanish, never to be seen again. Explaining his disappearance, Martha will say: “He vanished in the blind spot of the rear-view mirror.”
With Mary out of commission, Tom will get involved with Miss Tippytoes, a 51-year-old-but-still-glamorous Western star and C.B.-radio freak, played by Gloria DeHaven.
New areas of controversy, including wife abuse, lesbianism and terrorism, will be explored. One of the characters will try to make a plutonium bomb. Mary’s sister, Cathy, will get pregnant, but who is the father?
Topicality will be kept up with new characters such as Jack and Jill Renquist, based on Bo and Peep, the couple whose followers expected to be taken to outer space. There will also be an oblique plug for a Presidential candidate.
After I watched “MH2” eight hours a day, it finally dawned on me that the show is a dissonant hymn to affluence. Our society, Lear seems to be saying, breeds infantilism and alienation. But it is perhaps the only society in which the blue-collar class can afford the luxury of meditating on the meaning of life. Two thirds of humanity is too busy scratching for a living to ask itself questions about happiness. Mary Hartman has reached a level of economic and personal freedom that allows her to worry about her life style and her sex life rather than about how she is going to feed her family (she worries about what she is going to feed them, not how).
Far from being a critique of capitalism, “MH2” can be seen as a statement in defense of a system that liberates the working class from material concerns and gives them access to the neuroses that were once reserved for their “betters.” Mary and Tom and Dennis are concerned with self-improvement. They are looking for more meaningful lives (if such a thing could be packaged, they would stock up). They are a part of the human-potential generation. That is why, unlike “All in the Family,” which Lear adapted from a popular English sitcom, “Till Death Do Us Part,” “Mary Hartman” is a uniquely American show. It could only happen here.