From Mary Noble to Mary Hartman
The Complete Soap Opera Book
Madeleine Edmondson and David Rounds
Stein and Day/Publishers/New York
Soap du Jour
On January 5, 1976, in the 200th year of this nation, and the first half century of the Great American Soap Opera, there appeared before the public a new program, conceived in temerity, developed with tenacity, and dedicated to the proposition that somewhere in the United States huge audiences were eagerly awaiting a comic soap.
What to call this mutant, this freak, this satire, this . . . soap opera? “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” The name seems absolutely right. The heroine is a direct descendant of Mary Noble, the backstage wife who so nobly endured her husband’s philanderings along with all the machinations of her sinister suitors, the fastest, surest way to elevate any statement to significance is to say it twice.
“MH2,” as the new creation was promptly dubbed, had been a long time on the way. Its creator, Norman Lear, had had the dream of some kind of comic soap opera as early as 1967. At that time he purchased the rights to an old radio serial, “The Bickersons.” This show, a take-off on the old-fashioned lovable-husband-and-wife chit-chat program, starred Don Ameche and Frances Langford as a feuding couple.
Lear hired three writers for his projected series, and ABC was interested, but the idea came to naught. “The Bickersons” did not provide sufficient inspiration: as one of the original writers explains, “It was much too one-tone. A battling couple doesn’t give you much place to go.” And Lear himself was still unsure of his direction. He showed his writers a screening of Divorce American Style, a movie he had written and produced, and told them that was the sort of thing he wanted: something dealing with everyday problems in a funny way. This inspiration, too, proved insufficient.
When ABC decided against the show, the writers were not greatly surprised. They had come to the conclusion that a daily half-hour soap opera whose intention was to be comic was, if not impossible, certainly close to it. True, videotape recording was there to save the actors from having to perform live. And true, too, actors were memorizing twenty-five or more pages of script each day for other soaps. yet comic material is different. Not only must it be memorized exactly (because an approximation of a funny line is very seldom funny), but the actors would need far more than the usual amount of rehearsal and direction if they were to achieve the brisk pacing and expert timing that would make America laugh.
Norman Lear’s writers were not the only ones who found the prospect dim. A number of others – notably Goodman Ace, the veteran humorist and radio star – frequently talked in those days of the possibility of a funny daytime serial. Ace and his old friend Roy Winsor (creator of “Love of Life” and “The Secret Storm,” and later head writer of “Somerset”) actually attempted to develop one. They, too, reached the reluctant conclusion that it was not feasible.
Norman Lear, however, persevered. Because he was an enormously successful producer whose roster of controversial innovations included such solid hits as “All in the Family” and “Maude,” he was able to interest the networks in his new soap (by then the “MH2" it is today). He even managed to persuade CBS to put up $100,000 for two pilot episodes. But though all found the bait tempting, none finally swallowed it. CBS recoiled in alarm from the “weird” product of its investment. NBC spurned it as sexist.
Many explanations have been suggested for the networks’ reluctance to take a chance on “MH2.” The current favorite is that there was a fundamental ideological disagreement about the nature of the show. Lear’s desire was to play it as a “serious parody” positioned among the other soaps in the afternoon lineup. The networks insisted that it did not belong there, and that the American public would never respond to a comedy show that failed to provide instruction as to what was intended to be funny. The broadcasting establishment insisted on a live studio audience, or at the very least a laugh track, so that viewers could be secure in the knowledge that they were hitting all the comedic high spots.
So Norman Lear, in the spirit of the Bicentennial, decided to take the question back to the grass roots. He toured the country, selling his show personally to individual stations. By the time of its premiere he had assembled an anti-network of ninety-odd stations. Since he had peddled “MH2" at bargain-basement rates, he was certain to lose money at first (in fact, he announced himself a $1.2 million loser at the end of his first half year), but he did have his show on the air at last, and it seemed off to a most promising start.
Long before the premier, the media had alerted the potential audience that something novel was on its way. Interviews with Louise Lasser, the star, began to appear; plot summaries of the initial episode warned the squeamish of what they might expect. In consequence, when the first episode was aired, an eager audience was waiting. Lear announced that Nielsen figures showed it had attracted a 25-to-30 per cent audience share.
And what did that audience see? The initial episode introduced Louise Lasser as Mary, the “thirtyish, pigtailed, and sex-starved heroine,” as Time put it, of what Lasser herself liked to refer to as “the Frankenstein soap.” Mary Hartman’s day begins with disaster: her sister Cathy informs her that her floors have “waxy yellow buildup.” Mary, always reasonable yet persistently out of focus, argues, “But the can says it’s a lovely even glow,” but she is clearly upset. Cathy (in time-honored soap opera fashion) reads her mind, finds marital discord there, and leaps straight to the heart of the problem: “It’s Tom, isn’t it?”
Then next-door neighbor and best friend Loretta Haggers drops by to report that a mass murder has been committed in the neighborhood: “The Lombardis, their three kids, two goats, and eight chickens.” Mary can hardly take this in. “What kind of madman,” she wonders, “would kill two goats and eight chickens?” That night, in bed with Tom, her impotent husband, Mary does her best to entice him and fails. He fondles the pistol bought to defend his family against possible attack from the mass murderer. “It’s been five weeks,” Mary bravely reminds him, explaining that the Reader’s Digest recommends aggressiveness in such situations. “Act like a woman,” Tom insists. “You mean do nothing?” asks Mary, and her husband replies, “That’s right.” Next morning this freshest of disaster continues unchecked. Mary’s grandfather is arrested as “the Fernwood Flasher.”
This first episode, with its prodigal heaping of misfortune upon catastrophe, set the tone for what was to follow: the show, announced as “a slightly bent soap opera,” was largely a parody of the soaps.
Organized like a traditional soap opera, “MH2" is a daily domestic drama whose main character is a woman. The story deals with the search for happiness. Though everything has been brought down several notches from the usual upper-middle-class standard of Soapland to the slightly-below-blue-collar way of life depicted in “MH2,” the style is familiar. Even the camera work is modeled as closely as possible on that of “The Young and the Restless.”
Almost all the clichés of soaps are present. As in a traditional soap, the story begins with several main families whose lives intertwine and overlap. Their typical American small town, Fernwood, consists of whatever meeting places these characters use. A disproportionate amount of the action takes place in the kitchen, where innumerable cups of coffee are proffered and drunk.
Like any soap, “MH2" is mainly concerned with interpersonal relationships, mainly love relationships. As usual, the lovers are ill-assorted, and a variety of horrendous social gaps yawn between them. The plotting is pure suds. There are immediate and intense love affairs that erupt and then subside without a trace as characters move on to another love or another town. There are troublemakers and evil people, who delude the innocent into trusting or pitying them and then scheme against their happiness, trying to destroy their careers or marriages. There is the soaps’ usual reverence for the ideals of marriage and parenthood. And of course “MH2,” like the most modern and progressive soaps, is increasingly preoccupied with “mature” themes.
The characters, though exaggerated, are familiar, too. We do not need Tom’s baseball cap and Fernwood High jacket to inform us that he is one of the weak boyish men so familiar in Soapland, and far beneath his wife in emotional strength and moral force. Nor must we depend on Mary’s girlish pigtails and pinafores to indicate that she, like the prototypical soap opera heroine, is optimistic, well-meaning, and concerned. Like many another heroine of soaps, she tries to make others happy by meddling in their lives; she does her utmost to communicate her every thought and feeling; she is loving, naive, and vulnerable.
Mary, the average housewife, is inevitably drawn from her kitchen to the center of action, dealing with emergencies as they arise, and arousing intense feelings among all the men who meet her. When we see the male characters at the automobile plant where they work, they are usually eating lunch and discussing their domestic problems. There is much conversation about corrupt union politics, but the main impact of this on the story is to complicate personal relationships, threaten marriages, and set relatives against one another.
The familiar soap themes were part of “MH2" from the beginning, and not only was this volatile jumble of elements played with utter seriousness – it was intended as comedy. Some people were immediately captivated; others were horrified. Critical reaction was largely hostile. Time early wrote the program off as “silly stupid, silly stupid.” Other writers offered their own “admittedly unscientific” polls to prove that the show was dull and would soon disappear. One announced that among those he had questioned, “the most frequently heard complaint was ‘boring.’” Another, gloating over the “high dropout rate” she had detected, analyzed the reasons for it: “There are two major faults with ‘Mary Hartman,’ starring Louise Lasser: one is the scripting (it’s not funny); the other is Louise Lasser (she’s not funny).”
The parodistic elements came in for many a stern scolding. As a critic for the New York Times put it, “the use or misuse of soap opera gimmicks for TV comedy would seem to be rather limited. At this stage, Mr. Lear is still forced to confront the problem of new future directions.” And Time, though its writer praised the first episode’s first few minutes as “an expert put-on of the soaps’ traditional method of stretching a thin script to full length,” clearly considered the show’s basic method misguided, because “the art of parody lies in brevity.” As the review went on to explain, “In a very few minutes any reasonably clever group of comic writers and players can exhaust the rather limited parodistic possibilities inherent in the soaps. Then the problem is what to do next.” This critic, evidently a soap hater, suggest that the only answer is “to do exactly what the soaps do – give the characters some issues to turn over and over in their tiny minds.” Disappointed in the issues provided by “MH2,” he concludes that “these matters do not turn out to be the height of hilarity. In fact, they are dressing.”
Other people found them less depressing than simply shocking. Indeed there seemed to be no lengths to which the tasteless citizens of Fernwood would not go. On the very first day, Mary’s friend Loretta, an aspiring country-and Western singer, has written a song about mass murder, from the killer’s point of view. When Tom protests that “That’s not a subject for singing,” Loretta’s doting husband, Charlie, explains, “Of course it is. Country-and-Western is all about real things like murder, amputations, faucets dripping in the night.” “MH2" had similarly chosen to combine the tragic and the trivial, depending for much of its humor on bathos, the rapid descent of its concentration from the heroic stance to the stone in the shoe of the human condition. Within months Mary’s kitchen would be rocked by the aftershocks of such “real things” as venereal disease, homosexuality, open marriage, masturbation, marijuana, romantic love, and menstrual cramps.
In response to this, protests were organized, blistering letters were written, and stations were picketed. Across the United States, moralists inveighed against “MH2.” Children were forbidden to watch it. Families squabbled over it.
Soap Opera Digest, a new and rapidly expanding magazine that offers monthly plot summaries of all the soaps, added “MH2" to its list as an experiment. Before deciding whether this should be a permanent feature, the editor, Ruth Gordon, asked her readers for their reaction. Many of them, it turned out, had been longing for just such an opportunity to express their pent-up disapproval. “In regard to that stupid, stupid ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’ TV show,” one explodes, “they are really getting hard up for shows to put on TV when they come up with such stupidity like this so-called show. Really, I think a two-year-old could come up with a nursery rhyme much better.” Another is outraged. “How in the world,” she demands, “can anyone put such a filthy, vulgar show on the air at 3:30 P.M. for grown people to be exposed to all the filthy talk Mary Hartman stands for, to say nothing about the children coming home from school. What is our country coming to? This is the reason so many teens are dope addicts, VD carriers, and drunks. My goodness, let’s clean this filth up. I’m a grandma and this show makes me sick.”
Daytime Serial Newsletter, the magazine that originated the concept of chronicling the day-to-day activities of the soaps, does not include “MH2.” Publisher Bryna Laub refuses to consider it a soap and has in fact gone on the offensive, becoming “MH2's” most persistent and articulate foe. It is with “total incredulity and not a little repulsion,” she explains, that she forces herself to watch the program one night each week.
Since 1973, when she founded her newsletter, Mrs. Laub has devoted herself almost completely to the soaps, particularly to proselytizing for them as an intellectually respectable form of entertainment that no one need be ashamed of. “It is by no means overstating the case,” she says, “to point out that soap opera has made an art of the careful development of multidimensional characters in order to present story lines about believable interpersonal relationships.” by comparison, she contends, “‘Mary Hartman’ is like stick figures in a first grader’s drawing.”
What’s more, Mrs. Laub considers “MH2" a potent threat to all the other soaps. She believes that they have made great strides in recent years and are “no longer the stepchild of the arts.” In short, “there is a renaissance in soap opera. They have reached the age of legitimacy.” Yet despite these gains, she is aware that they are still vulnerable to attack; substantial reservoirs of prejudice still exist. Accordingly, she takes any threat to their status seriously, and “mH2" worries her because of its possible impact on “those television viewers who have not had the opportunity to become familiar with daytime drama and are led to believe this one-dimensional weak parody is in any way equivalent to the daytime productions.” She suspects that after viewing “MH2,” such benighted souls may say to themselves, “I never know what those shows were all about – and now that I do know, I think they’re disgusting.”
Bryna Laub believes that “MH2" insults not only the intelligence of the general soap opera audience but womanhood as well. She sees the program as one more step in Norman Lear’s continuing campaign to denigrate and degrade all women. “First,” she points out, “there was Edith, of ‘All in the Family,’ who was a thing.” Then came “Maude,” “an insufferable loudmouth who turned out to be crazy and need help.” And now, she says, we have “the ultimate cheap shot – Mary Hartman, the vacuous nonperson who cares more about the yellow waxy buildup on her kitchen floor than she does about the mass murder of a neighbor family.” That, Mrs. Laub concludes, is “the epitome of the Lear myth about women.”
And the worst of it, as she sees it, is that “If you repeat something often enough, it becomes acceptable. If a rumor is repeated enough, no amount of denial is ever going to make people believe it wasn’t true in the first place.” Thus, she suggests, the effect of any public expression of prejudice is that people who already have such attitudes or make such assumptions will begin to consider them acceptable: they have been encouraged to stop hiding or tempering their bigotry. Therefore, Mrs. Laub fervently hopes that “MH2" will soon fail. “I hope it won’t go on,” she says, “because it can do so much damage among the less educated people in this country if it goes on too long.”
Bryna Laub is far from being the only person who believes that “MH2" is “a continuing insult to the viewer.” One of the daytime programming executives who originally kept “MH2" off the networks explained her rejection on the grounds that the show was “a spoof on the women who watch daytime TV. I couldn’t commit to a show that depicted my women as fools.” And a number of Soap Opera Digest’s correspondents agree that “MH2" is somehow aimed at them. “I am sending my disapproval to the show,” one says. “I do not consider it a soap. As a viewer of soaps for many years, ‘Mary Hartman’ does not compare. I see it only as a comedy. I will not continue to view ‘Mary Hartman’ and will look instead to my old favorites.” Another, introducing herself as a “well-educated, informed” person who enjoys soap operas, considers “MH2" a personal affront. She has watched “a scattered amount of shows” and found them to be “boring, pointless, degrading, and low-geared intellectually.” And above all, “It humiliated me to see how stupid they portray the everyday housewife, pondering over her yellow kitchen floor.”
Despite all this opposition, however, Louise Lasser’s face continued to pop up on one magazine cover after another, and if some people were switching off their television sets in anger, others were announcing themselves happily switched on. A cult seemed to be forming. Prominent persons admitted that they rushed home from parties, or even refused invitations, for Mary Hartman’s sake. The New York Post provided a daily plot synopsis, as did a Baltimore disk jockey. A Los Angeles station titles a new program “MetroNews MetroNews.” Mary Hartman T-shirts, bumper stickers, and fan clubs proliferated.
When Soap Opera Digest tallied its reader mail, it turned out that the majority of those who had written to comment on “MH2" were not critical but enthusiastic. “‘Mary Hartman’ is part of my life,” one letter begins. “The show is my 11 P.M. lift. It is funny, hilarious, and my kind of weird sense of humor enjoys it immensely. Please do anything or everything possible to keep it on the air.” Another “MH2" fan, who watches the program with her husband every night, says they “love it,” and that Louise Lasser is “absolutely perfect.” A teen-ager announces, “I have been watching ‘Mary Hartman’ ever since it began and I think it’s wonderful.” She goes on to ask for information about the actor who plays Mary’s policeman lover, Dennis Foley. “My girl friend and I just love him,” she confesses. “His smiles are breathtaking, and he’s very handsome too.”
Another letter writer calls “MH2" “fantastic,” and “the most fast-paced, refreshing and funny show on the air today. The characters are so overemphasized and the script is so loose and inventive, you can’t help loving it. Bravo, “Mary Hartman,” for bringing something totally new!”
A bemused but happy viewer confesses, “I don’t know quite the words to describe it except that it’s the silliest nonsense series that I’ve ever watched, but I haven’t missed a night since it started. Everyone is crazy in the series but I guess that’s the way the writer wants it to be. There is something about it that makes you want to see what’s happening the next night.”
And a true fan concludes, “‘Mary Hartman’ has got to be the cutest and most original soap on TV. Louise Lasser is fantastic, and all the other characters are so great! I can’t say enough for this new soap. I’d like to let them know how terrific they are and how I love their program.”
The show, aired at the subscribing stations’ discretion, often played opposite the late evening network news, and to its creators’ delight sometimes edged ahead in the ratings. It even seemed to be making inroads on the audience of NBC’s previously invincible Johnny Carson. And after a few months some of Mary’s severest critics were having second thoughts.
One, looking back in mild pique, explains that “MH2" is “an acquired taste, and the first episode should have acquired more of same.” Recalling the first day’s pile-up of problems, he says that “By the time it was over, we were ready to write it off, write it off.” Now, however, he has decided that “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” To be sure, the implication is strong that it is not our critic but the show itself that has changed. “Steadily and surely,” he explains, “this show has been finding itself. There is still too much silly stuff, but far less pointless.”
He still feels that sister Cathy’s affair with a “sweet, sincere” deaf-mute “wavered dangerously close to bad taste,” but all is forgiven when he recalls that she concluded, “No, I’m not going to join a convent. They only take Catholics” and went merrily on to her next affair. And the critic’s hard heart is completely melted by at least one episode: “We doubt if there has ever been a more hilarious satire tan the scene in which the basketball coach drowned in a bowl of Mary’s chicken soup.”
A critic for the New York Times also metes out a judicious measure of blame before abandoning himself to enthusiasm. Admitting that “MH2" is a “fascinating departure for the Lear organization” and “brilliantly cast,” he scolds that “the ultimate exploration of soap-opera techniques is almost recklessly uneven. Many elements, including Louise Lasser’s overuse of Mary’s blank stare, are tiresome.” But then he, too, relents, deciding that “some, a quite respectable portion, are insanely funny.” As an example, he offers “A recent funeral service held in Mary’s kitchen for a sports coach who had drowned in a bowl of chicken soup.” This scene, he contends, “offered ten minutes of the most hilarious TV that is likely to be seen this year.”
The critically acclaimed funeral, of course, follows the other columnist’s favorite scene, the “hilarious satire” in which Mary Hartman is responsible for the death of a neighbor, Coach Leroy Fedders. Mary, out of the goodness of her heart, has taken a bowl of her home-made chicken soup to the coach, who has the flu. After explaining its well-nigh miraculous curative powers and insisting that he eat a big bowl, Mary turns her back to visit with his wife, Blanche. While the two women chat, the coach, dazed by a combination of pills and bourbon, lowers his face into the soup and makes Blanche a widow.
Though Blanche adjusts almost instantaneously to her new condition, Mary is overcome by guilt. She offers her kitchen for the funeral, explaining morosely, “It was the least I could do. I killed him.”
The funeral is attended by Mary’s parents, George and Martha Shumway, and next-door neighbors Charlie and Loretta Haggers. “I just don’t understand where all the boys from Leroy’s teams could be,” the widow frets. “They know the time.” Then the realization comes: “That’s how much people care about you when you never win a game.”
Loretta, arriving in the wheelchair to which she has been confined since the Haggers’ car collided with a station wagon full of nuns, apologizes for her tardiness. “I would have been on time,” she confides, “but I got to readin’ about President Kennedy and that girl –“ Mary tries to stop her with “Not now, Loretta,” but Loretta is in full flood. “It was in the White House that it was supposed to happen. And I kept thinkin’, would you have snuck in the White House if you’d had the chance?”
Mary again tries to resist. “I don’t know, Loretta, my mind isn’t on politics right now . . . it’s on death,” she begins, but then she connects, picking up the theme with her usual frazzled intensity. “Although I’ll tell you,” she concedes, “a part of me would’ve snuck in and a part of me . . .” But she is interrupted.
Then the mortician comes in, announcing that the Reverend Buryfield has arrived. “He asked if we could start. You see, he’s due at a christening in just a little over forty-five minutes.” Though the expected mourners have not materialized, the cool widow (who had earlier decided on cremation because, as Mary explains, “it was cheaper”) assents. The funeral begins.
REVEREND (moving to the lectern): Good morning, Blanche . . . (looking at Mary)
MARY (pointing, sotto voce): No, Blanche . . .
REVEREND: And friends of a man whose passing we mark here today, Coach Lonny Fedders.
REVEREND: Who I think was one of the more colorful characters here in our town of Fernwood, someone known and beloved by all. I’d just like to take a few minutes this morning . . . (glancing at his watch) . . . to share a couple of my memories of Lonny.
BLANCHE: It’s all right.
REVEREND: As they sometimes said in the Inter-Valley League (smiling), he wasn’t the winningest coach, but that losing scowl on his face told us more about what Lonny Fedders was made of than anything. I know because my own son, who was flunked in P.E. year after year by Coach Fedders, had some colorful things to say about the man. And there’s someone else who would like to say a few words in respect of Leroy Fedders – Mrs. Mary Hartman.
MARY (standing, placing her fingers together): Thank you, Reverend Buryfield, for that lovely introduction. And good morning, relatives, mourners, and ex-athletes. Although I never knew Coach Leroy that well on a personal basis, I certainly never meant to kill him. I only meant to be kind. He was sick, I brought him some soup, he drank it, and by some act of God he then drowned. It is frightening to think that a little act of kindness could turn into a little mistake like that. A big mistake in Leroy and Blanche Fedders’ life, of course – but a little mistake in the grand scheme of things. And now for my final point: I do not want any of my friends or neighbors or relatives ever to eat anything I offer them again. Even if I beg you. No! Please! If you come over, we’ll eat out – or order in. (Then glancing heavenward) Dear Leroy, wherever you are, know that I will think of you often – especially at mealtimes (she curtsies and sits down).
REVEREND: Thank you, Mrs. Hartman, for those – words. I would like to conclude now with some lines from First Corinthians, Chapter Two. These are for you, Blanche. “For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let he be covered. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Nevertheless, neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” I know you’ll want to think on these words in your time of trial, for all this is part of the fabric of God’s life, and not to be turned away from. For if we turn away from the fabric and the plan, where are we facing? (beat) Where? And now I believe there will be a musical selection . . .
MARY (interrupting as LORETTA wheels forward): Oh, listen everyone – excuse me, Loretta – as soon as Loretta has finished, I am serving lots of food which I have made myself in the next room. Just as soon as Loretta has finished. Now, go on, Loretta.
LORETTA: Thank you, Mary. I was going to sing “Rock of Ages” or perhaps the Fernwood High “Alma Mater” . . . but in answering a special request from the Widow Fedders, I would like to sing, a capella, one of her late husband’s very favorites. (And here LORETTA launches into “That Old Black Magic.”)
As comedy, then, “MH2" seems to be on fairly secure ground. Despite the agitation of its enemies, the program has a large and loyal audience and a sufficiency of admiring critics. Yet it cannot be judged simply as a comedy and decreed a success if it manages to make its audience laugh. The program has always had more ambitious aims than that. It has billed itself from the beginning as a “serious parody,” a soap opera in its own right, albeit a “slightly bent” one, even “a new form for television.” Ann Marcus, the show’s head writer, says, “We wanted to do a funny soap – funny but poignant and meaningful.” The show’s creative supervisor gives interviews in which he explains Norman Lear’s determination that the show work on two levels simultaneously, that of satire and that of straight soap opera. And Lear himself believes that this combination of lofty intentions has coalesced into success. He is particularly pleased to note “that people you might expect to take it seriously are picking up the subtle parody part, and people you would expect to view it as just a camp thing are actually getting involved.”
This, of course, is the kind of talk that drives Bryna Laub to her typewriter to tap out editorials damning “MH2" eternally to the company of the mislabeled and the deceptively packaged. The Lear organization’s suggestion that “MH2" could possibly be viewed as straight soap inspired her to sneer that “If you dress twenty-two NFL players in tutus and tights, place them in the Rose Bowl while tossing footballs from hand to hand, it might indeed be a ballet, depending on the choreography of the footwork, but it’s not a football game!”
Mrs. Laub believes that those who watch “MH2" do so because it is the latest fad and they “the pseudointellectuals who are really the sheep among us.” (Such people, she explains, avoid the real soaps for two reasons: they have been told that soaps are lowbrow, and they are afraid of the emotions that are the soaps’ subject matter.) One important reason for watching real soap opera is to learn how to deal with problems that might arise in real life, she explains, “but nobody in their right mind needs to learn how to deal with somebody drowning in an oversized bowl of chicken soup.” In short, “There’s absolutely nothing there that can appeal to anybody who wants anything realistic in what they’re doing.”
In voicing these assumptions, however, Mrs. Laub may be guilty of a little mislabeling of her own, for the fact is that a good many people who are neither intellectuals nor soap haters are quite willing to accept “MH2" as a soap among soaps. The readers of Soap Opera Digest form a preselected group of those already sufficiently interested in soaps to buy a magazine devoted solely to them – majority of this group seem to find the new show a thoroughly acceptable addition to their daily viewing.
One says, “I am a typical housewife and mom of two children (girl fourteen and boy eight) who also watches soap operas. I really had to write you and tell you how very much I like the new one, “Mary Hartman.” I believe it has become my favorite one, even after watching “Love of Life,” “As the World Turns,” etc. for many years.”
Another, describing herself as “a 27-year-old mother of four school-age children,” explains, “I watch most of the soap operas on in the daytime, so I can be considered a loyal viewer. In my opinion, “Mary Hartman” is one of the most true-to-life and believable stories on television. Most of the time I can identify with a lot of the scenes in the show, because they reflect a true day-to-day life of a normal middle-class family of today.” This woman goes on to suggest that “the few who think it is too far-fetched are the kind of people that don’t like to believe that life isn’t a bowl of ice cream, and to those people I feel that they should watch it. Maybe then they would realize just what their kids are doing when they’re not at home.”
Most enthusiastic of all is a letter from a male teacher. “It is with the greatest willingness that I tell you that “Mary Hartman” is genuinely the best soap opera I have see,” he says, adding that his fellow teachers agree. “I feel that this show is not what many have called it, a spoof on soap operas, but rather I feel as though it is a real and accurate commentary on American life. Each character represents some portion of our total American populace. Seeing these individuals react to each other and grapple with the day-to-day, commonplace things we all face is really a treat.”
Most of the Soap Opera Digest readers who like “MH2" regard it not as primarily a comedy but as genuine soap opera; its comedic aspects tend to be perceived as added realism. The characters are considered a little more genuine, because more down-to-earth, than those on other soaps. And the criticisms of this group often take the form of requests for less exaggeration and greater verisimilitude. One respondent explains that, “The only thing wrong with the show is Heather. They should have cast a better-looking girl in the part. She does not know how to carry herself. Also, you really should get rid of those braids on Mary and Heather. They make Louise Lasser look ridiculous.”
Another admirer of the program admits that “I don’t like those stupid pigtails that Mary wears. If she dressed more like today instead of like a little kid of twenty-five years ago, I think the series would be far more lifelike. I have many friends, all of about the same age as Mary is, and I don’t know of one of them that dresses any way close to the way that Mary Hartman does.”
For such enthusiasts as these, terminology presents no problem: a soap is a soap is a soap. There is another group of “MH2" fans, however, who are as reluctant as Bryna Laub herself to call the program soap opera. In their view, “MH2" is something of infinitely finer grain than the common, run-of-the-mill soap. Balletic football games do not figure in their comparisons; Chekhov, Joyce, Hogarth, Camus, and Voltaire often do.
“Mary Hartman’s” creators share this perspective. When the Village Voice said the marriage scenes in “MH2" were what director Ingmar Berman was trying to do in Scenes from a Marriage – but better - “MH2's" director agreed, “And they are!” Louise Lasser refers to portions of the show as “Chekhovian,” offering as example in exchange in Mary’s kitchen the morning after Tom’s failure in bed.
MARY: It’s Saturday, Tom. What do you want to do today?
TOM: I thought I’d go to the hardware store.
MARY: I love you very much.
TOM: That’s the worst possible thing you could have said.
Those who admire “MH2" and consider soap a four-letter word may themselves emphasize the contrast by pointing to the occasional taint of soapiness. One such critic says, “Sure, it sometimes becomes what it’s kidding, when the line between itself and what it’s about gets too narrow.” But then she quickly moves on to define the program as a whole as “one of the most hilarious examples of pop art I know. It’s Claes Oldenburg’s eight-foot plaster hamburgers, Lichtenstein’s enormous cartoon-frame wham-bams, Wesselman’s billboard nudes, all rolled into one. It’s a wildly funny parody of our whole TV-billboard culture. It’s dead-pan irony, ridiculous, often touching, done with great skill.” In fact, she concludes, “It’s art, it’s art.”
“MH2's" original director, Joan Darling, also prefers to avert her eyes from the show’s soapier side. When the script was first sent to her, she was told the program was a satire of soap opera, but when she read it she rejected that interpretation. “Wait a minute,” she said to herself, “these sex scenes are not funny. These are horrifying.” The show was certainly not her idea of soap opera; on the other hand, it did not satirize the soaps. Then, suddenly, she realized that “If I can’t figure out what it is, that means I never saw it before. And if I never saw it before, it might really be something!”
At the end of two days of consideration, she went to Norman Lear. “I know what it is,” she told him, “what I think it is. I think it’s a satire not on soap operas but on the way the media present life to America, using soap opera as a classic form.”
Lear laughed. “I don’t know if that’s what we had in mind,” he said, “but I love it.”
“You had it in mind,” she told him firmly. “Because it’s in the script.”
To Joan Darling, the most important component of “MH2" is the characters’ reaction to the incomprehensible chaos of the outside world, especially as it is reflected in television news shows. “I deplore the violence in this country,” she explains, “and that’s what the early shows were all about. In the two pilot episodes, every time somebody came into a room a radio or television set was on, talking about murder and death. It was just constant death, death, death – that constant bombardment that you don’t even listen to.”
She looks back with particular pleasure on one offhand radio announcement written into a scene “to keep that violence thing, which I loved, always going.” As she recalls it, it said, “And now that more than seven hundred and ninety-two thousand people have died of starvation in Angola, the authorities feel that it might be proper to deem their problem a famine. In the recent earthquake . . .”
Joan Darling never thought of the soaps as “MH2's" primary target. Rather, “My goal with that show was that it should be on at 4:30 in the afternoon and people would laugh, and then at six o’clock they’d watch the news and get a little uncomfortable.”
If the show’s “explosion” of the news shows is one strand its admirers like to emphasize, its use of television commercials is certainly another. The sets are chockablock with name-brand artifacts, products that are continually named, evaluated, and discussed. Mary Hartman is capable of interrupting an emotional argument with her mother to inquire, “What day of the week do you sanitize your toilet bowl?” To her, the difference between fresh-perked and freeze-dried coffee is evaluated to the realm of philosophical principle. Above all, she has learned everything the commercials have to teach, and she believes that if she follows their directions, happiness will surely result. Rejected by her husband, she cannot understand how such a fate could befall a person who, as she explains, uses added brighteners and whose underarms “are so dry they’re flaky.”
Appreciative analysts of the show applaud this concentration on the blandishments and threats of the television-dominated consumer culture. As they see it, the program suggests, by dramatizing commercialism’s impact on Mary, how important it is to keep one’s personal priorities in order.
But even on this question – as on every other raised by “MH2" – there are at least two sides. Another critic defends Mary’s seeming inability to arrange her priorities as not a weakness but a strength. In her view, Mary and her fellow citizens of Fernwood are not the victims of commercial brainwashing; they have simply gone beyond the rest of us in honest self-revelation. “Worrying about the yellow on your floor,” she explains, “doesn’t mean you aren’t upset about five people being murdered. And baking a cake doesn’t mean you aren’t worried about your daughter. And wanting to be a superstar doesn’t mean that you don’t care about your best friend. It’s just that al of this coexists in unlikely juxtaposition inside our heads. It is a mix on our psychic tapes. But in real life we edit our responses so people won’t misunderstand. We all worry about what to wear to a funeral and whether to try to do the laundry before we go. But we don’t tell anybody. On “Mary Hartman,” the tapes are not edited.”
This admiration for Mary’s character – and that of the program as a whole – has even been manifested in the pulpit. One media-minded minister who sees “MH2" as a “theological model of the Judeo-Christian system – doing good, beginning to hope for and work for solutions,” applauds Mary herself as a good
Christian who believes in the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
The assessments of Mary’s creators have not always been quite so favorable. Early in her development she was described by the head writer as “a woman trapped in her environment” who is “striving for something,” and knows that “something is missing from her life.” She was also said (by Louise Lasser herself) to be “not aware of herself in space and time,” and “a survivor who misses being a tragic heroine because she is not aware of her plight.” She was even referred to by the show’s director as “a cartoon of everyone who bought the system hook, line, and sinker,” and – with a startling lack Christian charity – “a shell with ashes inside.”
But sympathy, perhaps a backlash, was developing. When one of the show’s writers began to explain to a reporter on the set that Mary, “like millions of others,” is “a casualty floating in an almost Kafkaesque sea of consumer indirection,” the head writer brusquely cut him off. “That’s pure bullshit,” she said. “That’s not Mary at all.” Her subsequent explanation seems to have set the tone for the interviews that have followed. “Mary may be naive, but she’s not a victim, she’s not a casualty,” she explained. “She’s a real survivor if I ever saw one. Mary can cope. Mary Hartman is actually one hell of a strong woman.”
Not long afterward, Louise Lasser combined all these elements into one splendidly oxymoronic character sketch. “Mary’s as sad as any person I’ve ever heard of in my life, unless they’re in a wheelchair somewhere,” she said. “This is a person who gets up and dresses in pink and blue, thinking it’s all going to be fine – and it just falls down on her every single day. She has a daughter that hates her. She has a husband that won’t make love to her. And she’s just trying to figure out what’s wrong with her. That’s not sad? She’s a total victim. But what’s sweet and sad about her is that she’s a survivor. She survives in as world that may not be worth surviving for.”
This emphasis on Mary’s character, this talk about her almost as if she were a real person, and the frequent references to her “vulnerability” are an inescapable reminder that whatever other values it may provide, the show intends to offer its viewers a lovable central character. Indeed, not only Mary herself but most of Fernwood’s people are depicted sympathetically. As Joan Darling says, “I think ‘Mary Hartman’ would not have succeeded except as a temporary joke if people did not love the characters.” And love them people unquestionably do. Even the Fernwood Flasher is beloved. As one fond critic says, “When Grandpa Larkin talks about the boredom of the elderly, discussing whether he should play checkers or go to the Safeway and watch them unload melons, one is delighted that he is developing an interest in life through indecent exposure.”
It is this kind of audience involvement with the characters of “MH2" that brings us back into soap territory. What the soaps have always offered their followers is the opportunity to get to know and care about a group of characters. Love them or even hate them, but care.
As Irna Phillips, that great soap matriarch, once explained, “The underlying principle of the serial will always remain the same. The important factor is that the story grow out of character rather than story superimposed upon characters. We do what we do because we are what we are.” The soaps, she felt, could never really change because “they’re about people. The times have changed, the tensions are greater, life is more complex, but the emotions are the same – the hopes, the frustrations, and the dreams are the same. People have been and always will be people.”
Her archrival Elaine Carrington held the same faith. “The story,” she said, “must be written about people you come to know and like and believe in. What happens to them is of secondary importance. Once characters are firmly established and entrenched in the hearts in the hearts of listeners, the latter will have to tune into find out what becomes of the characters because of what they feel for them.”
Whether or not they are willing to call it a soap, then, the devoted viewers of “MH2" relate to their favorite much as any soap opera audience does: they establish a special relationship with its characters, one that enables them to participate vicariously in their lives. In order for this process of identification to be possible, the audience need not find the program’s plot convincing. As with any soap opera, the plot can be arbitrary and even bizarre. What is important is that the characters – their feelings, their interactions – be believable. The surface can be the wildest nonsense; the emotions that underlie it must be genuine. And so it is with “MH2."
Doubters still remain to inquire how a program can claim to be at once a soap opera and comedy. Isn’t this a contradiction in terms, and don’t the comedy and the emotion cancel each other out? But those who assume that the formula is unworkable or that “MH2" is something new under the sun are forgetting something basic: the soaps today rarely make so much as a gesture in the direction of humor, but soap opera itself is the legitimate offspring not of tragedy but of comedy.
Half a century ago, in the hazy beginnings of the genre, a popular serial was described in terms not at all inapplicable to “MH2." Its characters were naive, ignorant, and confused; their attempts to master the complexities of the real world were ludicrously inept; but with all their faults they were lovable. Fans were eager to “listen in on them while they live their lives and have their successes and their failures, their ups and their downs – but more downs than ups.” Admirers exalted it as “a new art form” that in many ways resembled the magazine serial and the comic strip and yet was “new and for the air exclusively.” And throughout, it kept its audience laughing.
The soaps in their first half century seemed to have come full circle, from “Amos ‘n’ Andy” to “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” And what, in 1976, the year of “Mary’s” birth, the year of the Bicentennial, could have been more fitting? The United States was looking back, reminding itself of its beginnings, taking pride in its phenomenal growth, and looking forward to its future with hope. Why should not Soapland, that sometimes slavish, sometimes selective mirror of American life, do the same?