Condensed from New York Times Magazine
It’s television’s zaniest, most outrageous, sometimes most offensive show. Surprisingly, it’s also a cultural event.
Honk, Honk, If You Love
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
By Ted Morgan
Last October, while Mary Hartman was in a mental clinic recovering from a nervous breakdown, she might have been cheered to know that the second year of her television show began on 125 independent stations, reaching a potential audience of 55 million households. Equally encouraging: this year, Mary’s “stepfather,” producer Norman Lear, should make up the program’s first-year loss of $1.2 million. In the process, the show – “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” or “MH2,” as it has been dubbed by the press – has become enshrined in this country as a cultural signpost, of the sort that sociologists are always on the lookout for to help us explain ourselves.
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 15 years, rejects her sexually. She gets kidnapped by a mass murderer. Her grandfather is arrested as the Fernwood Flasher. Her father, George Shumway, rails against liberals, while her mother, Martha Shumway, talks to plants; Heather, her 12-year-old daughter, is a constant frustration; and her lover, police Sgt. Dennis Foley, 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. “Mary Hartman cries my tears and laughs my laughs,” says Louise. Viewers, too, consider themselves Mary Hartman’s alter egos. “You must have planted a microphone under my Kitchen table,” they write. Or, “I once knew a Mary Hartman. She washed the lettuce with detergent.” This recognition factor provides a cathartic experience: as Mary sinks and cries for help in the swamp of consumerland, we find relief from our own emotional stresses.
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 Hartman, Mary Hartman.” There are daily synopses in the newspapers. At the Sumner County jail in Tennessee, work schedules were arranged to allow inmates to watch “MH2.”
In its January 1976 debut, “MH2" shook the ratings of some strong favorites, in Washington outranking “The Waltons.” In Los Angeles, its third show put it in second place against the network affiliate news and, in New York during June, it pulled ahead of the 11 p.m. news. The point is that “Mary Hartman” is the news. It’s news about American life – complete with issues like impotence, alienation, homosexuality and adultery, and references to Vietnam, Richard Nixon, Watergate and Howard Hughes. In contrast, TV news tells us almost 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.”
It’s not all applause for “Mary Hartman,” of course. Some people can’t abide her. A station in Richmond, VA, canceled the show. Little Rock’s station weathered some 1200-name protest petitions and letters. But those who love “MH2" and those who hate “MH2" have something in common: they have a hard time defining it.
As a prism disperses light, “Mary Hartman” disperses interpretations. The magazine Sexual Medicine Today sees it all as a seminar on sexual dysfunction, and believes that it will help doctors discuss their patients’ sex problems. Peter Sourian, a novelist, teacher, and television critic, sees Norman Lear as a Marxist who is chronicling the decline of capitalist society. Donald Freed, novelist, playwright, and coordinator of an extension course at the University of California devoted to “Mary Hartman,” believes that Mary’s uneasy feeling that things should be different is a form of existential awareness.
There is, however, something of a gap between these highbrow suppositions and the way the show gets put together. One of “MH2"’s most outrageous episodes came about simply as the result of a casting problem. Norman Alden, who played coach Leroy Fedders, had to leave the show to make a movie. “We might as well kill him,” Lear said. “He’ll drown in a bowl of chicken soup.” So he did. Fedders got the flu, drank whiskey after taking medication and passed out, his head falling into the bowl while Mary and his wife, Blanche, chatted away across the room.
After recently watching the 65-episode summer version of “Mary Hartman” in four eight-hour sessions at Norman Lear’s Los Angeles headquarters, I realized that “MH2" is not a parody of a soap opera. Sure, it mocks the form with portentous organ music and to-be-continued episodes. But unlike most soaps, which portray fashionable people pursuing romance, “Mary Hartman” uses the form to present blue-collar people (who see themselves as middle class) without patronizing either them or the show’s viewers. Its humor is not based on situation but is developed out of the characters.
One thread that runs through the show is that those who have an authoritative role in society are charlatans and phonies. For example, among the “MH2" gallery of overeducated villains we find: a minister who cheats on his wife and carries a pint of whiskey in a hollowed-out Bible; a doctor who gets the pregnancy test mixed up and tells Loretta Haggers she’s pregnant when what she has is a fibroid tumor; a counselor at Tom’s plant who tells him “my specialty is understanding,” and then, when Tom tells him he may have given Mary VD, yells, “You mean to tell me that you gave your wife a social disease! Why that is the lowest…that is so disgusting I ought to get up and walk away...”
The central characters in “Mary Hartman” have to put up with contradictory messages from authority figures all the time. No wonder they’re overwrought. The oldest of these central characters is Grandpa Larkin, 83, who lives with his daughter and son-in-law, and sees himself as useless. His voice is the voice of self-deprecation. “Anybody home?” his son-in-law asks, and Grandpa Larkin replies: “There’s nobody home unless you call me somebody.” The discovery that Grandpa is the flasher should not surprise us, for it is his attempt to remain visible in a country where youth is on a pedestal and old people fade away.
Married 35 years, George and Martha Shumway are suffering from terminal cases of inanity. Martha responds only to products, prices, and plants. She has become a consumer robot. George is equally unreclaimable, combining a know-it-all stance with profound ignorance.
Charlie and Loretta Haggers represent whatever remains of American innocence. They have a naive faith in themselves and the rest of humanity. Loretta believes that this is the greatest country in the whole world. 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. 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, 36-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. He has a two-track mind. He shocks his old high-school coach by daring to say that we lost the Vietnam war.
Mary Hartman, 32, married Tom when she was 17. She wants to be a good mother and housewife, but she can’t do anything right. She is brainwashed by consumerism. Her response to every situation is expressed in the language of commercials. For example, her explanation for the mass murderer who kidnapped her is: “People with low blood sugar get depressed very easily.”
Like Tom, Mary has a two-track mind. On one level, she has faith in the brand names she recites. On another level, she sees that products 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?” asks Tom, informing 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. Her breakdown is the price she pays for awareness.
After my marathon “MH2" watch, 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.
Indeed, 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 it access to the neuroses that were once reserved for its “betters.” Mary and Tom are concerned with self-improvement and looking for more meaningful lives. That is why “Mary Hartman” is a uniquely American show. It could only happen here.