Ranks “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” as one of the 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time
In a special soft cover book issue of the magazine, Entertainment Weekly had this to say about “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
Norman Lear had always been a magnet for controversy. Having unleashed “All in the Family” on the viewing public in 1971, he soon after proposed another groundbreaking concept: a soap opera parody that would premiere with a mass murder, an octogenarian flasher, and an impotent husband. Thanks, but no thanks, all three networks said. So Lear took another bold step-he sold the series in first-run syndication and created a virtual ad hoc network all his own.
The 1976 show, set in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio, centered on Mary Hartman (Louise Lasser), a pigtailed, somewhat obtuse housewife addicted to TV commercials, whose biggest concern in life was the “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floor. Lampooning both Americans’ obsession with television and the medium itself, the program featured offbeat characters (an 8-year-old evangelist) and kinky plot twists (Mary’s father had plastic surgery to look like Tab Hunter-and then was played by Tab Hunter). Things only got crazier as time went on: In one episode, a neighbor drowned in a bowl of soup; in another, a TV celebrity was impaled on an aluminum Christmas tree.
The first-season finale said a lot about Lear’s opinion of television. In it, Mary has a nervous breakdown and ends up (by season two) in an insane asylum-only to discover that her fellow inmates are part of the “Nielsen family,” a group chosen to represent national TV viewing habits. How would that imaginary group have described “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman?” Hilarious, hilarious.
Years on the Air
Top Nielsen Charting
Never ranked in the top 25
3 [sic, see below for the only two verified Emmy Awards given to the show]
(1975-76 SPECIAL CLASSIFICATION OF OUTSTANDING PROGRAM AND INDIVIDUAL
ACHIEVEMENT: Ann Marcus, Jerry Adelman and Daniel Gregory Browne, writers.
1976-77 Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Series: Mary Kay Place.)
The Price of Success
Even as the show was scoring a critical and ratings coup, it was losing almost $50,000 each week, because of the low fees paid by local stations.
The Price of Talent
Lasser turned down the lead several times before finally agreeing to come aboard-for $5,000 a week and the freedom to leave after one year (she left after two)
To achieve the half-parody/half-genuine feel of the show, Lear paired writers with contrasting backgrounds, such as Ann Marcus (who had been head writer for the soap “Search for Tomorrow”) and Gail Parent (who had penned the “As the Stomach Turns” soap spoof on “The Carol Burnett Show”).