N.Y. Times News Service
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”
was something special
By Anita Gates
I still smile whenever I see a photograph of Louise Lasser as Mary Hartman.
Split-level haircuts were chic in 1976, but Mary's was special: a classic Louise Brooks bob with tightly wound pigtails attached. I remember her wardrobe (mini-skirted jumpers and puff-sleeve blouses) and her kitchen (avocado countertops, a floor suffering from waxy yellow buildup). I can still see her at the end of the first episode, trying to get off the telephone with Dennis Foley, the police sergeant who has just called to report that her grandfather has been arrested for indecent exposure.
“Listen, I can't talk now,” says Mary, wearing her trademark blank stare. “I’m on the phone.”
But I had forgotten her nervous breakdown.
Mary appears on “The David Susskind Show,” representing the typical American housewife in what she thinks is going to be a discussion of television and consumer products. But when one panelist asks if she feels manipulated by television in an Orwellian sense, and another asks, “Were your orgasms better before Johnny Carson?,” Mary loses her grip.
“I think television is real helpful for women’s, uh, liberation,” she says frantically. “Because I think it can get them, you know, out of the house, because all of the products they see, all of the commercials and stuff, that they can leave the house because at home they have Ty-D-Bol and Jifoam.”
The thoughts don't exactly track, but Mary gets away with it because she's on television. Soon, though, she's babbling about mail delivery and working conditions at factories and crying, “I did bad.” At the beginning of the next season, Mary is in a friendly little mental hospital, where she notices a strange device, a telemeter, in the television lounge and is thrilled to learn that she and the other patients constitute a Nielsen family.
When the Museum of Television and Radio in New York begins its “‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’ Marathon, Marathon” on June 2 (all 325 episodes of Norman Lear’s syndicated five-nights-a-week series, screened in chronological order, ending Sept. 3, and a seminar with Lasser on June 8), the focus will be on the medium itself.
There are a few good reasons for that. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” – which was postmodern before postmodern had a name – was created as a parody of a hallowed television form: the soap opera. Its characters, the lovably pathetic residents of Fernwood, Ohio, relate to the world largely in television terms. “Honey, I just hate to see you in a wheelchair,” says Charlie Haggers (Graham Jarvis) to his wife, Loretta (Mary Kay Place, with big hair), who is temporarily paralyzed after a car accident. “Especially when I couldn't get you a motorized one. Like Ironsides has.”
Mary herself is television’s ideal viewer. She sees commercials as a public service (so do very small children – or so they say when interviewed by educational researchers), informing the consumer of new products and product improvements. And she is grateful to the medium for its educational function. “I mean, I have not had to teach Heather a thing about sex,” Mary gushes, referring to her adolescent daughter. “She learns it all from television. I mean, is that wonderful?” And when “Mary Hartman” went off the air, its spinoff was a television show about a television show, “Fernwood 2-Night,” with Barth Gimble (Martin Mull) as the host.
It would be nice to believe that for a brief, shining moment, satire reigned on late-night television. And while “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was only a blip on the screen of 1970’s pop culture – the original show ended after one year, when its exhausted 38-year-old star quit – during its moment it was a major cultural event. When Lasser was arrested for cocaine possession, for instance, while trying to buy an antique doll house in Los Angeles, it was Page 1 news in the tabloids. (The producers of “Mary Hartman,” in the spirit of the show, quickly wrote an episode in which the same thing happened to Mary.) Lasser’s comic style had been known to fans of Woody Allen, her ex-husband, because she had appeared in several of his films, including Bananas and Take the Money and Run, but “Mary Hartman” was a new kind of fame for her.
In the end, it was the old-fashioned soap itself that hooked us, not the spoof. Or at best it was a combination of the two, a foreshadowing of ‘90’s postmodernism.
I was a loyal viewer and enthusiastic fan, and what I remember most fondly about the show is Mary’s “will she or won’t she?” relationship with Sergeant Foley (Bruce Solomon), the cute, curly-haired, perpetually smiling local cop. Maybe some series had made use of long-term sexual tension before this. My father might have argued that that was what was going on between Marshal Dillon and Kitty (James Arness and Amanda Blake) all those years on “Gunsmoke,” his favorite show. But if so, Matt and Kitty never let it get to the surface.
There was nothing sublimated about Mary and Dennis. He wanted her, and she wanted him, and maybe it was wrong since Mary was married but, please, Tom Hartman (Greg Mullavey) refused to touch her. If that weren’t bad enough, Tom was unfashionably antifeminist about it. In the first episode, he claimed that the reason the couple hadn't made love in five weeks was that Mary always made the romantic overtures and that turned him off. “Act like a woman,” he told her grumpily, pulling away from her cuddling and kissing. “And do nothing?” asks Mary. Exactly, he says. “When I feel like making love, I'll make love to you.” Soon Tom has an affair of his own. So when, after months of equivocating, Mary was finally unfaithful to her husband, in Dennis Foley's hospital bed, it was cause for viewer celebration.
Keep in mind that this was years before Diane and Sam (Shelley Long and Ted Danson in “Cheers”), Maddy and David (Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in “Moonlighting”), Rachel and Ross (Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer in “Friends”) and Scully and Mulder (Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in “The X-Files”), among others. Some might count “Mork and Mindy” (with Robin Williams and Pam Dawber) as an example of the phenomenon; even so, that series had its premiere in 1978, a year after Mary and Dennis’ on-air affair.
The other big hit on “Mary Hartman” was Place’s character, Loretta, an aspiring country-and-western singer who is equally passionate about her belief in Jesus and her relationship with her husband, the balding, bespectacled 43-year-old Charlie. Loretta calls Charlie “baby boy” and wears red shortie nightgowns for him. Their sex life is enviably active and satisfying. But Loretta always finds time to pray (at one point she promises God that she'll register him as her writing partner with ASCAP, because of his inspiration) and to write new songs like “I Need Your 10-Wheel Love.” Too bad Loretta lets a little narrow-mindedness creep into her Christianity. Just as she is having some success at her musical career, she thanks her Jewish agents and promoters during an appearance on Dinah Shore’s talk show, then adds, “I can't believe those are the same people who killed our Lord.”
Which proves, I admit, that the show never let the satire die. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” quickly dispensed with most of the commenting organ music, the long close-ups of intense facial expressions, the head-in-a-circle blackouts and other soap-spoof trappings. The writers did hang on to the strained exposition, though. “I know about Tom’s drinking,” a doctor tells Mary. “His unfaithfulness to you, which caused your unfaithfulness to him. The flooding of your house. Jets over your roof. Your phone being disconnected. The fight with your best friend, Loretta Haggers.”
But the series turned into a parody of contemporary life, not of television. And many of the subjects seem just as timely in 2000 as they did then. Take the local politician (played by Dabney Coleman) who wins the voters back by attacking with abject honesty.
“I think the point is here, folks, that I’m standing up here, Merle Jeeter, your former mayor,” says Coleman’s character, “confessing to you that I've cheated you, that I lied to you, that I abused your office of mayor, I corrupted your public morality. I stand here deserving to be booted out of office. I let you down, folks.” Naturally the good people of Fernwood are so touched they decide to keep him.
The real mystery of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is why, with all the cable channels that have come into being since 1977, the show has never been successfully syndicated.
But then, as the television museum’s staff points out, the series always had trouble fitting in. In the beginning, Norman Lear offered the show to the networks and all three turned it down, reportedly because the comedy was too outrageous. Maybe – and this is hard to believe in the era of “Sex and the City,” Tom Green, and “South Park” – it still is.
© 2000 The Mercury News