“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”
By Bruce Handy
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” premiered in January 1976. After 325 episodes, the comic soap opera about an emotionally numb Midwestern housewife went off the air in July 1977. Let me repeat: 325 episodes in 19 months. By way of comparison, “M*A*S*H” managed only 251 episodes over the course of it 11-season run. For reasons of sweat alone, then, executive producer Norman Lear, star Louise Lasser, and the rest of the cast and creators of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” are long overdue the honor the Museum of Television and Radio will presently grant them: a retrospective of the series’ entire run, beginning this month and continuing through September at the museum’s twin outposts in New York and Los Angeles.
No other show has so strenuously fused the bizarre and the crushingly routine. Lasser’s Mary, in pigtails and blue gingham, bore a studied resemblance to Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale; her hometown of Fernwood, Ohio, was a kind of half-Kansas/half-Oz, sepia-drab but populated by a colorful cast of flashers, swingers, aspiring country singers, and junior evangelists. In May 1976, at the height of the syndicated series’ popularity, a Newsweek cover story cited critics who compared “Mary Hartman” to “the best of Cervantes, James Joyce, John Updike and Ingmar Bergman.” Well…in truth, the series was maddeningly uneven, often rambling and unfocused, but able to pull itself together for moments of weird brilliance like Mary’s nervous breakdown at the end of the first season. Appearing on a TV talk show as “a typical American housewife,” she reduced to toddler-like burbling by a condescending panel of intellectuals who ask questions such as “Were your orgasms better before Johnny Carson?” Lasser’s rheumy vulnerability-her greatest asset as an actress (after her teeth)-ratchets up the cruelty of the scene until the only possible viewer reaction is to squirm. This is not the sort of comedy that was common on television in 1976, nor is the sort of comedy that is common today. It’s not even really “funny,” though it did lead to one of the more amusing bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you gags of all time: Mary is committed to an asylum and discovers that she and her fellow inmates are-from hell to heaven-a Nielsen family.
Historically speaking, the most telling thing about the series is its central running joke: that Mary, forever obsessing over “waxy yellow buildup,” has been lobotomized by advertising. As a subject for satire, this suggests a society still worried about the effects of commercial culture-as opposed to, say, a society like ours, in which avarice and irony have so obliterated the distinction between entertainment and advertising that it feels prudish even to notice. With this in mind, I recently asked Norman Lear if he thought “Mary Hartman” had had much lasting impact on TV. “Nah,” he replied. “I’d love to be able to say so, but no.” I’d say there’s a little Mary in Homer Simpson, but the series has rarely been seen since it first left the air, a victim of Lasser’s burnout. All the more reason to savor it now.