Certainly one of the most unusual television shows in the history of the medium, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman blended the daytime soap opera (than at the height of their popularity), with biting social satire. Produced by Norman Lear, who had already changed the television landscape earlier in the 1970’s with All in the Family, found he couldn’t sell Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to any of the networks, who deemed the series “too controversial.” Instead, he placed the show in first run syndication with 128 stations in January of 1976, where it ran in 30-minute segments five-nights-per-week, Monday through Friday, typically at 11:00 or 11:30 at night. In just a year-and-a-half, 325 episodes were produced.
As the series opens, Fernwood, Ohio housewife Mary Hartman (Louise Lasser) is disturbed because her longtime husband Tom (Greg Mullavey) seems to have no interest in tending to her marital needs. Maybe she just wants it too much? She attempts to cope with this frustration by trying to deal with the waxy yellow buildup on the linoleum in her kitchen. And why can’t she brew a decent cup of coffee? All the while, trying to keep Grandpa (Victor Kilian) from flashing children on the playground and protect her daughter from the next-door mass murderer who gunned down a family of five, two goats, and eight chickens.
Addicted to soap operas, Mary is dissatisfied with the state of her life, and is attempting to fill the emotional void by living up to the societal and corporate middle class expectations set forth by the media. Mary, and even her friends and family are strangely desensitized to local murder. Intrigued instead, by what they see as the senseless slaughter of the animals. The murdered people are secondary.
Mary’s best pal, Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) is a sexy housewife, and aspiring country singer. Despite her questionable talent, Loretta’s much older husband Charlie “Baby Boy” Haggers (Graham Jarvis), believes in her ability to make it big. Though Charlie is remarkably ordinary looking, he and Loretta enjoy a healthy and satisfying sex life that leaves Mary envious.
Martha Shumway (Dody Goodman), Mary’s mother, is an often clueless eccentric who talks to her plants, and generally tries to keep the piece around the house, even as her husband (and Mary’s father) George (Philip Bruns and for a few episodes, Tab Hunter), and their youngest daughter Cathy (Debralee Scott) plot to do things against her wishes. Cathy has no real direction in her life; sexually promiscuous, she’s just enjoying life as it comes, and attending beauty school when it fits into her schedule.
Bruce Solomon plays police Sgt. Dennis Foley, the desk cop who makes Mary’s acquaintance after her grandfather is arrested for being the “Fernwood Flasher.” It’s not long before it becomes clear that the good police officer pines after Mary, and Mary just might be feeling something as well…As the series progressed several other characters joined in on the fun: wife beater Garth Gimble (Martin Mull), Garth’s twin brother Barth (also Mull), who hosts the Tonight Show-patterned local talk show, Fernwood 2 Night, Dabney Coleman as Merle Jeeter, Fernwood’s deceitful mayor; Gloria DeHaven as Annie “Tippytoes” Wylie, a bisexual CB radio fan who has an affair with Tom, among others.
A fundamental part of watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is understanding that it’s both set in 1976, and ahead of itself. When Tom and Mary go to the Capri lounge on a date, he is wearing a stylish leisure suite. But it’s obvious that that the show recognizes that Tom looks foolish. Essentially, the writers were smart enough to know that a lot of things that were popular in the era would pass, before they actually did.
The difficulty of producing two-and-a-half-hours of new material a week, with just over three months off, eventually wore Louise Lasser down who decided to leave the series after 325 episodes, but not before an amazing 11-minute performance where Mary suffers a nervous breakdown on a live television show. Widely considered one of the best performances in the history of the medium, I have seen the episode three times, and her performance never fails to impress.
After Lasser’s departure, the series continued as Forever Fernwood for an additional 130 episodes. While most of the rest of the cast was aboard, without Mary as the central character, the show didn’t pack the same punch. It’s worth noting that the set doesn’t include Forever Fernwood, but one can hope Shout! will be delivering that to fans in the near future.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman‘s 38 single-sided DVDs come in a solid cardboard box containing six standard-size DVD cases, one thin-case DVD, and a 40 page, full-color booklet. While the discs are simply numbered by episode, the book contains a nice episode guide with show numbers, airdates, and brief synopses. Shot on tape, the widescreen transfers have held up quite well, while it would be going overboard to say the colors are vivid, nothing looks particularly washed out. There are no real digital issues.
While the audio is nothing special, the included mono sound offers clear dialogue throughout.
No subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Inside the Funhouse Mirror: Produced in 2008, executive producer Norman Lear and stars Louise Lasser and Mary Kay Place discuss the making of the show. Their comments are interspersed with various clips from the series.
- On the Verge Of…Also produced in 2008, Lear and Lasser discuss the famous “Nervous Breakdown” episode.
- 10 Complete Episodes of Fernwood 2 Night: A spinoff that ran from July 1977 to September 1977. Martin Mull stars as Barth Gimble, the host of the parody talk show, and Fred Willard plays his clueless sidekick, Jerry Hubbard. The assortment of episodes includes one from July, and the remainder is from August and September. It would be great to see a complete series set.
- Booklet: The 40-page booklet contains a full episode guide as well as an essay by Norman Lear, an appreciation for the series by TV critic Tom Shales.
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