Louise Lasser
Louise Lasser; drawing by David Levine

Formal sociological studies of the once phenomenal popularity of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman1 will undoubtedly appear in the professional journals, but, until then, perhaps an amateur fieldworker may hazard a few observations. The first of these, from admittedly limited samplings, is that the program provoked instant partisanship. While some viewers found it to be no more than a puerile comedy in bad taste and recoiled from its assaults on their cherished ideals and modes of behavior, devotees would rush home of an evening in time for the latest encounter between the staff psychiatrist of Fernwood Receiving Hospital’s mental ward and its celebrated inmate, “The Number One Typical American Consumer Housewife.”

Like other programs, this one appealed or repelled in accordance with social, generational, regional, and other biases, none of which, however, accounted for the vehemence of the responses. Madeleine Edmondson’s and David Rounds’s From Mary Noble to Mary Hartman2 contains several pages on the almost violent controversy that the program generated (Time: “Silly, stupid, silly, stupid”; The New York Times: “…fascinating departure…”). Marriage counselors, social anthropologists, educators, and theologians, all of similar backgrounds, strongly disagreed about its entertainment as well as documentary value, and even the common assumption that “liberals” liked and “conservatives” disliked the program proved unreliable. Guessing which friends and public figures were Mary watchers was fast becoming a new parlor game.

What was the original Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman? In exploiting the humor of ludicrous circumstances, it resembled sitcom, but, unlike those situations contrived to produce a succession of jokes—in, for example, The Jeffersons—many episodes from Mary were, by intention, not funny at all. Mary was also partly soap opera, and no less addictive, though fans preferred to think of their program as realistic in contrast to the soporific fantasizing of the daytime serials. Nevertheless, Mary followed the soap opera form of several rotating and suspended plot lines, and used the same subject matter of marital and family problems. But again, the differences, especially in novel ways of treatment, were greater than the similarities.

For one thing, soap opera has no comedy element, certainly none of the black humor which was Mary Hartman’s essence. And, for another, while “the suds” adhere to dramatic conventions, Mary was haphazard, without conspicuous over-all plan or consistent development—a television theater of the absurd. Moreover, the people in the afternoon dramas—doctors, lawyers, executives, and their women—are played by mannequins and glamorous actors, embodied dreams of what the viewers wish they could be and of whom they would like to marry. The people in Mary, on the other hand, belonged to the working class and were ordinary looking, without benefit of orthodontia or haute couture; Charlie Haggers, Grandpa Larkin, Chester Markham—the endearing lunatic who planned to blow up Ohio—and even Mary herself would never be offered jobs on Search for Tomorrow. Then, too, while most of the social life in soap opera takes place in well-appointed living rooms, Mary’s is in the kitchen. Spectators with the drabbest lives could hardly indulge in daydreaming identification with MH2 characters.

But Mary Hartman satirized the genre even while belonging to it, beginning with the pleated lampshade and fringed curtains of the enclosing-frame backdrop, the saccharine signature tune, and the sentimental organ interludes. Exaggeration was the principal element, used best in calamities. Thus while the personae in the soaps suffer from rare and mysterious diseases such as amnesia, subdural hematomas, and unexplained forms of paralysis, death in Mary comes from drowning in chicken soup, choking on a TV dinner, and electrocution from a television wire in the bath water. Another aspect of the parody was the difference in the duration of these catastrophes, which drag on for years in true soap opera but are precipitate and brief in Mary. The mortality rate, too, could be compared to that in a Western, a feature of the series being the truncated lifespans of some of the most original and best delineated roles, such as those of Officer Dennis Foley and of the eight-year-old Reverend Jimmy Joe Jeeter. Some of these disappearances can be explained by practical considerations such as ratings, exhaustion of material, and child welfare regulations; nevertheless, the audience became attached to these characters and misses them.

The charge was brought that Mary made fun of the factory-working class to which the Hartmans, Shumways, and Haggers belong—though to judge by their homes and appliances, the men of the Fernwood Assembly Plant are members of a strong union. The badges of class are unmistakable: lumber jackets and baseball caps; lunch pails, peanut butter, “chicken-fried steak,” Twinkies, beer and soft drinks; bowling, sports on television, country western music. (The higher social level of Annie—“Tippytoes”—the new interest in Tom’s life, is indicated by her taste for Vivaldi and the Sonnets from the Portuguese, but she is obviously slumming.) None of these blue-collar workers appears to be concerned about money, a troubling inconsistency, for when Tom lost his job, and when he and Mary were separated, their thoughts should immediately have turned to their financial problems. Otherwise the portrayal of the social stratum is remarkably accurate.


But the targets of the original Mary Hartman were larger and more important than a social class, being in fact nothing less than contemporary schizoid America and its purely commercial values, disintegrating human relationships, and hollow inner life. Out of this broad range, two subjects were most effectively attacked, television itself, and the psychology and psychotherapy establishments. The characters’ ideas (platitudes), language (jargon), and creed (dogmas of advertising) derive almost wholly from TV, which also fixes the standards for nearly every other aspect of living. This was emphasized when Mary wanted to be discharged from the mental ward and was advised to “sit and look at television to show them that you are normal.” No program has gone so far as this one in ridiculing the medium, as well as in warning of its power to reduce its habitués to herd philosophies. The point is made symbolically when a TV set causes the death of a divinely inspired child, “for,” as Loretta Haggers says, “the sins of the 6:30 news.”

More fundamental than this in Mary Hartman’s critique of television is the deliberate confusion of the medium and reality. Thus viewers may have wondered whether the child actually expired before their eyes—like Lee Harvey Oswald, as if to oblige the networks, and as human beings have recently been photographed doing in Beirut, Belfast, and Johannesburg. When Zoning Commissioner Rittenhouse is strangling while taking part in a televised panel discussion, his fellow participants do not notice his plight until long after the TV audience has, one of whom, our Mary, rushes to the screen, pounds on it, and yells instructions for saving his life. (This is similar to what happened when Aldous Huxley’s Hollywood house was burning down, and the television cameras arrived before the fire trucks.) Mary Hartman has been criticized for such cruel incidents, but episodes like these two televised deaths expose the growing acceptance of, and indifference toward, the increase of live horrors in our news programs.

Finally, Mary’s own emotional collapse, the most potent scene in the series, occurs on, and as a result of, television, when she succumbs to the relentless questioning of three experts on the David Susskind show; and the introduction of this de facto TV venerable is, of course, another device in the blurring of real and tele-real. To compound the irony, the audience interprets her breakdown as part of the entertainment, indeed, as a spectacular performance for which she receives congratulations during her subsequent hospitalization. And at the moment when her mind snaps, she regurgitates chauvinistic slogans, screaming, as her underpinnings give way, “I believe in America.” The advertising blurbs and Reader’s Digest truisms that fill her mind fail to sustain her in this crisis and are the ultimate factor in her psychotic seizure.

While the “nervous breakdown” episode is serious, the spoofings of psychotherapeutic malpractices are funny. In a particularly droll incident between Mary and the company psychologist, this charlatan claims “to have heard everything” and “to understand and accept” all manner of aberration. But when she tells him about her affair with Dennis in his hospital bed, the therapist reacts with shock, declares this to be the most disgusting behavior that he has ever known, and refuses to continue seeing her. Worse still, he betrays this confidence to her husband, Tom, thereby temporarily destroying her marriage and ruining her life. In sum, her first counseling interview is to a considerable extent responsible for her eventual commitment to a mental ward.

Mary is later assigned to a “religious sex therapist” whose technique for eliminating repressions and puritanical attitudes is to read enigmatic passages from the Bible—which mystify Mary as they would anyone, sane or insane. Then, in order to overcome her husband’s impotence, the “healer” supplements his scriptural examples with a Masters and Johnson-type exercise. But the whole freak-cure racket—group encounters, self-help, EST—is brilliantly lampooned in STET (Survival Training and Existence Therapy), from which even gullible Mary has the sense to flee.

Institution psychiatry is also attacked, primarily for its profit-making motives. Thus the chief administrator of the mental ward, determined to keep Mary in his hospital for as long as possible because of her publicity value, overrides the doctor’s decision to discharge her. The methods of treating disturbed people in this asylum are the usual shock therapy, dosing with tranquilizers, and the diverting, with Pollyanna responses, of all serious discussion of patients’ problems. It should be said that the inmates and staff are well conceived and cast—though playing a catatonic should not require exceptional histrionic talents, and though it is unclear at first that Nurse Gimble’s broken neck and multiple injuries are due to mistreatment by her sadistic husband, rather than being job-related or caused by exceptional accident-proneness. The effect on the viewer of Mary’s experiences with psychotherapy in all of its ramifications is that he or she prays never to require such services from similar persons or organizations. In fact the real mystery concerning Mary Hartman is the failure of the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations to have lodged a complaint against the producer.


At first, the series developed from character rather than from plot and circumstance, which may be the main reason for that sense of reality which was the program’s distinctive and superior quality. The best-drawn characters were complex and the mere caricatures, such as Mary’s nitwit mother, a situation-comedy type, were stylistically alien. The viewer felt the action to be spontaneous, happening rather than unfolding, with the characters ad-libbing what they did as well as what they said. This partly accounts for such crudities as the disjointedness and abbreviation resembling those of a comic strip, the faulty timing, the illogicality of the sequences, the many loose ends, the inconsistencies (such as Loretta’s continuing residence in the old Fernwood neighborhood after having made a recording and a nationwide television appearance), and the general shapelessness of the half or, rather, quarter-hour, few other programs being interrupted by so many commercials—possibly another aspect of the satire.

Mary’s eccentric, jeune fille appearance is the first clue to her character, this mother of a thirteen-year-old dressing in a younger manner than her daughter, as well as in that of an age before slacks and jeans became the universal uniform. Bangs and pigtails, puffed sleeves and knee-length skirts make Mary a suitable companion for Orphan Annie, Dorothy and Toto, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. This get-up signifies not only Mary’s innocence but also her lack of development, for she is the prototype of the unintegrated personality, a conglomeration of not-yet-assimilated ingredients. She is aware of the “in” attitudes and gimmickry of her milieu, but the flotsam never falls into place, surfacing in free association and veering away from the intended meaning. Consequently, and no matter how often Mary repeats her pathetic comments (“Isn’t that interesting?…oh that is interesting“), she fails to communicate anything except anxiety feelings that the audience recognizes but that probably are not often articulated in American families. These interjections are entertaining and more acceptable because they come from a bewildered, perpetual little girl.

Mary’s honesty, openness, and good intentions are insufficient to compensate for an almost total dependency. But how could she be otherwise with a father and mother like George and Martha Shumway, neither of them any more equipped for parenthood than Mary herself? Martha, rattling on blithely and irrelevantly, never really listens to the troubles of her confused elder daughter, or to those of Kathy, Mary’s anonymously pregnant sister. As for George—before he vanished into the rearview of a mirror—he is accurately described by Grandpa Larkin as the person to whom Kathy should turn for advice, since “That is what he is for even though he won’t know what to say.”

Mary’s reactions when she leaves the mental ward on a weekend pass illustrate the eagerness with which she will clutch at any new straw to help her “cope.” As her daughter Heather enters, wearing heretofore forbidden platform shoes and putting her foot up on a chair, Mary berates her, as in the past, but stops short when she remembers the child psychology doctrines learned in the hospital, namely that it is wrong to try to control such behavior or to place good manners ahead of “freedom of expression.” Then, revoking what she has just demanded, she begs Heather to return her foot to the chair. The mental ward also seems to have disoriented Mary’s time sense, for Heather’s sudden new height leads her mother to suppose that she must have been away for a long time.

While Mary is a bizarre though real character, Tom, a mixture of appealing and frustrating qualities, is unexceptional. As ill-prepared for marriage as his wife, he is more at ease with male friends than with her, and although convinced that he wants their relationship to last, and that he is doing his share toward this end, he soon turns every reconciliation into a fresh quarrel. He and Mary are adolescent, and together they typify the American marital syndrome: husband looking for mother, wife seeking father. Neither of them having found the parent image in the other, Tom’s present adventure with an older woman will undoubtedly alter his life.3

The marriage between Loretta, aspirant to country-western superstardom, and Charlie, hard-hat worker and his wife’s manager, would seem to be a mismatch in age, appearance, talents, and intelligence. A girl as pretty, gifted, and exuberant as Loretta could hardly be expected to spend a lifetime with a man whose main attraction is a prodigious sexual capacity. Now that this is gone, the incompatibility is beginning to show, and obviously she will be put to a severe test. Faithful wife and loyal friend, forthright, extroverted, unspoiled, Loretta—who “psychologicates” and senses when adultery is “glomping” about—has the strongest moral character of anyone in the story. Her stability and healthy outlook are rooted in her simple, Bible Belt religious beliefs, and though it is not safe to predict anything about this erratic series, it seems unlikely that she will follow Mary into a mental institution.

The attitude toward Loretta’s religion is one of the puzzles of the first year of the Mary Hartman show. A naïve, literal faith such as Loretta’s would normally be the butt in a generally sophisticated approach such as this program once had, and offended viewers from fundamentalist America evidently believed that her religion was being ridiculed. Curiously this was not the case, but rather a true portrayal of character. Furthermore, her wholesome and sympathetic qualities are placed in contrast to the rigidity, pedantry, and self-centeredness of three “intellectuals,” the women’s libber, the sociologist, and the sexologist, who so brutally interrogate Mary on the Susskind show. Granted that they are stereotypes, yet it is their insensitivity which pushes Mary over the brink, while kindness and protectiveness such as Loretta’s help to restore her. The implication that a religious background can be desirable is surprising in a production of this kind.

No generalization is made, of course, about the virtuousness of all followers of the Lord, and the apparently pious Merle Jeeter arouses distrust; he is too smooth, too good-looking, and his means of livelihood—touring with his evangelistically and psychically precocious son—is suspect. Merle also has an acknowledged weakness, for he frequents whorehouses and even attempts to rape Loretta. But a transformation comes over him after the death of his little Jimmy Joe, and Merle continues to pursue his “Condos for Christ” movement, while planning to run for President of the United States.

Some of Mary’s minor characters were among the most original on television. One of them, much regretted in his absence, is Dennis, the least “pig”-like law enforcement officer on any screen, as well as the most resourceful of Don Juans, his infinite patience while laying siege to Kathy, Mary, and the STET recruiter (among others) being already legendary. Grandpa Larkin, too, is a refreshing cynic, optimistically resigned to his place on the refuse pile to which America consigns its elderly.

Some audiences have complained about the prominence and the “off-color” treatment of sex in Mary Hartman, and a reason for this reaction is that the sexual naturalness is so different from the coyly euphemistic references to the subject that pervade television’s talk-and-variety shows. Sex is neither material for jokes nor a peripheral amusement in Mary, lying instead at the core, and generating much of the action. Objections have also been made to the language, though this is candid, not coarse. True, Loretta and Charlie are explicit in word and gesture about their hyperactive love life, which is “vulgar,” but in the dictionary sense of the word, “of the people.” The progressive attitude toward the homosexuals, Howard and Ed, conveys both the validity of their desire to marry and the prejudices of a society that prevents them from doing so. But the frankness in dealing with sex opposes present-day prurience, and in this sense Mary Hartman actually seems to stand for conventional virtues and morality.

In its first year Mary Hartman was an exasperatingly uneven but sometimes remarkably perceptive instrument for puncturing the hypocrisies of American life. It was also a welcome antidote to those “comedy” half-hours, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which say, in effect, that the USA can be a pretty nice place and lots of fun (at least on an executive’s salary). The original success of Mary Hartman may be explained by the existence of two, sometimes overlapping, audiences, one for whom it was merely an entertainment with a peculiar heroine, another for whom it was unique social criticism. But the new series is very disappointing and now can be described only as 99.44% pure soap opera, late-night. The social class level is changing, and everyone has moved far out of character; Grandpa Larkin, for instance, recently referred to “the two Pablos, Picasso and Casals.” Also, in the recent programs I have seen, the pace has slowed, the satire is no more, the improbabilities are of the wrong kind, and none of the new characters offers much promise of development.

Though former devotees can now stay for the last act at the opera or theater, or retire to bed somewhat earlier, they do so nostalgically, asking “what ever became of Mary Hartman?”

This Issue

December 9, 1976