Elegy for ‘Mary Hartman’

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…

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