The Most Audacious Soap Opera in History

Mary Hartman was mopping her kitchen floor, staring intently at the TV, when outside, sirens began to wail. Her neighbor Loretta barged through the door with terrible news: The family around the corner—along with their two pet goats and eight chickens—had been murdered. And that’s just the beginning of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, one of the most inventive and funny—yes, funny—television programs to grace the small screen.

The short-lived ’70s sitcom is remembered as a soap opera parody. But it was more than that: It was a sardonic take on modern life. The titular character, a sexually unfulfilled blue-collar suburban housewife from Fernwood, Ohio, played by Louise Lasser, is consumed by television, to the point of being numb to the world. She swallows advertising as wholesale truth, firmly believing TV commercials are there to improve her life. She’s so focused on finding the right homemaking products that when her neighbors are shot and killed, Mary is preoccupied instead with the “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floor.

The show is populated with equally peculiar characters—Mary’s mother talks to plants, while her grandfather is a serial flasher. Her neighbor Loretta is a God-obsessed country-western singer. And the storylines are typical soap opera tropes—adultery, murder, intrigue—dressed in oddball black humor: At one point, a high school basketball coach drowns in a bowl of chicken soup; an 8-year-old evangelist is electrocuted when a television wire falls into the bathtub. The line between funny and dark is cheerfully blurry.

And at a time when television was in practically every home, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was doing something revolutionary: It was using television to criticize the medium itself.

It had been decades since June Cleaver entrenched herself as the archetypal TV homemaker. But by Mary Hartman’s time, things were different from the black-and-white 1950s. The mid-’70s overlapped with feminism’s second wave. A decade earlier, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had spoken to just how unfulfilled many housewives were. Since then, the women’s rights movement had made topics like reproductive rights, violence against women, and workplace inequalities part of everyday conversation. By 1975, TIME would name “American Women” its People of the Year.

In Hollywood, women were slowly getting more screen time and more diverse. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, about an unmarried career woman, was groundbreaking. But the state of affairs behind the camera was less progressive; female directors and writers were just north of a novelty.

At the time, producer Norman Lear was enjoying a blessed decade, creating All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son, all of which scorched a path up the Nielsen ratings. Unlike the squeaky-clean sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s, these new comedies didn’t shy away from addressing social issues like race and class inequality.

Now Lear was percolating on a project that would acknowledge women’s changing place in society. He’d been stewing for years on an idea for a late-night Monday-through-Friday soap opera. “I wanted to do a show about a woman who had been affected by the media, whose mind was shattered by television, magazines, radio—especially television,” he told the Archive of American Television in a video interview. “And I wanted it to be wild.” He wrote down a few ideas, including kicking off the series with a mass murder.

Oh, and he wanted it to be a comedy.

Lear approached a dozen writers, men and women alike, including the masterminds behind I Love Lucy. Most were appalled by the premise. “How are you going to get laughs from the slaughter of a family?” they asked. Finally, one of them understood the dark humor. Ann Marcus, who had credits with Dennis the Menace and Lassie, would become the show’s lead writer, helping to pen the first two pilots.

For the director, Lear tapped Joan Darling, a writer who’d been pitching a biopic about Israel’s first female prime minister. Darling was surprised to be asked. She had never directed before. But Lear handed her the two pilot scripts and told her to think about it. The writing was unlike anything Darling had ever read. “I don’t know what this is,” she recalled thinking in a recent interview with John D’Amico. “This is neither fish nor fowl.” Still, she took the job.

Darling spent the next eight weeks assembling a cast. At the center of it was 36-year-old Louise Lasser. The product of an upper-middle-class household in New York City, Lasser had racked up appearances on Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show and in Woody Allen’s Bananas. When she read for the part, Lear was elated. “I supplied the character,” Lear wrote in his autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, “but Louise brought with her the persona that fit Mary Hartman like a corset.”

The finished pilot was utterly fresh. The show had all the hallmarks of a soap opera—cheesy organ music, extreme close-ups—but the tone was distinct. There was no laugh track. And it wasn’t melodramatic either. The humor was bone dry. When Mary learns about the murder down the street, she asks, “What kind of a madman would shoot two goats and eight chickens?” She pauses, looking away blankly. “And the people. The people, of course.”

When the networks saw it, they immediately turned it down.

This kick in the teeth made headlines. Lear was a regular Emmy winner. If anyone could get away with something edgy, it would be him. But the Big Three— ABC, CBS, and NBC—wanted nothing to do with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. CBS, the very network that had fronted Lear $100,000 to make the pilots, thought the five-day-a-week format was a bad idea: “It’s tough enough to come up with 20 [episodes] a year for a prime-time series,” head of daytime programming Bud Grant told the Associated Press. “To come up with 260 is almost an impossible task.”

Today, Lear still doesn’t buy that excuse. “They were all doing well with the Jack Paars and the Johnny Carsons and so forth,” he says. “They didn’t get it. Or they didn’t think the American public would get it.”

Lear and Al Burton, who helped develop the show, believed that network executives were afraid of the program’s subversive tone and topics. After getting rebuked by the big guys, they hatched a plan to sneak it onto the air: They would take Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to the little guys.

Lear hit the road, traveling city by city to visit individual TV stations. Syndication had been around for years, but for someone of Lear’s stature to employ this tactic was unusual. Lear also flew people from 23 independent TV stations to his home in Brentwood in an effort to convince them to broadcast the show. The executives— attracted, perhaps, by the show’s inexpensive price tag combined with Lear’s clout—ate it up.

The unorthodox moves paid off. When it premiered in January 1976, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was on more than 50 stations. By season’s end, that number had ballooned to 100. In its first six months, the show was on the covers of Newsweek, Rolling Stone, People, and The New York Times Magazine. The pilot earned Marcus and her cowriters an Emmy. Mary, the Times said, had become “the country’s most talked-about housewife,” and the viewers loved her.

In many ways, Mary Hartman was a caricature. Lasser’s homemade costume—a frumpy mini dress with puffy sleeves, topped with a wig of tightly braided pigtails—made her look like a life-size Raggedy Ann. But she also perfectly embodied a particular mid-’70s moment. As the old expectations for women started to fray, in their place was a vacuum, which Mary filled with TV. Mary has internalized commercials so fully that her emotions are muted. When she’s asked by police to communicate with the neighborhood murderer, she becomes obsessed with dissecting the flaws in the brand of walkie-talkie they hand her. The show, Lear says, was “mirroring the confused American housewife getting battered on all sides by the commerciality of our time. She was witness and subject to citizens becoming consumers.”

Underneath the psychodrama and dark humor, the show touched on a laundry list of taboo topics: exhibitionism, masturbation, menstruation, homosexuality, and anti-Semitism. But foremost it provided a withering commentary on the role TV had started to play in American lives. As Darling put it, Mary showed how “television would make us a nation of empty dead people.” And as Robert Craft wrote in the New York Review of Books, “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 followers of herd philosophies.”

The point was driven home when, at the end of the first season, Mary has a nervous breakdown and winds up in a psychiatric institution. There, as she and her fellow patients crowd around a television, Mary notices a small mechanism above the box: It’s the device used by Nielsen to measure television ratings. Even locked away, she can’t escape it.

As the show progressed, some of the networks’ concerns crystallized. To deliver five episodes a week, Mary Hartman was produced at a breakneck pace. The team shot a new episode nearly every day, and this quickly took its toll. There was so little free time that Lasser often couldn’t change out of her costume before her thrice-weekly psychiatrist visits. “So I have to walk down the street in Beverly Hills in my little Mary Hartman outfit, with the sleeves all puffed out and the gingham dress, and I think that everybody’s staring at me,” she told The New York Times.

As time wore on, Lasser found it more difficult to step away from her character. “I was gradually morphing into her,” she later said. The second season was brutal and dark, on and off screen. Mary spends two months in a psychiatric hospital, while Lasser, by her own admission, was also depressed and exhausted. So, after filming 325 episodes, she quit.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman lasted only two seasons, but the effects of its boundary pushing— on screen and behind the camera—still resonate. Soap operas have a long history of addressing social concerns—an All My Children character was an antiwar protestor during Vietnam; in the 1990s, General Hospital had an AIDS storyline. But in its critique of the medium itself, Mary Hartman went even further, raising questions that wouldn’t enter the mainstream for years to come. What is television doing to our brains? And to our culture? “I think it’s still ahead of its time,” Lasser says. “If you look at people’s top 10 lists, we’re never mentioned. It never bothered me. I think of it as a badge of honor.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t influence later shows. If you squint, you can see shades of Mary Hartman in the oddball soapiness of Twin Peaks; it’s in the uncomfortably funny DNA of Girls (on which Lasser has appeared three times). And you could argue that in a sense, its depiction of the blue-collar household paved the way for Roseanne.

It may have been both wholly of its time and somehow ahead of it, but Mary Hartman could not seem more relevant right now. The ubiquitous but quaintly stationary television has been eclipsed by a multiplying array of portable digital screens. Our dependence on technological distractions has surged accordingly. Mary Hartman asks us to take a pointedly critical—but at the same time not too serious—look at our relationship with media. There’s a lesson to be learned from a show that loved to hate television but created a cult of viewers who, night after night, couldn’t turn away.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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10 Facts About David Fincher's The Social Network for Its 10th Anniversary

Jesse Eisenberg stars in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Jesse Eisenberg stars in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Merrick Morton/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network—a movie made when Facebook was less than seven years old and the social media era was relatively new—seemed destined to age poorly. But in the decade since its premiere in October 2010, the film’s depiction of the website and its young founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is more relevant than ever.

Even if you haven’t logged onto Facebook in years, the film offers plenty to love, from David Fincher’s detailed direction to Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script. In honor of its 10-year anniversary, here are 10 facts about The Social Network.

1. Aaron Sorkin started writing the script for The Social Network before the book it's based on was published.

Aaron Sorkin makes a cameo in The Social Network (2010).Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network is officially an adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich's 2009 book detailing the founding of Facebook. But according to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, he had already completed 80 percent of the script by the time he read the book. The project came to him in the form of a 14-page book proposal the publisher was shopping around to filmmakers ahead of the title's release. “I said yes on page three," Sorkin told Deadline in 2011. "That’s the fastest I’ve ever said yes to anything."

Instead of waiting for The Accidental Billionaires to be completed and published, Sorkin started working on the script immediately, doing his own first-hand research for much of the process instead of referring to the book.

2. Shia LaBeouf turned down the role of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

When Transformers star Shia LaBeouf turned down the role of The Social Network’s lead character, Jesse Eisenberg was hired to play Mark Zuckerberg instead. Superbad's Jonah Hill was another star who came close to being cast in the movie, in his case as Napster founder Sean Parker; ultimately, Fincher decided Hill wasn’t right for the role and cast Justin Timberlake instead.

3. The Social Network wasn’t filmed at Harvard.

Harvard University is integral to the legend of Facebook, and setting the first half of The Social Network there was non-negotiable. Filmmakers ran into trouble, however, when attempting to get the school's blessing. The 1970 adaptation of Love Story been shot there, and damaged the campus; the school has reportedly banned all commercial filming on the premises since then. To get around this, The Social Network crew shot the Harvard scenes at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and two prep schools, Phillips Academy Andover and Milton Academy, in Massachusetts.

4. David Fincher did sneak one shot of Harvard into The Social Network.

To convince the audience that they were indeed seeing Harvard, Fincher couldn’t resist sneaking in a shot of the campus’s iconic architecture. When Jesse Eisenberg runs across Harvard Square (which is not on Harvard property) in the beginning film, some nearby arches (which are on Harvard property) appear in the background. Fincher got the lighting he needed for this scene by hiring a street mime to roll a cart with lights on it onto the campus.

“If security were to stop him, the mime wouldn’t talk," The Social Network’s director of photography Jeff Cronenweth told Variety. "By the time they got him out of there, we would have accomplished our shot.”

5. Natalie Portman gave Aaron Sorkin the inside scoop on Harvard.

Natalie Portman attended Harvard from 1999 to 2003, briefly overlapping with fellow star alum Mark Zuckerberg. While enrolled, she dated a member of one of the university’s elite final clubs, which are an important part of The Social Network’s plot. When she learned that Sorkin was writing the screenplay for the movie, she invited the writer over to hear her insider knowledge. Sorkin gave the actress a shout-out in the final script. During one of the deposition scenes, Eisenberg's Harvard-era Zuckerberg is described as “the biggest thing on a campus that included 19 Nobel Laureates, 15 Pulitzer Prize winners, two future Olympians, and a movie star.”

6. Armie Hammer and his body double went to twin boot camp for The Social Network.

Armie Hammer and Josh Pence (as Armie Hammer) in The Social Network (2010).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Armie Hammer is credited as playing both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, but he wasn’t acting alone in his scenes. Josh Pence was cast as a body double and Hammer’s face was digitally pasted over his in post-production. For every scene where both twins appear on screen, Hammer and Pence played separate Winklevi, and then they would swap roles and shoot the scene again. This method allowed the characters to physically interact in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with split screens. Pence’s face may be missing from the movie, but his physical performance was still essential to selling the brothers' dynamic. He and Hammer worked with an acting coach for 10 months to nail down the characters’ complementary body language.

7. The Social Network's tagline was changed at the last minute.

For The Social Network’s main poster, designer Neil Kellerhouse made Jesse Eisenberg’s face the focal point. Over it, he superimposed the memorable tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Originally, the text read “300 million friends,” but it was changed under the assumption that Facebook would hit half a billion users in time for the movie’s October 2010 release.

“We were really hedging our bets," Kellerhouse told IndieWire. "But we scooped them on their own story because right as the film was coming out they got 500 million [members] so we got their publicity as well. It worked out super serendipitously.”

8. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden (kind of) makes a cameo in The Social Network.

Sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed the Easter egg David Fincher snuck into The Social Network. In the scene where Mark Zuckerberg is checking someone’s Facebook to cheat on a test, the name “Tyler Durden” can be seen in the top-left corner of the profile. Tyler Durden is the name of the narrator’s alter ego (played by Brad Pitt) in 1999’s Fight Club. Fincher directed both films.

9. The real Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t a fan of The Social Network.

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network doesn’t paint Mark Zuckerberg in the most flattering light, and unsurprisingly, the real-life Facebook founder wasn’t happy about it. Following the movie’s release, he called out its “hurtful” inaccuracies, specifically citing the fictional Mara Rooney character that’s used as his motivation for founding the website. But even he admits that some details were spot-on. “It’s interesting what stuff they focused on getting right," Zuckerberg said at a Stanford event. "Like every single fleece and shirt I had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own.”

10. A sequel to The Social Network is not out of the question.

The Social Network premiered when Facebook was less than a decade old, and the story of the internet giant has only gotten more dramatic since then. Since settling lawsuits with Eduardo Saverin and the Winkelvoss twins, Facebook has been battling scandals related to privacy issues and its influence on the 2016 election. The last 10 years have provided more than enough material for a sequel to The Social Network, and both Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg have expressed interest in such a project. As of now, there are no confirmed plans for a follow-up.