The Most Audacious Soap Opera in History
By Elon Green, the mag
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.