Come back to the five and dime, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

The Husband and I have just delved into the first two episodes of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” the cult TV show from the mid-70’s starring Louise Lasser as the title character of a Norman Lear soap-opera send-up set in fictional Fernwood, Ohio. The cast also includes Dodi Goodman as Mary’s ditzy mother and Mary Kay Place in one of her earlier roles as an aspiring country singer.

I have distinct memories of watching “Mary Hartman” with my mom. She never had much interest in TV other than PBS, but this was her favorite show at the time. I remember her excitedly saying to me, “let’s see if ‘Mary Hartman’ is on” and we would stay up late, snuggling together in a green corduroy overstuffed armchair. While she was drawn to the irony and dark humor of the writing, I think it also tapped into her (misguided) idea of feminism – she found the tongue-in-cheek portrayal of this Midwestern housewife endlessly amusing.

There was a sort of edgy-ness that I picked up on and appreciated about the show, but mostly I found it strange and somewhat depressing. I attribute part of that impression to my age at the time; being 9 or 10 I was unable to understand the subtleties of the dark humor, nor did I really understand the history behind what was being parodied. The other part I attribute to the state of my life at the time, being mostly raised by a single mom who was always struggling financially and who was simultaneously asserting her independence while in the midst of a long-term abusive relationship. The darkness was perhaps as much a projection of my state of mind at the time as it was projecting out from the cathode ray tubes.

While “Mary Hartman” is obviously a parody of soap operas, it has a strange, flat affect accentuated by the lack of music and the dull yellow and avocado green color schemes of the sets representing working-class middle America. At times, you’re not sure what is meant to be funny and what is meant to be serious, or if there is even a distinction. Crammed into the first two episodes there is already a mass murder, a revelation that Mary’s grandfather is the town flasher, and a suspicion that her husband is having an affair, all obviously set up to mimic the ridiculousness of soap-operas.

Mary Hartman is oblivious and spaced out; her adulthood and sexuality are diminished by her pigtails and Peter Pan collared dress; she simultaneously acts like an old woman and a little girl. (In fact, I always thought that Louise Lasser was an older woman but now that I’ve watched it as an adult I realize that she was only in her early 30’s at the time). The scenes often end with Mary staring blankly into the camera or agape in wonder. She worries as much about waxy yellow buildup on her kitchen floor as she does about the fact that a mass-murderer is loose in her neighborhood.

While she was meant to be funny, I have always found her character to be a bit sad. I feel sorry for her because of her dimness and naiveté. In the second episode there is a scene in which her attempts to initiate sex are rejected by her husband, and you can see the hurt and disappointment in her eyes. And yet, her character is meant to be un-sexy and unattractive (at least by the standards of the 70’s; nowadays she’d be an indie queen) and I found myself wondering that he found her attractive in the first place.

One of the best lines from the show is when Mary gets a call from the police station telling her that her grandfather was arrested for indecent exposure. In her slack-jawed shock upon hearing this news, after a long pause she replies, “I can’t talk now; I’m on the phone”. She puts the receiver down on the table and shuffles outside, not knowing what to do, then shuffles back in and picks up the phone again. Louise Lasser’s delivery of that line gives it much more gravity and depth than the humor is meant to deliver, and yet the irony is spot-on.


Are we laughing at her, or crying with her? At the time this show was being made, feminism was having its first heyday; women were starting to assert their desires to step away from the mop and get out into the working world. Mary Hartman was the type of woman that feminists scorned and worked hard to separate themselves from – the harried housewife, neurotic, needy, un-self aware. While the characters in Norman Lear’s “All In The Family” were outspoken in their ideals, be they the unabashed bigotry of Archie Bunker or the burgeoning women’s lib of Gloria, Mary Hartman is unsure of what she wants, and unsure that she might want anything different from what she has, however unsatisfying. Even Archie’s wife Edith, while positioned squarely under the thumb of her husband’s bullying rants, occasionally fights back with a zinger that stings more deeply than any of Archie’s name calling. “All In the Family” made us think about the issues. But what did “Mary Hartman” make us think, other than our relief that we weren’t her? Perhaps my mom laughed at Mary’s dumb plight, or perhaps it was her relief at narrowly escaping a life that until a few years earlier resembled Mary’s a little too closely.

14 responses to “Come back to the five and dime, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”

  1. lane says:

    really terrific. cindy sherman, richard prince. art from the 70’s.

    thanks for putting this up. it’s such an interesting little thing Lear created here, and so perfect that it got cancelled. It’s just too out there. Amazing that he had the power to get something like this on the air back then. So strange.


  2. lane says:

    “listen, i can’t talk now, i’m on the phone.” . . . !

    Norman Lear was amazing.

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I netflixed a disc of it, curious because of mentions in (I think) Tales of the City and because I’m curious about what kind of things people watched when I was an oblivious kid. I found it…strangely, powerfully alienating. I understand people got high and watched it and laughed and laughed, but I just found its aesthetic ungraspable.

  4. AWB says:

    I recently watched many hours of Peyton Place and I’m fairly sure that’s a large part of what’s being mocked here. PP is amazing, but also has this same weirdly affectless style–whether the problem at hand is a huge deal or is totally minor, the characters react the same way, either blank-faced or with Lynchian open-mouthed horror, or a combination of the two. That was meant to be quite a bit more earnest, of course.

    I have in the past been a big fan of traditional soap operas. I don’t have much time to watch them now, which is sad to me especially with the demise of All My Children (my favorite) and One Life to Live coming soon.

    But Mary Hartman, Jesus. Yes, the old-woman/little-girl thing is super-weird, but very recognizable as a part of American 20c femininity. In going straight from your father’s to your husband’s house, responsible for the household upkeep but with no agency, lest you make your husband feel like less of a man–that is my nightmare.

  5. lane says:

    but I just found its aesthetic ungraspable

    with Lynchian open-mouthed horror, or a combination of the two.

    It grew out of this tiny little avant-garde notion of “Pictures” first shown at Artist’s Space in about 1977. Well, It didn’t grow OUT of that, but it emerged concurrently with that.

    It is this flat affectless style that is seen in the work of Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, the two major artists from “The Pictures Generation” It’s all very very major “Po-Mo” (David Letterman, David Byrne and David Lynch – the temple of the three David’s)

    I think that it was brought into being by the same guy that gave us All In the Family, and The Jefferson’s just speaks to Lear’s brilliance. It’s such a tiny little slice of American culture, that “knowing” “appropriationist” approach. Lear really couldn’t have known about it himself. I’m sure it was brought to him by a knowing lower-manhattan hypster, but he had the pull to get it done. And let the chips fall.

    Obviously it didn’t play well in Middle America. But then again, neither did the Talking Heads… at first.

  6. AWB says:

    Passions was, of course, a fantastic mockery/indulgence of soap opera conventions. By adding a malicious witch and the possibility of magic and constant soliloquys and expositional dialogue. Here’s a typical clip (this from the finale). It’s a bizarre mixture of totally earnest and completely bonkers. It was always very difficult for me to determine if we were supposed to be reacting to the drama or laughing at it, or both. “But if Ethan is seduced by the succubus, we’ll never be a normal couple again! I’ve got to stop her!” Etc.

    On the other hand, it a soap opera that was fully self-aware about the ways that people watch soap operas. SO audiences are sort of like wrestling audiences. They enjoy getting caught up in drama that is of course ridiculous and unrealistic, but also treasuring the fact that they know how the whole thing works.

    When I first started watching AMC, I was working in an office with a bunch of women who took their lunch break then so we could watch it together. I, a n00b, kept saying things like, “No, I really think that Leo loves Laura! She’s dying and it’s tragic that they’ll never be able to consummate their marriage!” And the other women would laugh at me. “You don’t know anything. Leo loves Greenlee and always will go back to her. Laura’s going to ‘miraculously’ recover and he’ll figure out that he could never be with someone like her.” And lo. They were right.

  7. lane says:

    yeah, it’s that weird aspect of the po-mo, about being aware that you are caught in the trap of the singer and the song.

    I think it’s interesting that the wiki on MH MH points out that the producers felt “everything on a soap opera is said twice” . . . again so knowing and strange.

    I feel Gertrude Stein coming on… again, and again!

  8. lane says:

    “sluttistan”! … “half of his LIVER!” Passions is pretty great.

  9. J-Man says:

    Oddly, I never got into other soap operas – I was always conciously separating myself from what I thought was low art. I remember when everyone was talking about Luke and Laura and I couldn’t have cared less. But on more than one occasion, upon overhearing my stepsisters talk about the latest extreme plot development, I would respond with shock: oh my god, who is that?! They would answer, “oh, it’s just General Hospital”. I would feel like such an idiot.
    But Lane and AWB, I think you’re both right that soaps are such a highly stylized art form, with so many levels of irony and ridiculousness that they can be viewed as being much more complex than they seem.

  10. LP says:

    “What kind of a madman would shoot two goats and eight chickens?… and the people, of course… the people.”

    Wow! I had never watched this before, but it’s kind of brilliant. Spookily brilliant. I’m sure I would have hated it if I had watched it as a child.

    RB informs me that she bought the MH MH DVD to watch as she recovered from gum surgery a few years back. She advises that it’s particularly disturbing viewing when you’re taking vicodin and in pain.

  11. Rachel says:

    Louise Lasser has always sort of given me the creeps, and now I know why.

    On Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Spike and Buffy’s mom, Joyce, hung out in Spike’s crypt and bonded over a mutual love of Passions. Great stuff.

  12. Rachel says:

    Also, while watching that MH, MH clip, I was spookily reminded of Skyler White and her sister on Breaking Bad. One could say that soap operas have, um, changed.

  13. J-Man says:

    “RB informs me that she bought the MH MH DVD to watch as she recovered from gum surgery a few years back. She advises that it’s particularly disturbing viewing when you’re taking vicodin and in pain.”

    Yikes! That’s like overdosing on weird dreams!

  14. PB says:

    Rachel, I love that you quote Buffy. An excellent example of dumb-blond-ness turned on its head and reinvented in several characters – Glory is a true feminist goddess. I can have evil power AND pretty shoes.