(DVD/YouTube) A breakout daily satirical soap conceptualized by Norman Lear, but shaped by Gail Parent, Ann Marcus and Joan Darling, focused around a severely dysfunctional family and their titular wife, Mary Hartman (played by Louise Lasser), whose life of constant stress and anxiety and insecurity builds to a crescendo of a nervous breakdown. It’s a severely intelligent, often hilarious, self-critical melodrama about domesticity, consumer culture, American media & existentialism that’s just as relevant now as it was when this was first broadcast.
The show nailed its tone out of the gate, as you can see with the infamous ‘Waxy Yellow Buildup’ series opener:
(I really wish SHOUT! featured a longer clip, as the first half of the premiere is amazing. The show quickly picked up its pace, but kept its oft-putting, absurd sensibility, well before it was fashionable.)
It’s worth noting that MARY HARTMAN was a full-blown phenomenon, at least for its first year. If you’ve read the first TALES OF THE CITY (1978), you know that characters planned their days around the broadcast. Lasser was brought onto SNL to do a Mary Hartman bit, which allegedly resulted in her being banned from the show for erratic behavior.
The show was too smart, burned through too much plot, was too emotionally grueling and controversial to have any proper longevity, and it wrapped when Lasser bowed out at the end of the second season which, doesn’t sound like much, but those two seasons consisted of 325 half-hour episodes over the period of under two years.
If you’d like to read more about it (instead of watching all 325 episodes like I have), here are two great places to start:
In typical Lear fashion, a spin-off was born based on one of the odder characters, Barth Gimble, as FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT, and then reborn as FERNWOOD FOREVER, both tongue-in-cheek takes on local late night programming which are probably better remembered today than MARY HARTMAN is.