SOAP (ABC, 1977-1980)

(fubu/tubi/Vudu) Following in the footsteps of MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN was this gonzo satire of soap operas created by Susan Harris (an already established writer from LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE, and who would go one to create THE GOLDEN GIRLS). Difference was, this was explicitly comedic, and weekly. The cast was stacked: Katherine Helmond, Richard Mulligan, Robert Guillaume, a young Billy Crystal (a rare recurring gay character*), and more.

Far more screwball than practically anything else on the air at the time, the show aimed for laughs but still pushed the envelope far more than they needed to, and they pulled in loads of eyeballs! That’s why it was so shocking that, at the end of the third season, which features a jaw-dropping cliffhanger, the show was cancelled.

That didn’t stop ABC from producing spin-offs, though. If you’re a child of the 80s, you probably never realized that BENSON was born from SOAP.

If you’re a fan of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, you owe yourself to trace your television heritage back and watch this. (Mitch Hurwitz cut his teeth on GOLDEN GIRLS, and no doubt, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT would not exist if it weren’t for SOAP.) It was well-ahead of its time, and it’s a crime that it’s mostly forgotten.

  • It’s worth noting that MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN had one of the first gay storylines on TV, but it didn’t last that long, whereas Crystal’s character did. Whether Crystal’s performance was a good thing is another question all together.


(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.