Monday, August 12, 2013
Land of the Lost TV Series #6: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
When I learned that some kind hearted soul had uploaded several episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to YouTube, I knew that it was my duty as a retro blogger to finally check out for myself what this show was all about. Much love has been spilled for the Norman Lear-produced series on other retro blogs, so I'll be careful not to overlap too much what's been written about it already. Let me start by saying that my honest impression five minutes into the very first episode is that I thought it was bad--a show full of bad acting, bad dialogue and bad jokes. By the end of the 22 minute running time, I thought it was brilliant. Sixteen episodes in (a mere fraction of the 400+ episodes that were filmed) I am definitely hooked on Mary's whacky and wonderful world.
The series was--to use a very cliche and overused term--groundbreaking. When it debuted in 1976, nothing like it had aired on television before, and little else has since (one exception is Twin Peaks, which the show has been compared to.) I'm sure that the people behind Desperate Housewives would like to think that their depiction of suburban life was edgy, but it doesn't even come close to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. What I'm about to say isn't original (I believe it's in Amazon.com's description of the series) but Mary Hartman was the ultimate desperate housewife.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is a soap opera parody, which we gander right away during the opening credits as the lead character's name is caterwauled twice (by the actress playing Mary's mother) over melodramatic music. Norman Lear felt that soap opera dialogue was often repeated. There's so much twisted HUMOR in this series--I like to think that the omission of a laugh track was simply because the it didn't need one. To give you a better idea of the show's unsettling aura, in one episode a school sports coach, drowsy from cold medicine, accidentally drowns in Mary's chicken soup. Other characters met their demise in equally bizarre ways.
Mary Hartman, as depicted by Louise Lasser, is--of course--the show's leading character. With her collared pale blue minidresses and pigtails she reminds me of Dorothy, and the suburban town of Fernwood and its eccentric citizens are definitely her Oz. Or, she could be Alice in Wonderland. Surrounding her domestic world is:
Tom Hartman (Greg Mullavey) - Mary's cad of a husband who refuses to have sex with her.
Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) - Mary's big-haired best friend and neighbor, who has dreams of making it big in Nashville as a country-western star (but is playing at the local bowling alley in the meantime...in the cutest, sparkly 70s costumes you can imagine every country western singer wore back then.)
Charlie Haggers (Graham Jarvis) - Loretta's rather physically unattractive husband and Tom's best friend.
Cathy Shumway (Debralee Scott) Mary's single kid sister, who has a new boyfriend every week.
Mrs. Martha Shumway (Dody Goodman) - Mary's quirky mother, who likes to talk to her plants.
Heather Hartman (Claudia Lamb) Tom and Mary's ornery pre-teen daughter, who seems to have a sugar addiction and who witnessed the mass murder of the Hartman's neighbors.
The first episode introduces us to all of them, but Charlie and Loretta Haggers are the most memorable to me. With apologies to the Jarvis family, Graham Jarvis is easily one of the most unattractive men to ever grace a TV screen. What's even worse than his egg shaped balding dome is his body. About fifteen minutes into the first episode, our eyeballs are subjected to Charlie Haggers sans shirt--a sight that is not for the faint of heart. His nipples actually point downward, his skin looks as saggy as a deflated balloon, and his pale, completely muscleless body is covered with a LOT of hair in all the wrong places. Bleeecccccchh! I can only imagine that my reaction was also the sentiments of TV audiences across the country when it aired. Charlie is supposed to be 43 years old and older than Loretta, yet they have the steamiest sex life of all the characters on the show (Charlie tells Mary's husband, Tom, that they get it on 5 or 6 times a week.) At first, I found their frequent on-screen affection to be quite disturbing and icky. But by the 9th episode, the Haggers had really grown on me, and Charlie in particular proves himself to be a good guy, and definitely in Mary's corner during a crisis in her marriage. I kept waiting for Loretta to reveal ulterior motives by marrying Charlie, but they truly support and love one another. (However, I could do without hearing Loretta constantly refer to Charlie as "Baby Boy", her pet name for him. Capitalizing on the show's popularity, Mary Kay Place put out an album under her character's name and one of the tracks, "Baby Boy", actually became a novelty hit.)
The Haggers' marriage is in starch contrast to Tom and Mary Hartman's relationship. Tom is the biggest tool on the show. He runs hot and cold with Mary, refusing to give her sex and berating her for trying to initiate it, saying that she shouldn't do anything and then telling her that she's not doing anything "the right way." Hoping to put the spark back in their relationship, a frustrated Mary takes out sex tip books from the library, which Charlie discovers, infuriating Tom who then blames Mary for embarrassing him. Tom acts like a child and his wardrobe reflects it--his Star Trek inspired PJs (not in the above screenshot, however) and matching bi-color jacket and baseball cap look like something a 3rd grader would wear.
Because he is such an asshat, Tom has an affair with a woman from the plant, a tall married hussy named Mae who clearly has been around the block too many times, and quite possibly with some of her male coworkers. None of the actors on this show were what you would call good looking (although some male fans do have a thing for Louise Lasser) and in some cases, don't even pass for average. As Mae, Salome Jens is an interesting choice because she is obviously a bit older than Tom--this coming during a decade when a woman over 40 was considered old and washed up and you almost never saw them in bedroom scenes, never mind with a younger man. But sweet karma is served as Tom catches a STD from Mae.
Needless to say, Mary has her hands full--with her pervy grandfather aka "The Fernwood Flasher", who is arrested for exposing his crotch to an elementary school cafeteria lady, her cheating douchebag of a husband, and bratty daughter who witnessed a mass murderer that wiped out a family (and their chickens and goat) in the Hartman's neighborhood and who is subsequently kidnapped by the murderer. All that plus a concern that her kitchen floor has waxy yellow buildup.
What I love best about this show is that in true soap fashion, you never know what to expect. The series addressed so many taboo subjects of the time: sex, masturbation, indecent exposure, etc. that it was often shown late at night, sometimes as late as 11 PM. Just like daytime soap operas, it aired Monday through Friday with continuing storylines.
And the writing on this show was second to none. One of the best lines I've ever heard that was written for television comes from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. It's in the scene below where Loretta, suffering from amnesia, is kidnapped by Harry Dean Stanton. His friend sizes Loretta up and says, "You put a diamond on a slut, it'll turn into a rhinestone ." Then the same character launches into a dialogue about sluts. I'm telling you, Tarantino couldn't have written it better. Come to think of it, dude looks like he belongs in a Tarantino film. (Warning: the following clip contains some strong language by 1970s television standards.)
Another reason to love Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is the gaudy sets. It's as if the Fingerhut catalog showcased rooms in the 70s a la IKEA: we're talking quintessential tackiness of the decade.
Spolier alert: for reasons still unknown to me as of this posting, Louise Lasser left the show after only one season. During season one, the writers gave poor Mary a nervous breakdown while being interviewed on live TV (a moment that you can find on YouTube) and she ended up in a psychiatric asylum which was a bit of a vacation for her. When she returned, she eventually left Tom and ran off with Sgt. Dennis Foley, a police officer who clearly has a thing for her from the show's get-go. After Lasser's departure, the series became rebranded as Forever Fernwood. The rest of the cast stayed on and Shelley Fabares joined the show as Tom's love interest after Mary leaves. Forever Fernwood lasted for 130 episodes and was then replaced with a talk show parody called Fernwood 2-Night, which later became America 2-Night. Are you confused yet?
It's downright criminal that the remaining episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman may never see the light of day. Perhaps us retro bloggers should band together and petition the distributor for a full release?
Also, as if the show wasn't cool enough, Sammy Davis Jr. recorded a groovy ode to Mary that incorporates the opening theme--found on his LP "The Song and Dance Man."
One final thought: I'm seriously tempted to dress up like Mary for Halloween. Then when people ask me who I am, I'll have the pleasure of shouting, "Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!"