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Category:    Home > Reviews > TV Situation Comedy > Satire > Soap Opera > Melodrama > Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – Volume One

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – Volume One


Picture: C     Sound: C+     Extras: D     Episodes: B+



For Norman Lear, All In The Family was such a watershed hit that besides the immortal spin-offs, it gave Lear and his great team a few rare chances to take even more risks.  In 1974, this meant two TV shows that were way ahead of their time and far ahead of any live-action TV sitcom today.  One was Hot L Baltimore, which only lasted one season and will hopefully arrive on DVD soon.  The other was offered to all three networks and they turned it down.  When Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman became a huge hit in syndication, all realized they made a very big mistake.


Louise Lasser, already known for her comic abilities from working with Woody Allen, played the title character.  Mary was a housewife who seemed to be continuing the prototype of the 1950s housewife, the kind pushed back into the kitchen by post-WWII propaganda.  At this point, like a Stepford Wife with a personality and soul, she is concerned about waxy build-up on her floor and her domestic life in general.  You know you are in for something different from the opening scene when she cannot believe what a saint the female lead on the soap opera she loves is so perfectly saintly and forgiving.


Unfortunately for her, this means that she too is agreeing to layers of dysfunctional misery that is ruining her life.  Fortunately for us, all this is about to very slowly unravel.  There is her unloving husband (Greg Mullavy), her relatives the Shumways (Debralee Scott as Cathy, Dody Goodman as Martha (now both known for their Match Game appearances as anything), Philip Bruns as George) and friend Loretta (Mary Kay Place) determined to become a Country & Western star in the best tradition of Robert Altman’s Nashville.


Like Altman’s classic, the show spoke of issues (impotence, indecent exposure and sexual oppression just for starters) that were banned from TV prior to Lear’s phenomenal run.  Another feature was absolutely no laugh track, which is one of the primary reasons the networks rejected it.  It also tackled social issues, personal ideas about religion, psychology and commercial consumerism you also would have never seen or heard about in a TV Sitcom before.  As the show grew, more actors would be added like a real soap opera as the show took many twists and turns.


The show was ironically self-reflective as it deconstructed formulas of restrictions of TV at the time that had grown obsolete and attacked them directly by sending up the melodrama from its faux Elmer Bernstein/Douglas Sirk music (by the great Earle Hagen) and visual motif going back to silent films that George Lucas has not used, the “iris out” motif.  Some audiences got it, some did not, but its downbeat realism could actually be seen as a new kind of convention that later surfaced in The Rockford Files and Hill Street Blues as a sort of new seriousness that eventually became the new boredom in TV.  In the early shows, however, it was much more kinetic.


And for Lear, he and his team once again came up with very thoroughly thought-out teleplays, brought together a terrific cast that had chemistry beyond question and helped to build the syndicated TV market.  Just as well, Lasser steals almost every scene she has, which is not easy considering the high caliber of talent in front of the camera with her.  Today, this might seem tamer than it was in its first years (1974 – 1975) and there is much that is still controversial, but the most important thing is that the show proved that a show consistently filled with subtly dark humor could be a hit.


The 1.33 X 1 image on all 25 episodes is a little softer than expected, despite the color being good and consistent.  Part of this might just be the taping circumstances, since the footage has no apparent damage to it and is very clean for its age.  The show has not seen TV enough, so there is no reason for the masters to be in bad shape and all the Lear productions seem to have been stored properly from the various DVD boxes we’ve seen to date.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is more like it, nice and clean for tapings of its age.  There are no extras, but this show deserves something like a documentary, commentaries and some vintage goodies.  They have to be somewhere.


If you have never seen Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it is real must see television for intelligent adults like they used to make all the time.  It is easily an unrecognized classic and if you don’t believe it, know that Susan Harris worked on this show before becoming a powerful producer in her own right with a show that dared to be as bold as this one: Soap.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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