DVD Review: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (The Complete Series)

Norman Lear was riding a major hot streak in the ’70s with All In the Family, Maude and Good Times when he developed a show that altered the formula for his success. He devised a spoof of a soap opera that would air five nights a week. Naturally the networks passed on the concept since none of the big three were eager to offer up that much airtime. Instead of giving up, Lear went the syndication route. This was an era of indie UHF channels eager for something to boost there viewership besides reruns of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Many stations got a pop when they aired Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman starting in January, 1976. The show became a cult sensation even if it aired after primetime. The series became the soap opera for people who didn’t watch soap operas. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series finally delivers the show that altered so much about the TV world.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman on the surface played by the rules audiences expected from a soap opera. The action takes place in a fictional town that seems like normal America. Fernwood is the city where the action takes place. While a soap opera has many characters, there’s always that one special person who is the focus of so much action. Mary Hartman (Louise Lasser) is naturally at the center of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She’s a housewife that finds herself constantly at the center of hurricanes thanks to her family and local residents. She could easily be a normal soap opera character except she looks a bit off with a hairstyle that includes massive bangs and huge pigtails. Also making the audience know that this isn’t a “real” soap opera is Mary’s desire to find calm in the promise of household products.

The first episode sets the right tone by creating plenty of jeopardy in Fernwood. There’s a Fernwood Flasher on the loose. But even this pervert gets overshadowed by the murder of the Lombardi family along with their goats and chickens. Mary seems distressed about the fact that the killer went after the animals along with the family. When Mary gets the news of the slaughter she fixates on the goats and chickens. She must remind herself that people also died. Later Mary gets the news that the Fernwood Flasher is someone she knows. Her marriage is on rather shaky ground. Her husband Tom (Greg Mullavey) is a bit of a cad who enjoys his high school glory while having an affair. Their daughter (Claudia Lamb) gets a bit of trauma from seeing the neighborhood massacre. Later she has to cope with her homelife. Mary’s mother (Dody Goodman) her unstable pillar. She has just the right touch for making Mary more nutty. The exciting couple in the series are the Haggars. Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) has Nashville dreams for her singing career. Her husband Charlie (Graham Jarvis) who only wants the best for wife. Although he’s a bit of a balding goofball. There’s also Mary’s sister (Debralee Scott) who can never have enough men in her life.

Because the show was set up on a syndication budget with five episodes produced a week, the pacing is rather on the slow side for modern viewers. They didn’t want to do too many shots per episode. Scenes take their time which reflected the way a soap opera played out. Plenty of current events get worked into the conversations so it’s almost like a Tonight Show monologue as she talks of the latest movie or headline. The show really pushed the envelope with the characters situation. The show did deal with plenty of taboo topics. There’s a shocking moment when one character discovers his wife is having a lesbian affair. Many of the storylines were pretty shocking for Bicentennial TV which appealed to the cult viewership.

The series did not come to an end because of protesters. The demands of the sitcom-soap opera became too much for Lasser. She quit the show after 325 episodes. The production gamely carried on for 130 episodes as Forever Fernwood, but the fans missed her iconic hair. The boxset just covers Mary Hartman’s time on the show. After the end of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, ABC greenlit Soap which only aired once a week as it attempted. In a sense Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman helped pave the way for the primetime soaps that dominated the ’80s and ’90s with Dallas, Dynasty and Melrose Place. Even as a spoof, Mary Hartman proved there were people wanted their stories after dinner. The show has had a rocky rerun history. TVLand barely aired it over a decade ago as part of a late night Kitschen block. Retro networks like Me-TV and Antenna don’t seem eager to air Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman on their schedule. Thankfully you no longer need to send emails to station programmers. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series allows fans and the curious a chance to truly experience the show.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The series was shot on standard definition video so the transfers aren’t quite as sharp. There’s an occasional tape glitch, but nothing too nasty.

Inside the Funhouse Mirror (29:40) has Norman Lear, Louise Lasser and Mary Kay Place explain how the show came together. Mary was working as an assistant to writers for Lear when she stepped in front of the cameras.

On the Verge of… (18:16) breaks down the nervous breakdown scene the shocked viewers in it’s length and depth.

10 Episodes of Fernwood 2 Nite (22:26 each) pioneered the cable access talkshows. This was an amazing fake talkshow hosted by Martin Mull and his sidekick Fred Willard. This show would air when Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was on a break. Martin is amazing as the delusional host whose set is made up of living room furniture and TV trays. What’s amazing is that they had their own orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol (the legendary TV theme composer).

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series is a joy for the cult TV viewer. The show pushed a lot of envelopes at once when it aired. It’s also nice to have 10 of the 65 Fernwood 2 Night episodes. This is a holiday event release.

Shout! Factory presents Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series. Starring: Louise Lasser, Greg Mullavey, Mary Kay Place, Graham Jarvis, Debralee Scott and Dody Goodman. Boxset Content: 325 episodes on 38 DVDs. Released: December 3, 2013.