'Mary Hartman,' a Show That Bears Repeating

Louise Lasser played Mary Hartman and Greg Mullavy her sexually unsatisfying husband, Tom, in the TV show
Louise Lasser played Mary Hartman and Greg Mullavy her sexually unsatisfying husband, Tom, in the TV show "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," reprised in a set of three DVDs. (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
By Curt Fields
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

"Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" premiered in January 1976 and promptly divided the nation into two camps: those who loved it and those who hated it. The show, an exaggerated soap opera parody, was too controversial for the three big broadcast networks (this was pre-Fox) to touch, so producer Norman Lear sold it into five-day-a-week first-run syndication, building what he called an "anti-network" of about 90 stations across the country.

With the release of the three-disc "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Volume 1" set ($29.95) on Tuesday, you can revisit the deliciously twisted and often groundbreaking world of the show and see such love-hate-prompting scenes as when, in the first episode, Mary hears of a mass murder from her neighbor Loretta, who tells her that someone has killed "the Lombardis, their three kids, two goats and eight chickens." A shocked Mary asks, "What kind of madman would kill two goats and eight chickens?"

There was also the show's embrace of topics not usually found on television, at least not without being shrouded in a cloud of euphemisms, topics such as impotence and masturbation. The show was also noted for its oddball deaths, such as impalement on an aluminum Christmas tree or a TV set falling into the tub. Perhaps most famous of all was when neighbor Leroy Fedders came down with the flu. Mary made him a huge bowl of chicken soup, and while she chatted away with his wife, Leroy -- on a mix of Seconal and Jack Daniels -- slumped over facedown into his bowl and drowned.

Louise Lasser played the title character, who lived in Fernwood, Ohio, and struggled valiantly to cope with her sullen daughter, eccentric parents, outspoken sister and sexually unsatisfying husband. Oh, and, perhaps most troubling to her, a waxy yellow buildup on her kitchen floor.

The rest of the cast included Greg Mullavy as her husband, Tom; Dody Goodman as her mother; Mary Kay Place as Mary's best friend and aspiring country music star Loretta Haggers; and Graham Jarvis, Debralee Scott, Renee Taylor, Reva Rose, Martin Mull, Dabney Coleman and Doris Roberts.

Within weeks it was the talk of TV. It made the March 25, 1976, cover of Rolling Stone and followed that with cover appearances on Ms. and Newsweek in May and People in July. It was used in college courses and as the basis for sermons.

There was a backlash as well. In Richmond, public response forced it off the air after only six episodes. General Foods, Colgate-Palmolive, Campbell Soup and several other major corporations have refused to let their commercials run on daytime airings of the show. (Many stations aired it late, after the local news.)

The production schedule for the show took a toll on Lasser, who left in 1977. After her departure it was rechristened "Forever Fernwood" and followed the ups and downs of her family and friends. It also spawned the spinoffs "Fernwood 2Night" and "America 2Night." (And while not a direct spinoff, the similarly themed "Soap" debuted in 1977, although it took more of a straight-ahead sitcom approach.)

Fans of the show will no doubt welcome this release, as the series has not been widely available for viewing since its demise. Still, they may be disappointed by a lack of bonus features. Perhaps those will be developed for an inevitable special edition a few years from now. In the meantime, the kitschy world of Fernwood and Mary Hartman is loaded with enough texture to keep most satisfied.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company