Of all the groundbreaking shows Norman Lear developed during the 1970s, none were stranger or more gradually rewarding than the comically abstruse Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (in addition to its batshit spin-off variety show Fernwood 2Nite). MHMH was a daily mock soap starring Woody Allen’s then-wife Louise Lasser as the title character (whose name is always said twice because, so the show’s creators noted, everybody says everything twice in soap operas). Mary Hartman goes through her life as a housewife in Fernwood, Ohio as though she just received a great, walloping donkey punch the night before. At the series’s open, though, her character would probably count herself lucky to get clocked on the back of the head while getting taken from the rear. Instead, she can’t seem to get her husband Tom to tend to her marital needs. Either she wants it too much or too little, and thus she’s left tending to an engorged set of…um, blue ovaries? She attempts to cope by scoping out waxy yellow buildup on her kitchen linoleum and trying to figure out just why she seems unable to brew a decent pot of coffee, all the while trying to keep Grandpa from flashing children in the playground and protect her daughter from the next-door mass murderer who gunned down a family of five, two goats, and eight chickens.
Playing like a simultaneously mundane and demented combination of Proctor & Gamble masterpiece theater and trendsetting deadpan snark filtered through a cracked interpretation of The Feminine Mystique, MHMH is a marvel of deliberately amateur affectations and blindsiding camp. It’s probably about as close as network television ever got to the work of Paul Morrissey. (Well, almost. Its presentation of overtly controversial material was so brazen and irreverent that it was forced to exist on syndication, appearing in late-night time slots on the affiliates willing to air it in the first place.) Like Little Joe Dallesandro anchoring Morrissey’s best films, Lasser’s rendition of a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown seems to function as a test case for placing, as a central character, not just a blank slate, but an authentic black hole. Dallesandro’s idea of a straight man was more like a social flatline, and Lasser’s Mary Hartman floats through her daily trials and tribulations either slack-jawed or with a vacuous death-grin affixed to her pigtail-flanked face, like Edith Bunker on Quaaludes.
Both Dallesandro and Lasser come up against a barnyard revue of quirky types, none of whom seem capable of fazing them. MHMH has Mary Kay Place as an aspiring country singer-songwriter, who constantly swipes episodes from Mary’s life to use as lyrics, Dody Goodman as Mary’s motormouthed mother who, when accused of thinking Mary’s sister was the prettier one, barks “I do not, you both have equal problems in that area” (in one episode, Mary answers the phone with the salutation “Mom, I can’t talk right now”), and a cameo by Ed Begley Jr. as a deaf-mute who is the only one not to duck and cover when the town mass murderer fires shots into the air. The show’s direction was as deliberately shitty as its writing was unexpectedly sharp. (When a neighbor runs a finger across Goodman’s stove to check for dust, she flatly intones, “You ought to be horsewhipped.”) But the show belongs to Lasser, and its episodes are as alternately hysterical and inscrutable as her tragically inadequate role as the family matriarch.
With its five-days-a-week schedule, MHMH was shot on the fly and looks it. The shows haven't been well preserved, but the flat, oversaturated TV colors work well with the material. Sound is legible but negligible. That said, you won't be able to get Dody Goodman's voice out of your head for days after watching even a single episode.
There are fewer extras on this set than there are nights where Mary Hartman successfully gets nookie from her husband.
The biggest problem isn't waxy yellow buildup. It's that this release only represents about a month's worth of shows and I'm hooked all over again.