This whole “TV binge-watching” craze is admittedly something I can really relate to. When I’m into a particular show, I’ll just gorge myself on it, but then again, I’ve pretty much been that way with nearly everything (movies, music, books, drugs, etc). Luckily my wife is a definite binge-watcher herself and chews through stuff on Netflix at twice the rate I do, so we’re agreed and in sync on this approach and yes, we went through Arrested Development, Orange is the New Black and House of Cards in record time.
In what can only be seen as a “THERE IS A GOD!” moment in our particular household, Shout Factory have announced that the entire run of Norman Lear’s ground-breaking, taboo-busting 1976 soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman—all 455 episodes!!!—will be coming out on an epic 38 DVD box set in December. To me this is the best news since like… I don’t know when. Since… never!
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is a binge-watching gold mine. At 455 episodes, it’s the thing you can always fall back on when there’s “nothing else” to watch. Or maybe you’d like to space it out—savor it—for a year or so?
For those of you too young to know much about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman it was a absurdist cult TV hit that centered around the family of the titular character (played by the former Mrs. Woody Allen, the incredibly brilliant Louise Lasser) and her friends and fellow citizens of Fernwood, Ohio.
I’d read in the TV Guide that MH2 was supposed to be “racy” so I tuned in hoping to see “racy” stuff (that was my sole motivation, I can assure you) and I got hooked on it, aged ten. The show aired from January 1976 to May 1977, when Louise Lasser left and it was retitled Forever Fernwood, lasting just a few more months without her.
MH2 aired in most (but not all) syndication markets after 11pm and was primarily known for being controversial. MH2 took the daily soap opera format and subverted it into something truly original, dangerous and unique. ABC’s outrageous Soap sitcom, which premiered the same year, was its closest contemporary and both shows were known for pushing the boundaries of what could be done on television for laughs (Mary’s grandfather is the town flasher, her daughter witnesses a grisly mass murder involving farm animals, her husband is impotent, a child character gets gruesomely killed and so forth).
Fans of this unique show have waited for this news for a helluva long time. In 2003, when I was the part owner of a DVD company, I called Norman Lear’s office myself to see who owned the rights to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Fernwood 2Night and America 2Night (the latter two titles being the parody talkshow summer spin-off starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard, more on them here) because I wanted to put them out. I was told at the time that they didn’t even know.
Finally in 2007, Sony put out a box set of the first six weeks of MH2, which I ate up, but a mere twenty-five shows out of 455—like regular soaps Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ran five days a week—was ultimately annoying and frustrating. That it’s taken until 2013 for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to properly “return” just in time for the binge-watching generation to discover it, I honestly think seems like fortuitous timing (much the way that a cult classic like The Telephone Book and Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger’s films benefitted from their long absences from easily accessed viewing).
I think—no, I predict—that there’s going to be a mini-craze for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman when it reaches Netflix. For a program that was made when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, it has aged remarkably well, a testament to just how FAR OUT the show was during its era. Comedy tends to age poorly: early Saturday Night Live seems merely quaint outside of Bill Murray and Michael O’Donoghue’s contributions, but its contemporary, kindred-spirit-in-outrageousness, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is as fresh as when it first aired. It’s strangely timeless and still brilliantly funny.
This is the very first episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. It’s a minor masterpiece of television comedy and introduces most of the main characters:
In this, one of the best bits ever, Mary Kay Place as Mary’s best friend, country music singer “Loretta Haggers” performs her hit song “Baby Boy” on Dinah Shore’s TV talkshow and makes a career-ending anti-Semitic comment. If you don’t think Mary Kay Place is a comedic genius after you watch this clip, I just can’t help you…
Mary has a nervous breakdown live on The David Susskind Show. Norman Lear has remarked that this scene may contain the single best performance in the history of television:
Child evangelist Rev Jimmy Joe Jeeter meets his maker:
Thank you Bryin Dall of New York City!