Sony // 1976 // 563 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Cynthia Boris (Retired) // March 28th, 2007
"Does that look like waxy yellow buildup to you?"
Mass murder, venereal disease, infidelity, religious cults, UFOs, a neighborhood flasher, a body guard, a country western singer, three factory workers, one dingy mother, two goats, and eight chickens. No, it's not some twisted version of the "Twelve Days of Christmas," it's the most twisted, satirical soap opera ever made: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: Volume 1.
Mary Hartman (Louise Lasser) is a typical suburban housewife of the seventies with her pigtails, buckteeth, and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" wardrobe. Like many housewives, she longs for something more in life. She wishes for a better sex life with husband Tom (Greg Mullavy), a closer relationship with her teenage daughter, Heather (who may be involved in the murders of the family down the street). And more than anything, she wishes she could get the waxy yellow build up off of her kitchen floor.
Mary's best friend, Loretta (Mary Kay Place) is on her way to becoming a country music superstar, especially now that she's got a real mass-murder to sing about. Her devoted husband, Charlie (Graham Jarvis), will do anything to make it happen.
Mary's extended family consists of a dotty mother (Dody Goodman, Grease); a long-suffering father (the most normal character in the whole show); a trampy, slacker sister (Debralee Scott); and a grandfather who likes to flash the elementary school lunch ladies.
Week after week, Mary deals with the problems and issues of modern life, from venereal diseases to infidelity, to mass murder and religious cults. It's just another typical day in the typical town of Fernwood, USA.
Actually, there's nothing typical about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Conceived as a parody of soap operas, and using many of the same plot lines, the series was considered too racy for primetime TV and was mostly shown after the local late night news. I began watching the series on Channel 48 out of Philadelphia because it came on right before Dark Shadows. I was quickly pulled in to the odd humor and quirky plot, but watching it now on DVD, I'd say this series is showing its age.
In 1976, when the series first aired, it was groundbreaking and it pushed the envelope of what was allowed on TV. But times have changed. Better parodies have come along (Soap for example) and as a result Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman isn't as titillating as it used to be.
The show is filmed in that flat, videotape style indicative of early soaps. There's an incredible amount of repetition, which again is a throwback to soaps and their tendency to repeat important information in order to keep audiences up to speed. In addition to the scripted repetition, each episode comes with a very lengthy promo for the next episode (this is a nightmare if you watch several episodes back to back). Keep the DVD remote handy because you'll want to fast forward through the recaps and credits.
On the upside, there's a really great cast of players here. The irony is, they're all playing at being bad actors in keeping with the style of the show. Mary Kay Place and Graham Jarvis are both real scene-stealers. There's something creepy cool about Bruce Solomon's Officer Foley. You probably won't know their names, but you'll recognize many of the denizens of Fernwood including Reva Rose, Salome Jens, Michael Lembeck, Severn Darden, and in a later season, even Battlestar Galactica's Richard Hatch comes to call.
Of course, the majority of the series lies squarely on the shoulders of Louise Lasser with her "nobody's home" deadpan delivery, nasally whine, and constant teeth rubbing. The former Mrs. Woody Allen delivers comedy in much the same style as her famous ex, and it's frankly quite depressing. Yes, that would be the word I would use to describe the overall experience of watching this groundbreaking satire: depressing. It's slow, maudlin, nonsensical, and even idiotic at times. It's exactly what it's supposed to be, but I no longer find it funny.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was better on TV than it is on DVD. The constant repetition of plot points and recaps makes watching multiple episodes an aggravating experience. On the other hand, if you're a fan of sitcoms or soaps, you'll probably get a kick out of this experiment in satire. You certainly have to give them all credit for turning out a product that was so completely different from anything else on TV at the time.
This court finds Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman guilty and sentences the entire cast and crew to a 563 minutes of community service which includes removing the waxy yellow buildup from the hallowed hallways of DVD Verdict.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 563 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated