Contemporary society arrived in the 1970s. Don’t let the big hair, bell bottoms, and disco music fool you into thinking otherwise. While much of the modern consumer tech hadn’t yet spread out of company labs and nerds’ garages, the social revolution of the 1960s had basically succeeded by 1970, and this by far was more significant than the state of consumer electronics. You can see it even in 70s TV sitcoms, particularly those of Norman Lear: All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, et al. That is not to say there are no differences between then and now. There are plenty. The revolution was still fresh four decades ago, and many folks were dazed by it. This, too, shows up in film, music, and TV from the era.
One night in 1976 I was channel-surfing, which was a much smaller wave to ride than it is today. I beached upon a new Norman Lear program. Unusually, this one didn’t air on a network in prime time. It was syndicated and in the New York market it played at 11:30 PM on WNEW. The show was Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. It sported a solid cast including Louise Lasser and Mary Kay Place. To call this show a spoof of soap operas is almost right – yet not quite right. The show didn't really aim for comedy though it often was funny. It had no laugh track. It stuck firmly to the soap opera conventions in its sets, camera shots, delivery, music, and 5 day per week schedule. But the scripts and dialogue were just…off. This confused station managers in some markets enough to air it daytime with the other soaps. Many viewers never really got it and I’m sure many wouldn’t today, but enough did to make the show a surprise hit.
Nowadays we are accustomed to broad comedies with over-the-top characters, bizarre plots, and often raunchy dialogue. Mary Hartman Mary Hartman is much more low-key than that, and never more so than when the plot goes in some weird direction. In the town of Fernwood, Ohio, Mary (Louise Lasser) discovers her grandfather is the Fernwood Flasher; her younger sister Cathy takes promiscuity to a new level; her daughter Heather is a witness in the slaying of five people (plus “two goats and eight chickens”); Mary herself becomes a hostage in a stand-off with police; meanwhile her aspiring country singer friend Loretta (Mary Kay Place) writes songs about the murders and the hostage ordeal. The actors play it completely deadpan. The characters are plainly confused about their places in a changed world. Mary’s husband Tom still wears his high school varsity jacket, since high school was the last time he knew his place and had high hopes. Mary is a housewife aware that the job description is increasingly out of step with the times. She speaks about the murders one moment and about the waxy yellow buildup on her kitchen floor the next. By not playing the situations for easy laughs, the show instills in viewers the creepy sensation that this is not just a soap opera world but our world. It isn’t all so rare to have an errant family member, a murder down the street, a local hostage situation, an identity crisis, or a waxy yellow build-up. We deal with such things with the same alternation of bewilderment and retreat into the mundane as Mary.
Last week, for the first time in decades, I watched a couple dozen episodes of the show which now is available on DVD. Before pressing “play,” I wasn’t sure if, after all these years, the soap would come across solely as a relic of its time or if it yet would be relevant to 2014. It is not just a relic. In oh-so-many ways, today is still 1976. I’m glad to have revisited Fernwood.