Norman Lear HARRY F. WATERS with MARTIN KASINDORF - Essay

HARRY F. WATERS with MARTIN KASINDORF

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Love it or loathe it, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" is the nation's latest pop-culture craze—a sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience. Norman Lear's comedy soap opera is the most talked-about new TV series since America was assaulted by his Archie Bunker. (p. 54)

Thematically, the serial is something of a mishmash, and even the show's creators seem at a loss to define exactly what they are trying to do…. Lear originally envisioned "MH2" as a kind of split-level soap. On one level, it would be a reductio ad absurdum of every soap-opera convention, including the inane commercials. But the show would also be human enough to make viewers care for its characters—just as they feel for the folks on "As the World Turns."

It was an audacious game plan, but one probably destined to miss as often as hit. At its best, "Mary Hartman" is a biting satire on our mass-consumer society and a wacky, surrealistic evocation of contemporary life. Unsure where the commercials on her TV leave off and her own life begins, with her psyche constantly flashing overload, Mary can never manage to get her priorities in order. (pp. 54-5)

Nonetheless, "MH2" does have its serious undercurrents. At times, the show's impact is as wrenchingly poignant as [John] Cassavetes's "A Woman Under the Influence." Mary is no deep thinker; her favorite gurus are Abigail Van Buren, Joyce Brothers and the Reader's Digest. Yet she is perceptive enough to sense that her life en famille is out of synch with her glossy expectations—the product of a lifetime's diet of junk food for thought….

The mirror that "Mary Hartman" holds up to our neuroses may come from a funhouse, but its reflections can be unnervingly sharp.

At its worst, however, the new hybrid inhabits a deadly dull vacuum between comedy and melodrama. Half the characters play out their gothic disasters fully in earnest while the rest of the cast clowns and mugs its way through the factory-town soap like high-school amateurs. As the show's satirical shots misfire—and they frequently do—perplexed viewers are returning Mary's perpetually blank stare. (p. 55)

Harry F. Waters with Martin Kasindorf, "The Mary Hartman Craze," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1976, pp. 54-63.