Bert Archer

The Unparalleled Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman


Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: S01Ep.130” (1976-77)

This is a long clip, so I won’t keep you. But watch it all, because like Bill Viola’s “The Greeting” (not available online at its full ten-minute length, which is the whole point) or minimalist film-makers like Andy Warhol (“Blow Job” or “Haircut #2“) or late Derek Jarman (“Blue,” say), writers Jerry Adelman, Daniel Gregory Browne and Ann Marcus make the extent of this scene, in the last episode of the “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” series’ first season in 1976, as important as its content. The acting by the experts is a little off, or I would think it was if I didn’t also think that this probably unintentional shortcoming adds to the nightmarish quality of the scene.

This show ran for 325 episodes, mostly five nights a week, I think. That’s the same number of episodes a regular network show would make in a 14-year run. The general comedically poignant approach to the series – an oblique take on the soap opera – will seem familiar to anyone who’s read Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series. Except the executive producer, Norman Lear, and that team of writers took this as seriously as similar teams took Lear’s “All in the Family:” Well balanced, tightly scripted with a laser focus on very specific, very timely, very sensitive issues.

You can see how different it could have been by watching any given episode of “Soap,” written and produced by another Lear collaborator, Susan Harris, who started with a couple of the early episodes of “All in the Family,” went on to write the abortion episode for “Maude”, before spinning off into Lear-light land with “Soap” and, ultimately, “The Golden Girls.”

But enough of that. Watch the clip, and try to come up with another TV series performance that can match this one. Once you’ve failed at that, try to think of another show that could have accommodated a scene like this. Once you’ve failed again, devote a moment or two to thinking about the sort of mostly untapped potential serial television still has after all these millions of hours.

- Bert Archer

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/mary-gaitskill/ Mary Gaitskill

    I don’t know about a series performance that could match this one, or another show that might have a similar scene, or the untapped potential of tv (I think The Wire is pretty incredible, but somehow seems to belong to another universe); what strikes me is how little things have changed. I am old enough to remember Mary Hartmann, but didn’t watch it, thought it was weird. But watching this now, it strikes me as entirely current; with a few stylistic changes it could be taking place now. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it doesn’t matter. But it seems very weird, I thought things had changed more culturally.

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Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the author of "The End of Gay" (and the death of heterosexuality). More Bert Archer here.