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'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' cast
"Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" made issues that were getting open but oh-so-serious treatment on the rest of series TV -- impotence, gayness, adultery -- a little less sober and untouchable. (The Boston Globe)

The original desperate housewife

'Mary Hartman' is having a breakdown all over again on DVD, reminding us why she's one of TV's classic heroines

She was pale and drawn, but she optimistically applied her rouge to resemble a cheerful Raggedy Ann doll. Every morning, she hoped her braided pigtails and happily colored pinafores would make her day a little brighter, despite a world of serial killers, cheating husbands, tragic car crashes, V.D., and hateful children. With just the right floor wax and coffee brand, she knew she stood a chance against the madness.

Friends, it's time to bow down to Mary Hartman, housewife, heroine, and TV pioneer. With the March 27 release of the first 25 episodes of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" for the first time on DVD, Mary and her 1976 series are reemerging in the marketplace as if to remind us of their overlooked importance in TV history.

Because indeed, we have forgotten how essential producer Norman Lear's "soap opera" -- yes, with quotes -- has proven to be since it first appeared during the rah-rah of America's bicentennial. "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" ushered in the kind of series-TV social satire that now runs amok on the likes of "Desperate Housewives" and "The Sarah Silverman Program," on which a woman's search for happiness ends in a narcissistic bliss bubble.

Long before Martha Stewart turned Bree Van De Kamp of Wisteria Lane into a fierce homemaker armed with homemade potpourri, Mary Hartman of Fernwood was fighting off reality with a bright plastic container of toilet bowl cleanser. She was the original desperate housewife. Her grandfather may have been the "Fernwood Flasher," her daughter may have been a sulky brat, and her husband may have been an ex-jock who was impotent with her, but Mary would focus on her salad, as well as on her percolator, her garbage disposal, and her automatic can opener.

Any post-'70s show that traffics in demented humor ("Strangers With Candy"), women's roles in the home ("Roseanne"), the failed idealism of 1950s suburbia ("Weeds"), or camp and self-conscious melodrama ("Dynasty," "The O.C.") owes a small debt to "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." With no model to imitate, Lear translated the cool pop irony of Roy Lichtenstein's comic-strip panels , Andy Warhol's product worship, and John Waters's deranged fantasies into an extended TV narrative.

And extended is the word. Lear, with a team that included soap writer Ann Marcus and director Gail Parent, directed his humor at the most drawn-out and air-filled of TV formats, the soap. Mary Hartman's issues -- how consumer culture can hammer us into passivity, how a loveless marriage can drive even a good girl to adultery -- were too all-encompassing to be resolved at the end of every episode; they had to stretch on from day to day, without a climax, in the manner of "One Life to Live." When Louise Lasser quit "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" from exhaustion in 1977 after 18 months, an astounding 325 episodes had aired. The new DVD release is but a drop in the "MH{+2}" bucket.

Looking back over the iconic women of TV, cultural historians often forget sweet, clueless, victimized Mary Hartman, played with such stony spaciness by Lasser. But Mary Hartman is a critical presence on the list of prototypical female characters, a list that includes Laura Petrie, Ann Marie, Mary Richards, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal, Carrie Bradshaw, and Lear's Maude Findlay. (Coincidentally, the first season of "Maude" arrives on DVD on Tuesday.) Mary Hartman is the quintessential woman on the verge of either growing up or breaking down -- it was hard to say, until she did have a nervous breakdown while representing the American housewife on David Susskind's talk show at the end of the first season. (One of the show's many meta-jokes: the patients in Mary's psychiatric ward were chosen to be a Nielsen family.)

This Mary wasn't going to make it after all, as the promises of commercialism and domestic life failed her and left her in a stupor. She was the housewife who was being kept a child by America, despite her emerging needs. Mary was a well-behaved working-class wife and daughter; unlike Roseanne, she didn't have a voice. She had to try to find one, as her husband, Tom (Greg Mullavy ), struggled to keep her passive and unfulfilled. "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" appeared at a time when women's cultural rights were still under debate, and the oppressed Mary came across as a woman left behind. The likes of Maude and Mary Richards were succeeding in a new era, and giving way to Murphy Brown and Ally McBeal, who stood a chance of sexual, professional, and domestic satisfaction. Meanwhile, the Mary Hartmans of the working-class Fernwoods of America were not necessarily prevailing. They were having a hard time waking up.

Mary's humiliation and confusion were painful to see. But they were funny, too. "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" put the cringe in TV comedy long before Ricky Gervais and Larry David. Watching Mary repeatedly stand up for herself and get knocked down has the same sadistic-comic impact as watching Lisa Kudrow's Valerie Cherish get slapped around by Hollywood on "The Comeback."

Mary looked silly, with her rabbit teeth and her slow-motion reactions. She was like Alice in Wonderland, or Dorothy Gale, but by way of Baby Jane Hudson from "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane." At the same time, she was a dramatic character to be taken as seriously as any soap heroine who fends off disaster from her kitchen table. From the first hours of the series, you feel the sadness of Mary's detachment from her own life -- not in her cartoonish denial of the mass murderer in the neighborhood, who killed a family, a goat, and a few chickens, but in her depression. She was sympathetic even while she was pathetic and emotionally crippled. Decades later, the movie "American Beauty" looked into the same devastating suburban anti-utopia through an even darker lens.

Lear's approach was to avoid punch lines, and to flatly reject network requests for a live audience or laugh track, so that the show's ironic stance was not off-putting. His was not the more flip irony that David Letterman popularized in the 1980s, dripping with insincerity and winks. Viewers were able to feel for the poor losers of Fernwood, even while we were laughing at the enveloping crises and issues. Like the title, the show had two sides, "Mary Hartman" the spoof and "Mary Hartman" the tragedy. Mary's stiff expressions were deadpan, but they were also dismayed.

In this way, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" was one of the progenitors of what we now call dramedy, in which drama and comedy blend without a laugh track. The show wasn't a sitcom with "special" moments, like Lear's "All in the Family," or a more antic network comedy like "Soap"; nor was it heavy. It made issues that were getting open but oh-so-serious treatment on the rest of series TV (impotence, gayness, adultery) a little less sober and untouchable.

Anti-Semitism and Christian fundamentalism showed up, for instance, but through the show's dearest character, country singer Loretta Haggers, played with great humanity by Mary Kay Place. The first time we meet Loretta and her doting husband Charlie (Graham Jarvis), their love and passion are obvious, and Charlie underlines the fact when he tells the curious Tom about the great frequency of their love making. And so it was perfectly dramedic when the lovable and much-loved Loretta appeared on "The Dinah Shore Show" and innocently referred to all the nice Jews in Hollywood as "them that killed our Lord."

Sitting down with "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" at this time and distance isn't a breezy experience. Most daily soaps don't lend themselves to power-watching, as they move slowly through time and recap previous events over and over again. The turgid tone of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" is amusing and self-aware, particularly when the strings kick in on the soundtrack; but still, the action moves forward incrementally.

The pleasure of the new boxed set is in sampling the discs to find the many moments of brilliance, and discovering a tone that is surprisingly contemporary, despite the grainy video quality. As the world turns, waxy yellow buildup is forever.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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