Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
When it premiered in 1976, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was one of television’s most peculiar experiments. Producer Norman Lear, flush and powerful with the success of All in the Family, wanted to do a five-nights-a-week soap opera/sitcom, and darned if it didn’t become a hit, making a star of Louise Lasser in the title role. As suburban housewife Mary Hartman, Lasser wore pigtails and a perpetually blank expression. The comedy was exaggeratedly deadpan — in the first 25 episodes, now out on an extras-free DVD set, Mary is taken hostage by a mass murderer, and her husband (the stolid Greg Mullavey) and best friend (a glowing Mary Kay Place as a would-be country star) barely acknowledge the danger. With no laugh track and soap-style slow story lines, these airless episodes seem to contain no humor at all — if anything, Mary Hartman is a precursor to that other monument to poker-faced absurdism: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The series remains a brilliant, daring idea, but seen now, with its cold, affectless approach to middle-American anomie, Mary is so despairing a TV show, it doesn’t wow you so much as it gives you the creeps.