For Mother’s Day, I did a list of some of the crazy mothers of TV — the ones, like Livia Soprano and Elizabeth Jennings, who don’t fit into the traditional maternal model. I was pleased, and surprised, when a number of readers geeked out on the fact that I included Mary Hartman on the list.
The heroine of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which ran from 1976 to 1977, is often forgotten in conversations about TV history. But she remains one of my favorite TV characters — so depressed and fragile, but also optimistic. Every day, worn down raising her sullen daughter in a neighborhood scarred by serial murder and venereal disease, she nonetheless hoped her braided pigtails and Raggedy Ann outfits would cheer her up. She was played indelibly by Louise Lasser, who made Mary’s stupor of detachment both pathetic and funny.
People not only tend to forget “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” they also tend to forget that it was created by Norman Lear, the guy behind “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” and so many other groundbreaking sitcoms. Lear gave us an all-round satire — in the guise of a soap opera — of American life in the moment after Watergate. Mary’s story was about how consumerism and advertising control us, with the promise of shiny floors with no waxy buildup.
It was about how American culture infantilizes women, in particular, trying to make them passive and remain in the home. While the likes of Mary Richards clearly were gonna make it after all, Mary Hartman’s independence was far less guaranteed.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.