The Most Audacious Soap Opera in History

Mary Hartman was mopping her kitchen floor, staring intently at the TV, when outside, sirens began to wail. Her neighbor Loretta barged through the door with terrible news: The family around the corner—along with their two pet goats and eight chickens—had been murdered. And that’s just the beginning of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, one of the most inventive and funny—yes, funny—television programs to grace the small screen.

The short-lived ’70s sitcom is remembered as a soap opera parody. But it was more than that: It was a sardonic take on modern life. The titular character, a sexually unfulfilled blue-collar suburban housewife from Fernwood, Ohio, played by Louise Lasser, is consumed by television, to the point of being numb to the world. She swallows advertising as wholesale truth, firmly believing TV commercials are there to improve her life. She’s so focused on finding the right homemaking products that when her neighbors are shot and killed, Mary is preoccupied instead with the “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floor.

The show is populated with equally peculiar characters—Mary’s mother talks to plants, while her grandfather is a serial flasher. Her neighbor Loretta is a God-obsessed country-western singer. And the storylines are typical soap opera tropes—adultery, murder, intrigue—dressed in oddball black humor: At one point, a high school basketball coach drowns in a bowl of chicken soup; an 8-year-old evangelist is electrocuted when a television wire falls into the bathtub. The line between funny and dark is cheerfully blurry.

And at a time when television was in practically every home, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was doing something revolutionary: It was using television to criticize the medium itself.

It had been decades since June Cleaver entrenched herself as the archetypal TV homemaker. But by Mary Hartman’s time, things were different from the black-and-white 1950s. The mid-’70s overlapped with feminism’s second wave. A decade earlier, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had spoken to just how unfulfilled many housewives were. Since then, the women’s rights movement had made topics like reproductive rights, violence against women, and workplace inequalities part of everyday conversation. By 1975, TIME would name “American Women” its People of the Year.

In Hollywood, women were slowly getting more screen time and more diverse. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, about an unmarried career woman, was groundbreaking. But the state of affairs behind the camera was less progressive; female directors and writers were just north of a novelty.

At the time, producer Norman Lear was enjoying a blessed decade, creating All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son, all of which scorched a path up the Nielsen ratings. Unlike the squeaky-clean sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s, these new comedies didn’t shy away from addressing social issues like race and class inequality.

Now Lear was percolating on a project that would acknowledge women’s changing place in society. He’d been stewing for years on an idea for a late-night Monday-through-Friday soap opera. “I wanted to do a show about a woman who had been affected by the media, whose mind was shattered by television, magazines, radio—especially television,” he told the Archive of American Television in a video interview. “And I wanted it to be wild.” He wrote down a few ideas, including kicking off the series with a mass murder.

Oh, and he wanted it to be a comedy.

Lear approached a dozen writers, men and women alike, including the masterminds behind I Love Lucy. Most were appalled by the premise. “How are you going to get laughs from the slaughter of a family?” they asked. Finally, one of them understood the dark humor. Ann Marcus, who had credits with Dennis the Menace and Lassie, would become the show’s lead writer, helping to pen the first two pilots.

For the director, Lear tapped Joan Darling, a writer who’d been pitching a biopic about Israel’s first female prime minister. Darling was surprised to be asked. She had never directed before. But Lear handed her the two pilot scripts and told her to think about it. The writing was unlike anything Darling had ever read. “I don’t know what this is,” she recalled thinking in a recent interview with John D’Amico. “This is neither fish nor fowl.” Still, she took the job.

Darling spent the next eight weeks assembling a cast. At the center of it was 36-year-old Louise Lasser. The product of an upper-middle-class household in New York City, Lasser had racked up appearances on Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show and in Woody Allen’s Bananas. When she read for the part, Lear was elated. “I supplied the character,” Lear wrote in his autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, “but Louise brought with her the persona that fit Mary Hartman like a corset.”

The finished pilot was utterly fresh. The show had all the hallmarks of a soap opera—cheesy organ music, extreme close-ups—but the tone was distinct. There was no laugh track. And it wasn’t melodramatic either. The humor was bone dry. When Mary learns about the murder down the street, she asks, “What kind of a madman would shoot two goats and eight chickens?” She pauses, looking away blankly. “And the people. The people, of course.”

When the networks saw it, they immediately turned it down.

This kick in the teeth made headlines. Lear was a regular Emmy winner. If anyone could get away with something edgy, it would be him. But the Big Three— ABC, CBS, and NBC—wanted nothing to do with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. CBS, the very network that had fronted Lear $100,000 to make the pilots, thought the five-day-a-week format was a bad idea: “It’s tough enough to come up with 20 [episodes] a year for a prime-time series,” head of daytime programming Bud Grant told the Associated Press. “To come up with 260 is almost an impossible task.”

Today, Lear still doesn’t buy that excuse. “They were all doing well with the Jack Paars and the Johnny Carsons and so forth,” he says. “They didn’t get it. Or they didn’t think the American public would get it.”

Lear and Al Burton, who helped develop the show, believed that network executives were afraid of the program’s subversive tone and topics. After getting rebuked by the big guys, they hatched a plan to sneak it onto the air: They would take Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to the little guys.

Lear hit the road, traveling city by city to visit individual TV stations. Syndication had been around for years, but for someone of Lear’s stature to employ this tactic was unusual. Lear also flew people from 23 independent TV stations to his home in Brentwood in an effort to convince them to broadcast the show. The executives— attracted, perhaps, by the show’s inexpensive price tag combined with Lear’s clout—ate it up.

The unorthodox moves paid off. When it premiered in January 1976, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was on more than 50 stations. By season’s end, that number had ballooned to 100. In its first six months, the show was on the covers of Newsweek, Rolling Stone, People, and The New York Times Magazine. The pilot earned Marcus and her cowriters an Emmy. Mary, the Times said, had become “the country’s most talked-about housewife,” and the viewers loved her.

In many ways, Mary Hartman was a caricature. Lasser’s homemade costume—a frumpy mini dress with puffy sleeves, topped with a wig of tightly braided pigtails—made her look like a life-size Raggedy Ann. But she also perfectly embodied a particular mid-’70s moment. As the old expectations for women started to fray, in their place was a vacuum, which Mary filled with TV. Mary has internalized commercials so fully that her emotions are muted. When she’s asked by police to communicate with the neighborhood murderer, she becomes obsessed with dissecting the flaws in the brand of walkie-talkie they hand her. The show, Lear says, was “mirroring the confused American housewife getting battered on all sides by the commerciality of our time. She was witness and subject to citizens becoming consumers.”

Underneath the psychodrama and dark humor, the show touched on a laundry list of taboo topics: exhibitionism, masturbation, menstruation, homosexuality, and anti-Semitism. But foremost it provided a withering commentary on the role TV had started to play in American lives. As Darling put it, Mary showed how “television would make us a nation of empty dead people.” And as Robert Craft wrote in the New York Review of Books, “No program has gone so far as this one in ridiculing the medium, as well as in warning of its power to reduce its habitués to followers of herd philosophies.”

The point was driven home when, at the end of the first season, Mary has a nervous breakdown and winds up in a psychiatric institution. There, as she and her fellow patients crowd around a television, Mary notices a small mechanism above the box: It’s the device used by Nielsen to measure television ratings. Even locked away, she can’t escape it.

As the show progressed, some of the networks’ concerns crystallized. To deliver five episodes a week, Mary Hartman was produced at a breakneck pace. The team shot a new episode nearly every day, and this quickly took its toll. There was so little free time that Lasser often couldn’t change out of her costume before her thrice-weekly psychiatrist visits. “So I have to walk down the street in Beverly Hills in my little Mary Hartman outfit, with the sleeves all puffed out and the gingham dress, and I think that everybody’s staring at me,” she told The New York Times.

As time wore on, Lasser found it more difficult to step away from her character. “I was gradually morphing into her,” she later said. The second season was brutal and dark, on and off screen. Mary spends two months in a psychiatric hospital, while Lasser, by her own admission, was also depressed and exhausted. So, after filming 325 episodes, she quit.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman lasted only two seasons, but the effects of its boundary pushing— on screen and behind the camera—still resonate. Soap operas have a long history of addressing social concerns—an All My Children character was an antiwar protestor during Vietnam; in the 1990s, General Hospital had an AIDS storyline. But in its critique of the medium itself, Mary Hartman went even further, raising questions that wouldn’t enter the mainstream for years to come. What is television doing to our brains? And to our culture? “I think it’s still ahead of its time,” Lasser says. “If you look at people’s top 10 lists, we’re never mentioned. It never bothered me. I think of it as a badge of honor.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t influence later shows. If you squint, you can see shades of Mary Hartman in the oddball soapiness of Twin Peaks; it’s in the uncomfortably funny DNA of Girls (on which Lasser has appeared three times). And you could argue that in a sense, its depiction of the blue-collar household paved the way for Roseanne.

It may have been both wholly of its time and somehow ahead of it, but Mary Hartman could not seem more relevant right now. The ubiquitous but quaintly stationary television has been eclipsed by a multiplying array of portable digital screens. Our dependence on technological distractions has surged accordingly. Mary Hartman asks us to take a pointedly critical—but at the same time not too serious—look at our relationship with media. There’s a lesson to be learned from a show that loved to hate television but created a cult of viewers who, night after night, couldn’t turn away.

Netflix Is Testing Commercials, and Subscribers Aren't Happy

iStock
iStock

Save the occasional "Are you still watching?" message popping up between episodes, it's possible to watch an entire Netflix series in one sitting with little to no distractions. Now, the streaming service is testing something that could upend that: As CNN reports, Netflix has quietly started sprinkling advertisements into its programming, something the subscription-based service has been able to avoid up to this point.

The promotional content Netflix is experimenting with differs from conventional cable commercials in some fundamental ways. The promos won't be advertising third-party brands, Netflix promises: Rather, they'll exclusively show off Netflix original content, like seriesGlow and Stranger Things (though one Reddit user did report seeing an ad for Better Call Saul, which Netflix licenses from AMC). And instead of inserting ads throughout the program, as some non-subscription streaming services do, Netflix will only include them at the end of some episodes with a "skip" button similar to the one that allows viewers to bypass a show's opening credits. And each promo subscribers see will be personalized based on their viewing habits, hopefully turning them on to new shows and not just annoying them in the middle of their binge-watching sessions.

Despite these assurances from Netflix, viewers aren't happy. Many customers have taken to social media threatening to cancel their service if the promos become the norm, which likely may not happen: They've only been shown to a select number of test viewers so far, and based on user response, Netflix may decide to pull the plug on the experiment.

The good news is that as long as the ads are still in the test phase, you can choose to opt out of them. Just go to Netflix.com/DoNotTest and toggle off the switch next to the words "Include me in tests and previews." Now you're ready to resume your binge-watching marathon without interruption.

[h/t CNN]

10 Things You Might Not Know About Columbo

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

For more than 40 years, Peter Falk entered living rooms around the world as Lieutenant Columbo, an unconventional L.A. homicide detective known for his ruffled raincoat and trademark cigar. The actor would go on to win four Emmys for the role, while the series itself remains a benchmark for television crime dramas. But if series creators William Link and Richard Levinson went with their initial choice, the iconic role of Columbo would have gone to a syrupy-smooth crooner rather than the inelegant Falk. Get familiar with one of TV's most unique heroes with facts about Columbo.

1. BING CROSBY WAS ORIGINALLY EYED FOR THE ROLE.

Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link's first choice to play their low-key detective was crooner Bing Crosby. Der Bingle loved the script and the character, but he feared that a TV series commitment would interfere with his true passion—golf. It was probably providential that Crosby turned the role down, since his death in 1977 occurred while the series was still a solid hit on NBC. 

2. PETER FALK WAS AN UNEXPECTED SEX SYMBOL.

Peter Falk in 'Columbo'
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Character actor Lee J. Cobb was also considered for the role, until Peter Falk phoned co-creator William Link. Falk had gotten a copy of the script from his agents at William Morris and told Link that he’d “kill to play that cop.” Link and Levinson knew the actor back from their days of working in New York, and even though he was the opposite of everything they’d originally pictured for Lt. Columbo, they had to admit that Falk had a certain likeability that translated to both men and women. Falk was described by a certain female demographic as “sexy,” and males liked him because he was an unthreatening, humble, blue-collar underdog who was smarter than the wealthy perps he encountered.

3. FALK WAS A GOVERNMENT WORKER BEFORE BECOMING AN ACTOR.

Peter Falk wasn’t too far removed from the character he played. In real life he tended to be rumpled and disheveled and was forever misplacing things (he was famous for losing his car keys and having to be driven home from the studio by someone else). He was also intelligent, having earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, which led to him working for the State of Connecticut’s Budget Bureau as an efficiency expert until the acting bug bit him. He was also used to being underestimated due to his appearance; he’d lost his right eye to cancer at age three, and many of his drama teachers in college warned him of his limited chances in film due to his cockeyed stare. Indeed, after a screen test at Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn dismissed him by saying, “For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”

4. COLUMBO'S DOG WASN'T A WELCOME SIGHT AT FIRST.

Columbo's dog
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When Columbo was renewed for a second season, NBC brass had a request: they wanted the lieutenant to have a sidekick. Perhaps a young rookie detective just learning the ropes. Link and Levinson were resistant to the idea, but the network was pressuring them. They conferred with Steven Bochco, who was writing the script for the season opener, “Etude in Black,” and together they hatched the idea of giving Lt. Columbo a dog as a “partner.” Falk was against the idea at first; he felt that between the raincoat, cigar, and Peugeot his character had enough gimmicks. But when he met the lethargic, drooling Basset Hound that had been plucked from a pound, Falk knew it was perfect for Columbo's dog.

The original dog passed away in between the end of the original NBC run of the series and its renewal on ABC, so a replacement was necessary. The new pup was visibly younger than the original dog, and as a result spent more time in the makeup chair to make him look older.

5. FALK'S REAL-LIFE WIFE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE SERIES.

Falk first met Shera Danese, the woman who would become his second wife, on the set of his 1976 film Mikey & Nicky. The movie was being filmed in Danese’s hometown of Philadelphia, and the aspiring actress had landed work as an extra. They were married in 1977, and she was able to pad out her resume by appearing on several episodes of Columbo. Her first few appearances were limited to small walk-on parts—secretaries, sexy assistants, etc. By the time the series was resurrected on ABC in the early 1990s, she was awarded larger roles.

She originally auditioned for the role of the titular rock star in 1991’s “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star,” but her husband adamantly refused, since the role included a scene of her in bed making love to a much younger man. She instead played the role of a co-conspiring attorney, and was also allowed to sing the song that was the major hit for the murdered star.

6. THE CHARACTER'S TRADEMARK RAINCOAT CAME FROM FALK'S CLOSET.

The initial wardrobe proposed for Columbo struck Peter Falk as completely wrong for the character. To get closer to what he wanted for Columbo, the actor went into his closet and found a beat-up coat he had bought years earlier when caught in a rainstorm on 57th Street. And he ordered one of the blue suits chosen for him to be dyed brown. The drab outfit would become one of the trademarks of the character for decades.

7. STEVEN SPIELBERG GOT AN EARLY BREAK ON COLUMBO.

“Murder by the Book” was the second Columbo episode filmed, but it was the first one to air after the show was picked up as a series. Filming was delayed for a month, though, when Falk refused to sign off on this “kid”—a 25-year-old named Steven Spielberg—to direct the episode. Finally he watched a few of Spielberg’s previous credits (all of them TV episodes) and was impressed by his work on the short-lived NBC series called The Psychiatrist. Once filming was underway, Falk was impressed by many of the techniques employed by the young director, such as filming a street scene with a long lens from a building across the road. “That wasn’t common 20 years ago,” Falk said. He went on to tell producers Link and Levinson that “this guy is too good for Columbo."

8. COLUMBO'S FIRST NAME WOUND UP THE SUBJECT OF A LAWSUIT.

Fred L. Worth, author of several books of trivia facts, had a sneaking feeling that other folks were using his meticulously researched facts without crediting him. He set a “copyright trap” and mentioned in one of his books that Lt. Columbo’s first name was “Philip,” although he had completely fabricated that so-called fact. Sure enough, a 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game listed the “Philip” Columbo name as an answer on one of their cards, which led to a $300 million lawsuit filed by Mr. Worth.

The board game creators admitted in court that they’d garnered their Columbo fact from Worth’s book, but the judge ultimately determined that it was not an actionable offense. By the way, years later when Columbo was available in syndicated reruns and HD TV was an option, alert viewers were able to freeze-frame a scene where the rumpled lieutenant extended his badge for identification purposes in the season one episode “Dead Weight” and determine that his first name was, in fact, “Frank.”

9. THE SERIES DIDN'T FOLLOW A STANDARD MYSTERY FORMAT.

The premise of Columbo was the “inverted mystery,” or a “HowCatchEm” instead of a “WhoDunIt.” Every episode began with the actual crime being played out in full view of the audience, meaning viewers already knew “WhodunIt.” What they wanted to know is how Lt. Columbo would slowly zero in on the perpetrator. This sort of story was particularly challenging for the series’s writers, and they sometimes found inspiration in the most unlikely places. Like the Yellow Pages, for example. One of Peter Falk’s personal favorite episodes, “Now You See Him,” had its genesis when the writers were flipping through the telephone book looking for a possible profession for a Columbo murderer (keep in mind that all of Columbo’s victims and perps were of the Beverly Hills elite variety, not your typical Starsky and Hutch-type thug).

A page listing professional magicians caught their eye, and that led to a classic episode featuring the ever-suave Jack Cassidy playing the role of the former SS Nazi officer who worked as a nightclub magician. When the Jewish nightclub owner recognized him and threatened to expose him, well, you can guess what happened. But the challenge is to guess how Lt. Columbo ultimately caught him. 

10. THERE WAS A SPINOFF THAT KIND OF WAS BUT THEN WASN'T.

The 1979 TV series entitled Mrs. Columbo was not technically related to the original Peter Falk series. In fact, Levinson and Link opposed the entire concept of the series; it was NBC honcho Fred Silverman who gave the OK to use the Columbo name and imply that Kate Mulgrew was the widowed/divorced wife (the series changed names and backstories several times during its short run) of the famed homicide detective. The “real” Mrs. Columbo was never mentioned by her first name during the original series, but actor Peter Falk possibly slipped and revealed that her name was “Rose” when he appeared at this Dean Martin Roast saluting Frank Sinatra and asked for an autograph.

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