Becoming an unlikely national sensation after premiering in January 1976, the meta-soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman almost immediately drew the attention of academics and critics eager to deconstruct the Norman Lear production’s frank treatment of sexual and social issues, quasi-experimental collision of genres and bleak, sophisticated critique of the very medium that made it possible. Nearly four decades later, they’re still at it, now posing the additional question of why the pioneering program hasn’t been rediscovered and reexamined in the digital age as much as it would seem to warrant. It’s tempting to give an easy answer by saying that it’s still ahead of its time or that it’s too much a product of its era, but a more convincing explanation is an economic one and not and artistic one, as the series has never been presented in a way that’s at all enticing or convenient to modern viewers.
The problem really began after the series, in which the harried title character’s attempts to live a quiet life in the fictional town of Fernwood are continually obstructed by sex scandals, killing sprees, UFOs and every other well-worn soap cliché ramped up to 11, was cancelled after two seasons in 1977. Instead of remaining in syndication and reaching new generations in reruns, the show has long been conspicuously missing from cable television, aside from two short-lived resurrections on the high-brow networks Lifetime and TV Land in 1994 and 2002 respectively. Right there you have a big part of the story of why it’s not more widely discussed; thanks to endless repeats you don’t have to have lived through the 1970s to know who Archie Bunker is or to be able to whistle the Sanford and Son theme tune, but before DVD, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was effectively off the market.
About those DVDs. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed I said the show went to syndication, traditionally requiring at least 100 episodes, after only two seasons. That’s possible because the show wasn’t on once a week, it aired every goddamn night, just like an actual soap opera, meaning a total of 325 episodes (465 if you factor in the episodes after lead actress Louise Lasser left, partly because of the demanding schedule, and the show was retooled as Fernwood Forever, and even more if you count its two talk-show satire spin-offs Fernwood 2 Night and America 2-Night). So while Shout! Factory did release a massive 38 disc-box set of the original series, it retails for $250, no small sum if you’ve never seen the damn show before, and when a more affordable starter collection of the first 25 episodes appeared, those who enjoyed it soon realized there would be no volume 2.
That would seem to be almost irrelevant in an age when people are going online to get their TV fix, but Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is nowhere to be found on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus or any of other the other popular streaming sites, where its high volume of episodes would be an asset, perfect for binge-watching. Even the hive mind that is YouTube has only been able to cough up the first 25 installments which, again, are less than 8% of the actual series. Granted MH2, as it’s sometimes abbreviated, would still be something of a challenge to unsuspecting viewers merely stumbling upon it, as the show’s radically offbeat voice, delivering tense drama and absurdist comedy with an equally straight face, isn’t for everyone and takes a few episodes to get used to, but stranger shows have found a new audience simply because they turned up unannounced on Netflix.
It’s unclear what the complications are, but, in any case, it’s easier to see how Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman got a raw deal when you compare it to its more conventional spiritual-successor, Soap. While more a classic sitcom, running weekly as opposed to daily and employing a broader style of comedy, Soap, which hit the airwaves only a few short months after its MH2 left them, also tackled tough topics, poked fun at similar tropes and, like its predecessor, gave great opportunities to women writers and directors off screen, and yet it still attracts some new fans and generates at least a modest revenue simply by virtue of being available to the public in a complete and affordable way, while hundreds of hours of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman sit gathering dust in absurd, obsolete box sets. Ultimately, the show isn’t too cerebral or too dated for modern viewers; it’s just unavailable to them.