Complex TV


Serialization and explicit connections to soap operas returned to television outside the daytime schedule through the unusual vehicle of comedy in the late 1970s, with the dual innovators Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Soap. The former was a highly idiosyncratic hit that emerged from Norman Lear’s successful production team in 1976, explicitly embracing the form, production values, and pacing of daytime soap operas via daily airings. Rejected by all of the national networks, Mary Hartman was distributed to local stations through the system of first-run syndication, airing in various time slots outside prime time but most frequently in the daily stripped late-night spot of 11 p.m. to avoid controversy over its risqué content. The program married over-the-top storylines involving a small-town mass murderer and an elderly flasher with quotidian details of domestic drudgery, most notably Mary’s obsession with the “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floor, creating a unique blend of the outrageous and the mundane. Although the series embraced a dry, absurdist wit and was certainly best understood as a comedy, it featured none of the era’s sitcom conventions of laugh tracks, studio audiences, or even actual jokes; instead, the humor came through its conventional soap opera style of unpolished videotaped staging and melodramatic music cues played straight, but with a quirky small-town setting and an ambiguous tone that most resembles future television innovator Twin Peaks. This allegiance to soap opera was affirmed behind the scenes, as Lear hired a team of soap opera veterans to write the series, led by Ann Marcus, who had previously written for both daytime soaps and prime time Peyton Place but never before (or again) for comedies. Thus Mary Hartman retains much of the feel of daytime soaps in its emphasis on relationships, deliberate pacing, redundant dialogue, and lack of overt sitcom style.

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