Laura Parnes

“Oh, that show is just weird.” My mother sidestepped actually answering my question “What’s up with that Mary Hartman Mary Hartman show?” After spending so many hours as a kid watching age-inappropriate television, it was not the adult subject matter that troubled me. I just couldn’t place or categorize it. Soap opera? Sitcom? Talk show? Documentary? The characters had bad teeth, ill-fitting clothes- and Mary Hartman’s blue dress looked like it belonged to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. In this case, Kansas was a modest house in the suburbs and the wicked witch was replaced by the serial killer next door.

It was only through reruns that I was able to comprehend the magnitude of the phenomena that was Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (MH2). It’s a quintessential 70’s series, yet it anticipated the future of television. Both satirical and sincere, the show was relentlessly self-referential, constantly critiquing media and American culture as the protagonist was confronted with an exceptionally long laundry list of suburban societal ills. In one of the most darkly comedic yet disturbing moments of the series, Mary has what appears to be a very real nervous breakdown while being interviewed/interrogated on a talk show. The breakdown is not only an expression of the cultural malaise of the 70’s; it is highly relevant to my own work that explores the hyper self- conscious, media obsessed culture of today.

The seminal television producer Norman Lear developed and produced MH2 along with hit sitcoms such as All in the Family, The Jefferson’s and Maude. His shows were known for skillfully delving into controversial topics, using outrageous humor and complex characters to address issues of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Of all his shows MH2 seemed to be the most experimental. Throughout the series Louise Lasser brilliantly stutters through dialog that fluctuates from advertising copy, to self-help clichés- all this is punctuated with the occasional, dryly delivered punch line. Her braids and drag outfit accentuate the stiffness of her housewife activities, never really fitting the part. The viewer occasionally sees a glimmer of the frazzled, short-circuiting internal malady beneath the drag. The punch line she delivers is the light exposing the cracks in the surface – making it clear in 70’s terms- “I’m not OK. You’re not OK.”

It’s difficult to know how a show as savvy and sophisticated as MH2 could have permeated my consciousness as a young person. However, there are many remarkable parallels in particular in relation to my most recent work. So much so, that I hosted a panel discussion on the topic as an event connected to my one-person show titled County Down at Fitzroy Gallery in fall of 2013. Like a fever dream of Norman Lear, set in a McMansion world where fortunes are won based on novelty food products, County Down explores an epidemic of psychosis among the adults in a gated community that coincides with a teenage girl’s invention of a designer drug. Similar to the drag of Mary Hartman, Angel (the protagonist) and her cohorts wear an exaggerated costume of teenagers as if they were characters in an anime action adventure. Each one brazenly embraces youth-culture clichés. The football player with the black eye, the basketball player with the USA hat, and the love interest, a Mohawk wearing rebel- on and endless search for his porn star shirt.

Angel and Tanya dress like lady action figures as they speak platitudes culled from self-help texts; youth culture marketing research and corporate psychology manuals- punctuated with urban dictionary slang and dryly delivered punch lines. These punch lines expose the fragility of the characters carefully constructed reality. Just as the nervous breakdown is a pivotal moment in MH2, in County Down an epidemic of psychosis is the driving force of the plot. “Destruction is the one principal we can count on!” or so states the genius inventor Angel, as her gated community becomes overwrought with the frazzled psyches of the one percent.

In MH2 everyday occurrences that seem completely innocuous are taken to absurd extremes. Consider the infamous chicken soup scene when Mary delivers soup to her friend’s husband, home sick with the flu. His self-medication of drugs and alcohol notwithstanding, Mary’s homemade chicken soup is the ideal remedy. As Mary and her friend discuss various topics from the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine, her friend’s husband, in a drug-induced stupor, drowns in the soup. Similarly, County Down plays off of everyday occurrences but with a dark, hallucinatory spin where typical adolescent angst becomes amplified exponentially. A teenager’s embarrassment to be seen shopping with her mother (Patty Chang) is taken to an extreme level when Tanya (Chloe Bass) gazes in horror as her mom writhes on the ground of the shopping mall speaking in tongues and groping a nearby mannequin. The other teens cope with this psychotic break by embracing superficiality to a degree that’s nihilistic. In this case, the teens watching the scene respond with a flippant insult about shoes: “P.S. Her shoes are from Target.”

The television show within the television show is the device used in Mary Hartman’s quintessential breakdown scene to expose the underpinnings of a media oversaturated culture. Mary is a guest on a talk show with numerous “real” hosts who relentlessly grill her about everything from current events, woman’s rights and her husbands’ impotence. This leaves Mary an inarticulate, stammering mess. Cosmopolitan Magazine can’t help her now. She’s going to need a whole new script. Similarly, County Down attempts to draw attention to its own construction. The installation version of County Down includes eleven life-size cut out photographs. The cast of characters face visitors at the entrance of the space. In full makeup and costume, the cast creates a maze through which visitors must pass. A display case features early scripts and product development sketches, production materials such as green-screen stills and costume elements, providing a glimpse into the process of making of this multiplatform project. Throughout the New York exhibit the actors posed with their own cardboard cutouts to be used in social media. These double-selfies function like a mirror aimed at the camera lens, asking the viewer, as Norman Lear did so many years ago, to consider how culture is constructed.

With her iconic stylized dress and dialog that fluctuated from banal to outrageous, Lasser’s portrayal of Mary Hartman was impossible to pin down to a time-period. Further, the town of Fernwood itself seemed to exist both in and outside of a bubble that is highly representative of the 70s but also timeless. Like Fernwood, County Down refers to a time period but exists outside of it. The cartoon visuals and the hallucinatory structure make it difficult to place or categorize. The “weirdness” is meant to mirror the unsettling experience of living through so many bursting bubbles.

Laura Parnes
July 2018  

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