"Blanche. Blanche. Leroy...has drowned. Leroy...has drowned...in a bowl...of my chicken soup."
Created by Gail Parent, Ann Marcus, Jerry Adelman, Daniel Gregory Brown, directed by Joan Darling, Jim Drake, written by Gail Parent, Ann Marcus and developed by legendary television media mogul Norman Lear, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was to be a satire of the impact of American consumerism. The pilot consisted of two episodes, but was not picked up by networks. Undeterred, Lear pursued a syndication strategy by hiring a sales agent to sell the show at the 1976 National Association of Television Program Executives (NAPTE) market in San Francisco. The possibilities of selling an extensive new show in a hotel room and the complications therein made Lear distraught. Needing a solution, his business contacts introduced him to James W. Packer Jr. and his company, Mission Argyle Productions. Packer devised a unique sales idea by inviting general managers from television stations across America to Lear's house in Los Angeles to dine with him and hear his pitch. KING-TV of Seattle became the TV first station to produce syndication rights to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman the following day, eventually cementing the show's foundation in television history as the soap opera that turned the soap opera inside out, even predating David Lynch's Twin Peaks by a decade plus.
The series takes place in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio. In fact there is a real Fernwood, Ohio, located in Jefferson County, but the series instead derived its name from Fernwood Avenue, which runs behind the KTLA/Sunset Bronson Studios where the show was taped. The title of the show was the eponymous name of the lead character's name stated twice, because Lear and the writers believed that dialogue within a soap opera was always said twice. The show is also without a laugh track or live audience. The title of the soap was the eponymous name of the long-banged, double-braided mousy lead character with the gingham frock named Mary Hartman (Louise Lasser, here now recently post divorced from Woody Allen after only four years together) of whom is daily bombarded by a bewildering array of familial crises. The program ran for two seasons from January 25, 1976 to May 10, 1977 and had three hundred twenty- five episodes overall. And in particular episode forty-three, "Chicken Soup", is perhaps the one that stood out the most to be chosen by TV Guide because of what happens due to cause and effect concerning Coach Leroy Fedders (Norman Alden) apropos his own undoing and a giant bowl of the titular get-well-soon poultry broth.
The episode opens to Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) at home starting to regain feeling in her feet again. She and her husband Charlie (Graham Jarvis) witness this miracle and offer their thanks in prayer. Meanwhile Tom, (Greg Mullavey) Mary's husband, learns that Mae Olinski (Salome Jens) is planning to leave Fernwood as she also talks to him about Mary. Sick with a 72-hour virus (and only getting four hours of sleep out of it) is the cantankerous coach. He sits miserably at his dinner table garbed in a bath robe and unkempt graying hair, surrounded by medication capsules and liquor bottles while persistently popping sleeping pills with his Jack Daniels. All he wants to do is watch his cop shows and see some violence. "To hell with Monty Hall!" His wife Blanche (Reva Rose), watching over him, warns him that the mixture of medication and alcohol would kill him, but he pays no heed and continues onward in numbing his unfortunate brush with the flu. Enter Mary Hartman with a large pot of homemade chicken soup. Leroy reluctantly grabs a spoon to get the insisting of his well-meaning neighbor and wife off his case as the two women go and converse in the living room. Fatal results ensue when they hear Leroy gurgling in hen juice. When they both go over and Mary checks his pulse, the camera holds on her face as she discovers that it is too late. Believing her soup to be the cause of his bizarre passing at only age forty-seven, she is in shock as she lets his hand go, the appendage dropping lifelessly back on to the table as both women look at the body and then at each other. The scene is both haunting and amusing as the episode concludes.
Directed by Drake and written by Alderman, "Chicken Soup" remained in the same bottom slot on the 2009 list of TV Guide's Top 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time list as it did the original list in 1997. Though the episode includes footage from an upcoming one as it has always done at the end, the comically bleak note this episode ended on as the credits roll afterwards can not easily be forgotten. Just seeing how a character partakes in an inevitable and yet stupid way to go due to dismissing logical reason when ill is sadly and ironically the highlight of this half-hour bit.
Years later in 2004 and 2007, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was ranked #21 and #26 on "TV Guide's Top Cult Shows Ever". When Lasser left the show in 1977, the show was now branded as Forever Fernwood. The same premise and location remained, though in the world of the show Mary's absence was caused by her running off with the aforementioned Sgt. Dennis Foley (Bruce Solomon), with whom she had a lot of contact with during the first season. This show may have been one of Lear's Lasser, (excuse me) lesser talked about developments, but it did manage to make its mark as just a quirky, outrageous soap. Though made mockery of in a Carol Burnett sketch with guest star Jim Nabors, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a short-lived soap spoof series hailed by critics as "hilarious" (TV Guide), "mind-blowing" (Newsweek) and "television's zaniest show!" (Readers Digest), despite her kitchen floor having a waxy yellow buildup.
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