January 9, 2019

Women of the Year: From Ocasio-Cortez to Joan Baez, with a Visit to Mary Hartman’s Fernwood

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to an anonymous troll among the twittering wallflowers of the far-right who posted a video meant to shame the youngest member of the House, the first surge of joy and hope I felt in 2019 came from a four-minute video made by some frisky Boston University students doing Breakfast Club dance moves on a city rooftop. It’s hard to imagine a more gloriously apt expression for what happened in Washington on January 3 than the sight of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez edging into view around the corner of that transformative moment with a big soundless shout of a smile, arms raised, black hair flying, as she uncoils, twirling, whirling, spiraling, the irrepressible embodiment of force and freedom. She and her fellow students were dancing to the music of the French band Phoenix, a number from 2009 called “Lisztomania,” with lyrics that have a ring ten years later, “This is show time, this is show time, this show time/Time, time is your love, time is your love, yes time is your love.”

Back to the Future

As the old year ended and the new one began, my wife and I were binge-watching a show that was too outrageous and irreverent for the networks in the mid 1970s. While revellers partied the night away in rainy Times Square, we were time-traveling to a daymare of small-town midwestern America, the home of Mary Hartman, mass murder, and the Fernwood Flasher.

The brainchild of All in the Family creator Norman Lear, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ran every weekday night between January 1976 and May 1977. Being first-time parents with an infant son at the time, we slipped comfortably into the chaos swirling around Mary (Louise Lasser) and her dysfunctional household. I doubt that we saw every episode, but we were definitely there when the Fernwood High basketball coach drowned, face down in a bowl of Mary’s chicken soup, an event that holds 97th place on TV Guide’s list of the 100 Greatest TV Moments.

Now instead of peering into an 11-inch black and white Sony doll house TV, we’re seeing full size color versions of Mary, her family, friends, and neighbors. Up close, Louise Lasser looks as appealingly new to the world as ever, with her who-me eyes, girlish Pippi Longstocking braids, blue gingham dresses with Peter Pan collars, and proactive innocence, a Fernwood Candide. In the eight episodes it took to get us to midnight, we went from the waxy yellow build-up on Mary’s kitchen floor and her failing marriage to the massacre of the Lombardi family down the street, their eight chickens and two goats. 

Wondering at first what we’d once seen in a show where murder, madness, indecent exposure, and infidelity were played for laughs, we found ourselves coming back for extra helpings of these highly seasoned servings of the comfort food of daily life (thankfully minus laugh tracks and commercials), which created such a stir nationwide that Mary became a cover girl. The Fernwood version of a hostage stand-off in an abandoned Chinese laundry, with a cowardly, philandering priest swearing safe passage for the teen-age killer on an actual stack of Bibles, gave a hint of things to come when ABC took the plunge 15 years later and brought David Lynch’s Twin Peaks into American living rooms, where freaked-out Fernwood lived on in characters like dippy Lucy and tearful Andy of the Twin Peaks police department; Laura Palmer’s psychotic father Leland doing the soft shoe; Nadine Hurley and her lunatic quest for absolutely silent drape runners; and FBI agent Dale Cooper with his Tibetan Book of the Dead sleuthing methods and lust for “damn fine” cups of coffee and cherry pie.

Women of the Year

Although the Mary Hartman DVD I plucked from the teeming bins of the Princeton Record Exchange contains only the first 25 of 325 episodes, what stands out is Louise Lasser’s astonishing performance, the music of her gestures and intonations, the way she manages to find a balance between passion and compassion, human warmth and a spaced-out detachment from the moment. Consider the quirky heroics of Mary with a gun at her head stealing the heart of the tormented killer while her best friend, the unstoppable Loretta (Mary Kay Place) composes and performs a country western song about the scene for local TV news.

The chemistry between Mary and Loretta reminds me that the past year of series television was dominated by female characters such as Lila and Elena in My Brilliant Friend, who, when alone together, take the beauty of friendship to the highest power. Though their bond is not as emotionally grounded, Lola and Chelsea (Rebecca Gidney and Geraldine Hakewell) make  an endearing team in Wanted, an odd couple on the run Down Under. Then there’s Golden Globe Best Actress winner and co-host Sandra Oh, the MI5 agent on the trail of Jodie Comer’s Villanelle in Killing Eve; Carrie Coons the soul of The Leftovers and season 3 of Fargo; Keely Hawes ranging brilliantly between conflicted DSI Lindsay Denton in series 2 of In The Line of Duty (“I like her more than anybody I ever played”), the embattled but cheerful mother in The Durrells of Corfu, and the doomed Home Secretary in Bodyguard, for which her co-star Richard Madden (Robb Stark of Game of Thrones) has just won a Best Actor Golden Globe.

In the dark world of Ozark, Laura Linney gamely adjusts to a life of crime as Wendy Bryde while Julia Garner holds her own as the morally amoral teen Ruth Langmore. And 2018 was the year Tatiana Maslany ended her virtuoso multiple-role run in Orphan Black while Helen George’s Trixie and her cohorts in London’s East End completed another season of PBS’s consistently wise, warm-hearted  and humane Call the Midwife. Across the city in Buckingham Palace, Jenna Coleman was a charming young queen in Victoria while Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby brought Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret vividly to life in The Crown.

The only glimmers of a Fernwood lifestyle I saw last year came in Noah Hawley’s Fargo, the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things (though the supernatural charisma of Eleven was less compelling in the second season), and of course David Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks for Showtime, where Naomi Watt’s Janey-E Jones combined Loretta’s energy with Mary’s survival skills, thereby saving Dale Cooper from a fate worse than death in life.

Finally, I should mention, among other remarkable women, Liv Lisa Fries as cabaret hooker and apprentice detective in Babylon Berlin; the forever driven homicide detective Caroline Proust and deeply devious lawyer Audrey Fleurot of Spiral; the magical Eva Green of Penny Dreadful and her demonic adversary Helen McCrory, magnificent as the maternal mainstay of Peaky Blinders. And there’s no way to leave out the epic stints of Claire Danes of Homeland and Caitriona Balfe of Outlander, even though we eventually lost touch with both shows, which almost happened during Keri Russell’s final season in The Americans, which just won a long-in-coming Golden Globe for Best Drama.

Joan Baez

This celebration of women that began with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ends with Joan Baez, who turns 78 today, January 9, 2019, and will bring her farewell tour to McCarter Theatre on April 30.

If you were in Bay Area in the 1960s, you saw Baez’s first Vanguard album everywhere you went, and at every party it seemed a girl would be singing “Donna Donna” and “All My Trials” well enough that you could close your eyes and imagine Baez was in the room.

It might seem a stretch but the line from Mary Hartman to Twin Peaks also leads to The Sopranos, which began its historic run 20 years ago this month. In addition to the black comedy of episodes like Paulie and Christopher as Laurel and Hardy freezing in the Pine Barrens, any discussion of powerful women in series television has to include Carmela Soprano.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the Complete Series is available in a boxed set on amazon for a considerable sum. If you want an inexpensive sample, the DVD of the first 25 episodes like the one we found at the Record Exchange is also for sale.