After All In The Family's unexpected success, it would've been easy for producer Norman Lear to keep repeating the same formula—and with the spin-off series Maude, he arguably did. By substituting Bea Arthur's brassy Westchester liberal for Carroll O'Connor's cranky Queens bigot, Lear and longtime collaborator Bud Yorkin explored hot-button issues in a more sophisticated milieu, mocking the hypocrisy of the hyper-opinionated. The breakthroughs of All In The Family and Maude were largely aesthetic, bringing a New York theater sensibility to television via sitcoms that were staged like one-act plays, complete with a live audience, a view-from-the-second-row visual style, and the kind of frank exploration of sex, race and politics that had been the province of the stage for much of the previous century. In the 22 episodes on the Maude: The Complete First Season DVD set, Arthur's frazzled upper-middle-class housewife has an abortion, plays host to a black radical, debates whether it's healthy for young kids to "play doctor," and stages a protest against local marijuana laws. But with Arthur's impeccable comic timing, she's only as shrill and hectoring as she needs to be to get a laugh. Maude distilled the kinds of conversations regular people have about everything from infidelity to menstruation, while welcoming in people who'd always wanted to have those conversations. It pulled the audience up, rather than talking down.
By the mid-'70s, Lear and his new producing partner Jerry Perenchio were looking for projects to vary the All In The Family model, and one of the weirdest was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a syndicated five-night-a-week soap-opera parody that combined the somnambulant pace of daytime drama with outrageous plot twists. The Volume 1 DVD contains the first five weeks of the show's run, which still feel different from anything else in TV history, outside of maybe Twin Peaks. With two hours a week to fill, individual episodes move slowly, spending as much time on aimless conversations about country music and impotence as on a master-plot. Veteran soap writer Ann Marcus maintains some genre authenticity, but the stoner rhythms and low-rent production design push the style closer to suburban surrealism, as does the foggy performance of star Louise Lasser. She delivers non-joke jokes with just the right affectlessness, making even dialogue like, "Want some coffee? I'm trying drip," sound plain-spoken yet strangely discomfiting. Lasser and the other MHMH characters are the kind of people who would watch a Norman Lear show, and not quite get it.
Key features: None.