Everybody Loves Raymond . . . and Debra . . . and Frank . . . and Marie . . . and . . .

We are winding up this month’s blogs about some popular sitcoms. In 1986, the Barone family visited our living rooms. The show might be titled Everybody Loves Raymond, but the family was a package deal. Ray (Ray Romano), a sportswriter, (his column is “More Than a Game”) lives in a beautiful home with his funny and smart wife Debra (Patricia Heaton), and picture-perfect kids (played by real life siblings Madylin Sweeten, Sawyer Sweeten, and Sullivan Sweeten). However, once you probe a bit you find the same dysfunctional family all your neighbors and friends have.

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His parents Marie (Doris Roberts) and Frank (Peter Boyle) and his brother Robert (Brad Garrett), a policeman, live across the street and no one has anything that even looks like privacy. The exterior shots of the two Barone homes are located on Margaret Blvd in Merrick, New York and really are across the street from each other.

Romano told Larry King in 2005 that he was doing stand-up comedy for a dozen years when he appeared on Letterman. The next week, his company called to say they wanted to develop a show around his stories. He met with Philip Rosenthal who had been a writer for Coach.

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Philip Rosenthal then created this show which debuted in September of 1996 and stayed on the air until May of 2005, producing 210 episodes. (Romano and Roberts were the only two characters to appear on every one of the 210 shows.) The shows were filmed with a live audience for most of the nine years.

Real life intersects with television life in a variety of ways in this show.  In addition to the Barone kids being real siblings, Ray’s daughter Alexandra appears on the show from time to time as Ally’s friend Molly. Ray’s brother in real life was also a police officer at the NYPD. Rosenthal’s wife Monica Horan later joins the show as Amy and marries Robert. Ray’s father Albert portrays Frank’s friend Albert. And, Heaton’s real-life husband David Hunt plays Bill Parker on several episodes.

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Ray tries to keep peace between his wife and his mother but fails most of the time. Marie often criticizes Debra and the way she behaves as a wife and mother. He often leaves most of the children and household responsibilities to Debra. Marie obviously favors Ray, the younger of the boys, to Robert’s frustration. Ray and Robert are often seen arguing like ten-year-old boys. Frank is a bit of a gruff and rough man. Anyone is a potential target for his many insults, especially his wife. However, deep down he loves his family a lot, and we get to know him better as the show continues.

Boyle claimed that he got lost on the way to his audition, so when he showed up he was sarcastic and frustrated which helped him get the part. Garrett was the first actor given a role. Roberts was busy with a play so she came to the audition without any preparation and acted by her intutiion, obtaining the role over 100 other women. Heaton was a bit stressed, earning a living by babysitting and clipping coupons and the execs found her “real and focused.” The role came down to Heaton and Jane Sibbett but Ray preferred Heaton.

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The show has a timeless quality about it since it focused more on telling stories and reflecting on busy lives. Rosenthal said writing sessions started with everyone talking about their lives until they got an idea. Rosenthal admitted that “ninety percent of everything you hear on the show has been said to me or Ray Romano or one of the writers.” An episode was filmed every week. The actors did a read through and rehearsed on Monday, rehearsed with the tweaks made Tuesday, CBS running rehearsal Wednesday, camera blocking Thursdays, and filming Fridays.

The critics liked the show from the beginning. Los Angeles Daily News critic David Kronke said it “was the quintessentially honest sitcom. It’s neither too hokey nor too crass. It depicts families as dissolute yet inextricably bound together, just like they really are, and finds the humor in those real frictions that threaten, yet never manage, to burst family units apart. Its characterizations are among the most finely defined on TV. Debra, with her vaguely no-nonsense disgust of Raymond’s simpleton-ness, is unlike any sitcom mom ever. Doris Roberts’ Marie had a sinister streak long before Nancy Marchand’s Livia showed up on The Sopranos. Raymond is also one of the few contemporary sitcoms that has figured out how to implement and even exploit the four-camera, live-audience situation, which is no simple feat.”

Betsy Wallace gave the show 4 out of 5 stars, claiming “the cast is stellar and plotlines shed light on universal human insecurities, such as doubting that your spouse still finds you attractive as you grow older.” In 1997, Bruce Fetts said the series “may now be the best sitcom on the air.”

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The show received 69 Emmy nominations, winning 15 of them. Roberts won four times, Garrett three, Heaton twice, Romano once. Boyle was the only nominee never to win.

After nine seasons, the fans were still on board, but the writers felt they had run out of ideas to keep a tenth season interesting, so the show ended. Knowing when it’s time to terminate a show and allow it to end gracefully is a wonderful gift for viewers.

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With nine years of amazing shows you’re not going to be able to binge watch the entire series in a week-end, but it’s a great way to spend a season’s worth of cold, winter days. Thanks for nine years of memorable shows; we love you all.

Doris Roberts: One of Our Favorite Mothers

To begin the new year, we are looking at some of my favorite female television stars. We begin the series with Doris Roberts, everybody’s favorite mother.

Doris Roberts (1925-2016) - Find A Grave Memorial
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Doris was born in 1925 in St. Louis. When her parents split up, she went to the Bronx with her mother, and they lived with her grandparents. Her parents ran the Z.L. Rosenfield Agency which provided stenographic services to playwrights and actors. After studying journalism at New York University, she decided to try her hand acting, taking classes at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City and working with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio. In the fifties, she could be seen in a variety of Broadway shows including The Desk Set, The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers, and Bad Habits. She worked with Shirley Booth on The Desk Set and credited Booth with being her acting mentor.

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In 1951 she accepted her first role in television, appearing on the show Starlight Theatre. She accepted roles on several 1950s drama shows. In 1956, Doris married Michael Cannata. They divorced in 1962, and a year later she married William Goven, a playwright. They would stay together until his death in 1986.

Doris was offered her first film role in Something Wild in 1961. She would go on to appear in more than 30 movies.

Her television career also began to expand in the sixties when she appeared in about nine drama series. However, it was the seventies when she hit her stride. During that decade, she would make appearances in Mary Hartman, All in the Family, Family, Rhoda, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in addition to several others.

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Helping Phyllis find a job on The Mary Tyler Moore Show
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On All in the Family, Doris played a bar patron who befriends Edith. Originally, Roberts was offered the role of Vivian on Norman Lear’s show, Maude but at the last minute, Lear asked Rue McClanahan to take the role over. Later Norman stated that he thought Roberts’ character was too similar to Bea Arthur’s Maude. On Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, she played a faith healer Dorelda Doremus.

Doris Roberts: Her Most Memorable TV Roles
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Doris mentioned that Lily Tomlin encouraged her to move to Los Angeles in 1973. After her relocation, Roberts received her first recurring character roles. She would appear in Soap as Flo Flotsky on four episodes, five episodes of Barney Miller, and she had a regular spot as the star’s mother on Angie which ran from 1979-1980.

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Her career continued to flourish throughout the eighties. She had recurring roles on as a gabby hairdresser on Maggie and on Alice as Lavin’s mother, and she was a regular on Remington Steele where Roberts played a former IRS agent who becomes the receptionist for the agency. In addition, she could be seen on Fantasy Island, St. Elsewhere, The Love Boat, Mr. Belvedere, and Cagney and Lacey, along with a variety of other shows.

Her appearance on St. Elsewhere gave her an Emmy win for a guest appearance, playing a homeless woman.

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Roberts on St. Elsewhere
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In the decade of the nineties, we saw her on Empty Nest, Murder She Wrote, and The King of Queens, among others. However, it was in 1996 when she was offered the role that would change her life. From 1996-2005 she came into our living rooms every week as Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond.

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More than 100 actresses were considered for the role. She was nominated for seven Emmys, winning four of them (2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005). Amazingly, Ray Romano as Ray Barone, Peter Boyle as his dad Frank, Patricia Heaton as his wife Debra, Brad Garrett as his brother Robert and Doris Roberts appeared in all 210 episodes of the series.

Everybody Loves Raymond cast - Where are they now? | Gallery |  Wonderwall.com
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Ray Romano discussed the appeal Roberts had for viewers: “Here’s how good she was: She played the most intrusive, overbearing, nosy woman—always starting fights and whatnot and meddling in our business—and yet, when I asked the fans who their favorite character was, all the time it was her. She was so good at portraying the love that was underneath.” In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Doris described the character of Marie Barone: “Nine glorious years; everything good comes to an end. She doesn’t give in, she doesn’t give up and she never takes no for an answer.”

Doris remained friends with the cast, especially her on-screen husband Frank played by Peter Boyle. After his death, Roberts remembered him: “Peter was so different from the characters he played. He was brilliant, well read, sensitive, a gentleman.” Roberts was able to visit him at home and in the hospital and to be with the family after his passing.

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From 2006-2014, her work continued. In addition to a recurring role on The Middle, she appeared on Law and Order, Grey’s Anatomy, Hot in Cleveland, and Desperate Housewives, along with six other less-known shows. Her role on The Middle gave her a chance to work with her Everybody Loves Raymond costar, Patricia Heaton again.

In addition to her acting career, Roberts was a dedicated activist. She testified before Congress about age discrimination in Hollywood, worked with a variety of animal rights groups, and was chairwoman for the Children with AIDS Foundation. She also had a variety of hobbies including traveling, philanthropy, collecting wine, dancing, singing, and cooking. She claimed her favorite movie was Gone with the Wind.

In 2003, Roberts published her memoir cowritten with Danelle Morton, titled, Are You Hungry Dear? Life, Laughs, and Lasagna. She included many of her favorite recipes in the biography.

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In 2016, Roberts died following a stroke. Romano said “Doris Roberts had an energy and a spirit that amazed me. She never stopped. Whether working professionally or with her many charities, or just nurturing and mentoring a green young comic trying to make it as an actor, she did everything with such a grand love for life and people, and I will miss her dearly.”

Patricia Heaton said Doris’s television husband Peter Boyle was sick so the cast was able to prepare themselves for his death, but Doris died quickly. Heaton said “Roberts was funny and tough and loved life, living it to the fullest.”

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One of my favorite quotes by Doris Roberts is that “everybody is a teacher if you listen.” Thanks for teaching and entertaining us for more than six decades.

Golden Girls: Friends for Life

We are wrapping up our series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” At the beginning of the month, we learned about a show that featured four women who spent much of their life together for seven years (Designing Women). Today we end our series with another show that featured a quartet of women that also ran for seven years.

In September of 1985, a new type of sitcom debuted. This show featured four retired women who lived life together, relying on humor to make things work. The show, Golden Girls, was on the air seven years, ending in 1992 and producing 177 episodes. The show was always on Saturday nights with the seventh season moving to an earlier hour.

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I read two different versions about the creation of the show, so take your pick. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. One version is that the idea came from Brandon Tartikoff, an NBC executive. When he was visiting his aunt one day, he noticed that she and her next-door neighbor who was her best friend, argued a lot but loved each other. He thought the concept would make a great show.

The other version credits NBC senior vice president Warren Littlefield. He was in the audience when Selma Diamond and Doris Roberts acted in a skit called “Miami Nice,” a parody of the popular Miami Vice. The skit featured old people living in Miami.

Either way, Susan Harris created the show itself, and it was produced by Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, with Tony Thomas and Harris serving as original executive producers. After the first year, Harris was not as involved with the show, but still oversaw the scripts.

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The four main characters are quite different which is probably why the series was so successful. Blanche (Rue McLanahan) owns the house in Miami. Two women, widow Rose Nylund (Betty White) and divorcee Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) respond to an ad on a grocery store bulletin board to become Blanche’s roommates. In the pilot episode, the retirement home where Dorothy’s 80-year-old mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) lives burns down, so she joins the trio. All four of the characters appeared in every episode.

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Blanche worked for an art museum. She grew up in a wealthy family, living on a plantation outside Atlanta. When she married her husband George, they moved to Miami. With six kids, Blanche should be a busy family matriarch, but she was man-hungry and always involved in some romantic entanglement much to the chagrin of Rose.

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Dorothy was a substitute teacher. She became pregnant in high school and married the father, Stanley. Stan and Dorothy moved to Miami but after 38 years of marriage, he had an affair with an airline stewardess and left Dorothy.

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Rose lived most of her life in a small farming town, St. Olaf, Minnesota. She and husband Charlie were happily married with five children. After he passes away, she moves to Florida and works at a counseling center. At one point she works for a consumer reporter at a local television station. Rose had an on-again, off-again relationship with a college professor, Miles Webber, during the run of the show.

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Sophia left Italy to get out of an arranged marriage and ended up in New York where she met Salvadore Petrillo. Sophia also has a variety of jobs on the show, including a fast-food worker and a developer of a spaghetti sauce and sandwich business. Sophia is the only character to marry during the seven seasons. She married Max Weinstock, but they separated soon after the wedding.

The role of Sophia was the first one cast. Estelle Getty had received rave reviews for her performance in Torch Song Trilogy. Although Getty played Dorothy’s mother, in reality she was a year younger than Arthur. It took Getty three hours in make-up to transform into the older Sophia, donning a white wig, heavy make-up and thick glasses. Apparently, even though she was an experienced actress, she suffered from stage fright and often froze on camera. This affliction got worse as the show continued, and by the fifth season, she was reading her lines from cue cards. McClanahan tried to describe what Getty suffered with, “She’d panic. She would start getting under a dark cloud the day before tape day . . . you could see a big difference in her that day. She’d be walking around like Pig-Pen under a black cloud. By tape day, she was unreachable. She was just as uptight as a human being could get. When your brain is frozen like that, you can’t remember lines.”

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Originally McClanahan was cast as Rose and White as Blanche. White had portrayed Sue Ann Nivens, a man-crazy woman, on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Director Paul Bogart felt they should switch roles.

McClanahan came up with the idea that Blanche should have a southern accent which she exaggerated to make the character more interesting. Apparently, one of the set jokes was where Rue McClanahan might be sleeping on the set. She was often found napping in different places.

Although Harris created Dorothy as a “Bea Arthur type,” the producers originally wanted Elaine Stritch for the part, but her audition did not go well. Arthur didn’t want to do the show because she didn’t want her and McClanahan to be portrayed as Maude and Vivian as they were in the show Maude. After reading the script and learning about the role switch of her coworkers, she came on board.

Costume designer Judy Evans created a different look for each of the cast members. Rose was down home and Midwestern. Sophia relied on comfortable clothing. Dorothy had a “pulled-together, no nonsense” look. Blanche was sexy with flowing outfits. Rue had a clause written into her contract that she be allowed to keep all Blanche’s clothing, which was custom made. By the end of the series, she filled thirteen closets with the designer wardrobe. Late McClanahan would create a more affordable line of clothing for QVC, “A Touch of Rue” based on Blanche’s show wardrobe.

(Left to right) The cast of television series The Golden Girls Rue McClanahan, Betty White, Estelle Getty and Beatrice Arthur are shown in a scene from the show in this undated publicity handout photo.
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While the characters argued from time to time, you knew they loved and cared about each other and were a family, even if they made each other crazy at times. In reality, Arthur was very difficult to get along with. Betty White, who seems to love everyone, admits she did not have a good relationship with Arthur. Apparently, White’s positive and perky manner irritated Bea. McClanahan said Bea was very eccentric and hard to be friendly with. However, White, always the professional, never revealed their difficulties until after Arthur passed away. White and McClanahan became close friends during the show’s run. White always loved game shows and she found a kindred spirit in Rue. They frequently played games between takes.

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The house was often a fifth character on the show. The exterior of the home, which was supposed to be at 6151 Richmond Street, was part of the backstage studio tour ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the first two seasons. Designer Ed Stephenson used a “Florida look” for the home with wooden accents, columns, cypress doors, rattan furniture, and tropical prints. Of course, Blanche’s bedroom featured pink carpeting and a vanity table. Dorothy’s room was filled with books and intricate wallpaper. Rose’s walls are covered with clouds, and her room contained a lot of ruffles and chintz. Sophia’s room was also modern with dainty floral wallpaper and mahogany furniture covered by bedding with a satin trim.

If you watch the scenes in the kitchen, you will notice that although four people live there, there are only three chairs at the table. If all four girls were sitting there, someone had their back to the camera, so the director solved the problem by only having three of them in the scene at a time.

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Often the plots would feature one of the characters mired in a problem, typically involving their family, their love life, or ethical dilemmas. When they gathered around the table to talk, the stories they told would help each other, even though Rose’s stories from her youth typically had no connection to the current problem and Sophia’s stories were often made up. Many controversial issues were covered during the show including same-sex marriage, elder care, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, immigration, death, assisted suicide, and discrimination whether racial, sexual or gender.

The critics praised the show, and the public adored it. For six of the seven seasons, the show ranked in the top ten. Both Betty White and Estelle Getty received seven Emmy nominations during the seven-year period, while Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan each received four. Fun fact, all of them won an Emmy during the run of the show. Overall, the show received 68 Emmy nominations.

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The Queen Mother loved the show so much that she asked the quartet to come to England and perform for her personally. When the cast assembled in London, they appeared in an episode about the visit to the Queen.

After the seventh season, when the show had dropped into the top 30, Bea Arthur decided to leave the show. In the finale, Dorothy finally meets the man for her, who happens to be Blanche’s uncle Lucas (Leslie Nielsen), and they move to Atlanta. Sophia is uncertain whether she should move with them or stay in Miami and, in the end, decides to stay in Florida.

When the series ended, White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their Golden Girls roles and starred in The Golden Palace about a hotel. The series ended after the first year and never enjoyed the rankings of the original, coming in 57th for the year.

Harris developed two spinoffs from the original series. Empty Nest starred Richard Mulligan as pediatrician Harry Weston who lives next to the women with his two grown daughters. The show was also very popular and lasted seven years as well.

The Cast of Empty Nest
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Empty Nest then launched a show about some of the nurses who worked in Weston’s hospital, simply titled Nurses. While this series was never as popular as Golden Girls or Empty Nest, it did last three years.

The cast of Nurses
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Although I enjoyed The Golden Girls, I actually did not watch it often.  I think maybe because it was on Saturday nights during a time that I was not likely home in the evening. I did enjoy it when I caught an episode but was never the fanatic many of my friends were. I think I should let the “Girls” have the last words about their series:

Dorothy: You know, sometimes I can’t believe my ears.
Sophia: I know. I should’ve taped them back when you were seven.

UNITED STATES – MAY 13: THE GOLDEN GIRLS – 9/24/85 – 9/24/92, ESTELLE GETTY, BEA ARTHUR, (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

[Dorothy and Sophia come home after Sophia’s best friend’s funeral]

Sophia: Well, I guess Phyllis Glutman will be my new best friend.

Dorothy: I thought you hated Phyllis Glutman.

Sophia: I do, but at the rate my friends are going, I won’t have to spend too much time with her.

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Rose: You know what I think?

Blanche: No, do you?

Life in Fernwood: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night

As we wind up our series of “oddly wonderful” shows, we take a look at two shows that were set in the same community and may be two of the most unusual shows to ever air on television—Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night.

If you read my blog often, you know I am not usually a fan of Norman Lear shows, and while these two series are very different from a typical Norman Lear show, unfortunately, I only enjoyed one of them. Lear’s shows were filmed at Metromedia Square in Hollywood. When he got ready to tackle these shows, there was no room left there. He arranged to rent space from KTLA which was across Fernwood Street. The staff started calling KTLA “Fernwood” which became the name of the town in Ohio where Mary lives.

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Lear said he created the show to deal with consumerism.

The original show was was a campy show but had likable and thoughtful characters. Like Soap, this show had a brilliant cast and satirized soap series. It was called Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, because the writers said dialogue on a soap opera was often said twice. Lear filmed the pilot and offered it to the three major networks who all passed. The show began as a syndicated show (it began on 50 stations) and was only on from January 1976 till May 1977. Unlike Soap, this show produced a huge number of episodes, 325 to be exact. It aired daily on weekdays.

Like the Tates and Campbells, Mary suffered through bizarre plots and unbelievable story lines, including adultery, mass murder, disease, homosexuality, religious cults, UFO sightings, and a nervous breakdown.

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Dodie Goodman as Martha

Louise Lasser (who had been married to Woody Allen) portrayed Mary. She was married to Tom (Greg Mullavey). Tom worked at an auto assembly plant. Dody Goodman played Mary’s mother Martha. Debralee Scott played her sister Lorraine. The cast was rounded out by amazing supporting characters including Mary Kay Place as Mary’s best friend Loretta; Graham Jarvis as Charlie, Loretta’s husband and Tom’s best friend; Claudia Lamb as Heather, Mary and Tom’s daughter; Martin Mull as Garth Gimble who killed his wife; Dabney Coleman, Fernwood’s mayor; Gloria DeHaven who had an affair with Tom; Orson Bean as Rev. Brim, Shelley Fabares as Eleanor Major, a woman Tom falls in love with after Mary leaves him; Ed Begley Jr. as Steve; and Doris Roberts as Dorelda Doremus, a faith healer.

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Mary Kay Place as Loretta

Mary wore her hair in braids like Pippi Longstocking. One article described her as a life-size Raggedy Ann. She was indecisive and switched her emotions quickly and without reason. Mary went through one crisis after another until she couldn’t function anymore. One of the things that led to Mary’s breakdown was that she believed everything she saw on television and it made her crazy that she could not see the waxy yellow build up the commercials claimed was on her floor. She was also dealing with marital problems and boredom.

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Right from the beginning, the show displayed its weird story lines. In the first episode, the Lombardi family of five is murdered and the neighborhood tries to catch the Fernwood Flasher, who later turned out to be Mary’s grandfather. There were a lot of strange deaths in this show. Jimmy Joe Jeeter was electrocuted in the tub, Coach Leroy drowned in chicken noodle soup, and Garth Gimble impaled his wife on a bottle brush Christmas tree.

In 1977, Lasser decided to leave the show. The rest of the cast continued on and accounted for her disappearance by announcing that she had run off with Sgt Dennis Foley. The show then became Forever Fernwood.

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Later that year, Fernwood 2-Night was spun off. Martin Mull was now Garth’s twin brother Barth and was the host of a late-night talk show with Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard) as his “Ed McMahon”.

One of my favorite things about this show was Frank DeVol, the composer, who played Happy Kyne with his band the Mirth Makers (Eddie Robertson, Tommy Tedesco, Frank Marocco, and Colin Bailey) on the show. Happy never looked happy; he had a side business, a fast-food restaurant called Bun ‘n Run.

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Alan Thicke was the head writer on the show. Lear thought it should all be improvised, but Thicke said it needed a balance of scripting with ad-lib.

In the same way Mary Hartman satirized soap operas, this show satirized late-night talk shows. The guests were a mix of real and fictional people. For example, Tom Waits appeared on the show when his bus broke down in Fernwood. I don’t remember a lot about this show specifically, but I remember thinking it was very funny.

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After the first season, the show was moved to California where celebrities would be more likely to appear on the show.

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I have never seen either of these shows in reruns and like most of the shows we learned about this month, I think they are better left as a remnant of the era they debuted in. Although few people seem to remember Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it was listed #21 on TV Guide’s list of best one-hundred shows in 2003. When thinking about the classic shows that had been on the air by 2003, that says a lot about what TV Guide thought about the quality of this show.

Lear had to tow a fine line on this show. With the types of crises Mary encountered and the bleak life that was portrayed of a housewife in Fernwood, Ohio, it was close to tragic. The exaggerated number of catastrophes and despairing situations kept it slightly in the humor genre. The demise of the show is often blamed on Lasser’s leaving, but in my opinion, it could not have continued to sustain viewers much longer than it was on the air. How many crises can be cooked up that hadn’t happened, and when did the tragic overtake the comedy for most viewers? Again, it’s a show best viewed in its decade.

In my rating of odd, wonderful, or oddly wonderful, I give Fernwood 2-night wonderful, and I’m afraid I have to give Mary Hartman an odd rating. It was a hard show to watch. If you wanted drama, there was too much humor in it, but if you wanted comedy, it was way too dark. I’d love to hear from you on your ratings for these two little-remembered shows.