"Lady Godiva was a freedom rider; she didn't care if the whole world looked;
Joan of Arc, with the Lord to guide her, she was a sister who really cooked…"
Maude (1972-78) is the best American situation comedy of the 1970s, edging out, slightly, the better remembered, more widely acclaimed Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Barney Miller, The Bob Newhart Show, and WKRP in Cincinnati. (M*A*S*H doesn't qualify; at its peak that series was really a drama series with comedy relief.)
Maude is also superior to that famous series Norman Lear also created, the one regarded as his supreme triumph, All in the Family. That show began wonderfully well, but went into free-fall as cast members departed, and especially when someone made the terrible decision to soften protagonist Archie Bunker from reactionary bigot to loveable curmudgeon, like having Ebenezer Scrooge rediscover his humanity the minute Jacob Marley shows up. None of Lear's other series lived up to their frequently promising beginnings.
But Maude hit the ground running and remained spectacularly funny, clever, and insightful through its entire run. Further, Maude may be the best acted sitcom of all time. From its fourth episode, "Like Mother, Like Daughter," the caliber of acting - the subtlety of the performances, the chances its ensemble cast took - went to a level far beyond even some of the best sitcoms. With a few exceptions, notably Dick Van Dyke on his ‘60s show, Judd Hirsch on Taxi, and maybe Ed Asner on Mary Tyler Moore, stars Bea Arthur and Bill Macy, and to some extent the supporting cast, worked at a level comparable to great theater, at a depth and with an exactness and emotional reality usually reserved for straight drama. (Again, sitcom stars in the Vaudeville/burlesque/Catskills tradition, like Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers, don't apply here.) Maude's cast created flesh-and-blood, fully three-dimensional, very human, very flawed characters. Maude Findlay (Arthur) was middle-aged, domineering, opinionated, self-involved, argumentative, obsessive, and judgmental. Her (fourth) husband, Walter (Macy) was depressive, emotionally volatile, alcoholic, and worked too hard.
"Isadora was the first bra-burner. Ain't ya glad she showed up;
And when the country was fallin' apart Betsy Ross got it all sewed up…"
Bea Arthur was the unlikeliest of sitcom stars, unimaginable in today's youth-skewered market, which is the medium's loss. A former World War II Marine (Yes, she was; look it up), Arthur was too tall, too gray, too flabby, and she had a deep voice that became one of the show's running gags: answering the telephone, Maude inevitably responded with, "No, this is Mrs. Findlay…" After the much-in-demand Broadway actress became a nationally famous star on television, Arthur became the butt of innumerable jokes trading on her statuesque, severe screen presence, but behind that veneer was an irreplaceable original, one of the medium's great talents.
Maude itself began as a shrewd inverse of All in the Family, with Maude Findlay a "limousine" liberal and feminist but, unlike the Stanley Kramer-esque political consciousness of All in the Family, topical stories really took a backseat to more fundamental issues of marital and other familial relationships. At its heart Maude is the stormy (if sexually very active) love story of Maude and Walter, two impossible people made for each other - because no one else would ever put up with them. A profound and surprisingly universal theme, that.
Shout! Factory's Maude: The Complete Series does the program justice. Beyond all 147 half-hour episodes, the set includes a truckload of extra features, including an excellent 40-page booklet.
"And then there's Maude…"
Maude debuted on two episodes of All in the Family, as Edith Bunker's (Jean Stapleton) outspoken liberal cousin, the polar opposite of Edith's right-wing loudmouth husband, Archie (Carroll O'Connor). But where Archie was always outnumbered and an easy target for Lear's ridicule, Maude was more complex. Based on Lear's then-wife Frances, Maude was as progressive as the Lears were, but also sanctimonious and overbearing, pushy and overly critical, if acerbically so.
She was also upper middle-class, residing in Westchester County, New York, with her fourth husband, Walter, the owner of a big appliance store. Liberal guilt doesn't dissuade her from hiring a black maid, straight-shooting Florida Evans (Estelle Rolle), the first of Maude's three funny domestics. Maude's suffocating declarations of black empathy and attempts at spiritual bonding nearly drive Florida away. She just wants to do the job she's good at, for which she feels no shame at all. (Take that, political correctness watchdogs.)
Maude also has a difficult relationship with her recently divorced daughter, Carol (Adrienne Barbeau, very sexy), who has moved back into the house with her son, Phillip (Brian Morrison and, in its last season, Kraig Metzinger). Additionally, there's next-door neighbor Dr. Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain), Walter's best friend. Arthur is a stuffy red-rock Republican as sanctimonious and combative as Maude. He later marries Vivian (Rue McClanahan), Maude's oldest friend. She's a vivacious but painfully naïve woman several years Maude's junior.
Throughout its run, Maude touched upon the issues of the day, never more famously so than when Maude, at 47, becomes pregnant and contemplates having an abortion, newly legal in New York State but still prohibited in some parts of the country when the episode first aired. It's an excellent episode, as were other shows about marijuana laws, male chauvinism, women's lib, etc. But Maude's politics became secondary to more immediate battles constantly raging in the Findlay household.
The greatness that is Maude is exemplified in that episode "Like Mother, Like Daughter." Tired of the instability of being a single mother, Carol decides to marry a decent man she doesn't love. Maude is appalled. Walter wants his dinner. Maude and Walter get into a spectacular, dish-smashing fight in the kitchen, prompting Carol's suitor to wonder how two such people can stay married. "Easy," says Carol, without thinking, "It's because they love each other." Epiphany. At that instance the engagement is off. It's a profoundly moving moment in the eye of a hilarious storm of flying kitchenware.
The season two (two-part) opener, "Walter's Problem," confronts Walter's alcoholism, an issue so easily brushed aside during this height of the "cocktail generation." With Walter's drinking out of control as his business falters, and Maude reluctant to accept the truth, she makes the unwise decision to become Walter's drinking buddy. It's Phillip's birthday and the two ruin his cake drunkenly trying to decorate it. "Walter," says Maude, outraged, "That doesn't say ‘Happy.' It says ‘Hippy!'" Walter becomes hostile, striking Maude and breaking down into tears. The even better Part Two has Walter reneging on his promise to stop drinking, prompting nervous laughter from the studio audience as he fails utterly at "tapering off," until Carol threatens to remove his beloved grandson from the home.
Lucille Ball is routinely named television's "Queen of Comedy," but Lucy really only had six or seven basic expressions; her range was actually pretty limited. Bea Arthur, on the other hand, is a wonder. Her range seems limitless. Though like other Lear shows Arthur is saddled with overworked catchphrases ("God will get you for that, Walter," Maude's "Dy-no-mite!"), she constantly delights with her immense range of facial gyrations and acerbic word phrasing. She really knows how to deliver dialogue and is no slouch with physical comedy, either. About every fourth or fifth Maude is outstanding, but even ordinary shows offer several big belly laughs, usually thanks to Arthur. "Maude and the Medical Profession," for instance, is a pretty ordinary show, but her wild reactions to a combination of alcohol and recklessly prescribed tranquilizers are priceless.
Macy is Arthur's equal as Walter. The show wouldn't have worked had Walter been henpecked by the shrewish Maude, but Macy matches Arthur in the verbal artillery department, and is as fine an actor. Five days younger than Arthur, Macy was part of the original company of Oh! Calcutta! (which helps to explain the frequency in which Walter strips down over the course of Maude), and later appeared in such films as The Jerk and, memorably, in My Favorite Year. Later he was on such shows as Seinfeld, Chicago Hope and made a strong guest appearance on ER, but for such a talented man he was still under-utilized.
Maude's supporting cast was great, too, particularly Conrad Bain, who rather than merely playing a hothead conservative threatened by opposing positions in the manner of Archie Bunker, instead was more breezily confident in his opinions without ever quite being aware of how ridiculous he frequently sounded. An example of Bain's range is showcased in "Vivian's Surprise." That episode would seem to have a standard sitcom plot: Arthur's mentally ill twin brother, Arnold (also Bain), has escaped from a mental institution and is impersonating Arthur (who's away on a business trip), including landing Vivian in Arthur's bed. When Arthur returns, there's the expected mix-up between the two lookalikes. Bain plays both roles so subtly different everyone gets them confused. At the climax, Arthur and the others have Arnold cornered in a closet, and Maude demands Arnold come out. What follows startled the live studio audience into stunned silence, followed by spontaneous applause. (Spoiler below*)
There are too many great Maudes to name them all. In addition to those mentioned above, personal favorites include "Walter's 50th Birthday," in which the sudden death of a childhood friend (he drops dead on their living room floor) has Walter depressed about his mortality. In "Maude Meets the Duke," Maude confronts the very symbol of conservative Americana, John Wayne, who's in town to promote Brannigan. Wayne "never talks politics with a lady," a statement that makes Maude's blood boil. "Maude Bares Her Soul" is a tour de force for Arthur, who essentially delivers a 25-minute monologue from a psychiatrist's couch. In "Vivian's First Funeral," a lost antique brooch is discovered on a finger of the dearly departed, prompting the women to consider taking drastic measures to ensure its return. And then there's the hysterically funny "The Game Show," in which Maude is dragged by Vivian kicking and screaming to appear on a typically inane quiz show, on which Maude finally agrees to appear, if only to help Viv maintain a modicum of dignity.
Video & Audio
To begin with, Maude: The Complete Series comes in an unusually sturdy box. This is no small plus. Too often these boxed sets come in paper-thin "boxes" that fall apart while still en route to one's mailbox. The series itself was shot on tape, "before a studio audience." In this high-def age, it's a shame Lear's shows were all produced this way, but even on this reviewer's 90-inch screen the image is acceptable, considering, and the episodes do not appear cut or time-compressed. (Also no small thing: Maude often sang excerpts from popular songs and show tunes. Such material was hacked out of DVDs of The Odd Couple and other series. That doesn't appear to be the case here, at least not on the episodes sampled for this review.) The mono audio, English only with no subtitle options (though closed-captioning is offered), is strong. The series is packed into three standard DVD-size cases, two seasons per, with 18 single-sided DVDs in all. The discs are region 1 encoded and, for the record, the season 1 episodes aren't leftover copies from Sony's ages-ago DVD release.
Supplements galore. First is a 40-page booklet, featuring very nice color and black-and-white stills of the cast, an essay by TV critic Tom Shales, and an episode guide with show titles, original airdates, and detailed plot synopses.
Next comes a bonus disc, which includes the following: Maude's first appearances, on two episodes of All in the Family, "Cousin Maude's Visit" and "Maude: Pilot"; next are two unaired, never-before-seen Maude episodes, "The Double Standard" (from Season 2) and "Maude's New Friends" (from Season 5)**; next is a syndication presentation, hosted by Norman Lear.
Three excellent featurettes come next: "And Then There's Maude: Television's First Feminist," "Everything But Hemorrhoids: Maude Speaks to America," and "Memories of Maude." This last segment, featuring Bill Macy and Adrienne Barbeau, with archival video interviews with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Hal Cooper (who directed 126 episodes), is both informative and touching. Kudos to disc producer Brian Blum and his team for tracking down the archival interviews (Arthur died in 2009, McClanahan in 2010, and Cooper in 2014).
Barbeau still looks great, while Macy, at 92, is as funny and delightful as ever. His remarks are especially touching and sweet. Talking about the episode where alcoholic Walter strikes Maude, Macy is overcome with emotion, explaining that, even though he and Arthur were acting, the scene so profoundly effected him that he, Macy, decided then and there to stop drinking as well.
Maude is one of the all-time great situation comedies. It's well regarded but notably superior to a number of more widely and loftily praised ‘70s shows, including All in the Family. One of the best boxed sets of the year and a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
"That uncompromising, enterprising, anything-but-tranquilizing right-on Maude!"
* When Arnold comes out of the closet, for this one scene the role is played by Conrad Bain's real-life identical twin, Bonar. Ingenious!
**"The Double Standard" was shot as episode 15 of Season 1 but didn't air; it was reshot with cast changes as a Season 2 show with the same title. "Maude's New Friends" was shot for Season 3 and the same thing happened, with the episode reshot with a different guest cast during Season 5.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.