Debuting in 1983, "Mama's Family" was a spin-off of a popular "Carol Burnett Show" sketch featuring Vicki Lawrence as Thelma "Mama" Harper, a folksy, no-holds barred, mid-western octogenarian saddled with the woes of her children, Eunice (Carol Burnett), Ellen (Betty White), and the dimwitted, but lovable, Vinton (Ken Berry). Over the course of the series' first two seasons, Thelma's family was in constant motion with the inclusion of her grandkids Buzz and Sonja, as well as Vinton's sudden marriage to local checker and recent divorcee, Naomi Oates (Dorothy Lyman). Initially well-received in the ratings, by the end of season two, "Mama's Family" fell out of critical favor and was swiftly cancelled. As luck would have it, "Mama's Family" would return via first-run syndication after a year-long hiatus jettisoning the majority of the supporting cast whilst adding two newcomers in the form of Thelma's other grandson, Bubba (Alan Kayser) and noisy, but well-meaning neighbor Iola (Beverly Archer). The result was an additional four years of a series that had not only retained the familiar origins of its freshman and sophomore season, but managed to evolve in tone, into an endearing, minor sitcom classic.
In the "Complete Third Season" of "Mama's Family" the cast shake-up hits the ground running with the off-screen death of Thelma's sister Fran (Rue McClanahan), resulting in an immediate comedy of errors centered around not only Fran's wake but the arrival of Bubba, Eunice's less than squeaky clean son. The tone for the show is set well, serving as a very solid fresh start for anyone who hadn't caught many of the earlier episodes. Almost instantly, the occasionally overwhelming chaos of multiple characters from seasons one and two are absent and the introduction of Bubba and Iola feels fluid and apart from one or two convoluted, but expected sitcom coincidences, natural. In no uncertain terms, Bubba and Iola are breaths of fresh air and the absence of Buzz, Sonia, Eunice, Fran, and Ellen are barely felt, if at all in the long run. In short, the cancellation and minor "reboot" of "Mama's Family" beginning at season three, may very well have been the best thing that could have happened to the series.
No one in their right mind would mistake the writing of "Mama's Family" for the cream of the comedic crop. It's very much a cheaply written sitcom, often as cheap as the gaudy, but familiar set and art direction of the series. Jokes are often broad, sometimes blatantly hackneyed, but the earnestness of the cast and more importantly, the more careful attention paid to the lines coming out of Thelma's mouth, create an instantly memorable feeling; yes, the arguments can be corny, but there's a universal appeal to the woes of the Harpers that one can't help but crack even the tiniest smile. At the end of the day or more accurately, episode of the series, the ultimate focus is on the familial relationship and even as the show closes with a declaration of contempt or veiled threat of violence from Thelma, the viewer will never walk away feeling the squabbles of the Harpers are steeped in malice, the way some modern day family based sitcoms tend to stray.
On a personal level, apart from a few key episodes, the third season of "Mama's Family" is honestly where I like to come in on a re-watch of the series. The remaining original cast have a firm grasp on their characters, with Lawrence naturally remaining the heart and soul of the show; Lyman and Berry deserve equal praise though with their opposites attract routine. Lyman in particular may play the sultry "independent woman" role on the surface, but every so often, we get to see she's just as lovingly dimwitted as Berry's Vinton, the classic "momma's boy" who posses quite a few noble traits overlooked by his sheer buffoonery at times. Newcomers Kayser and Archer, feel like opposite ends of the spectrum, with Kayser overplaying his role initially but aiming for the heartfelt, meanwhile Archer is almost entirely a caricature out of a 50s sitcom, the perennial noisy neighbor. When added together with a plot ranging from Thelma entering an arm-wrestling contest to the season closer focused around the simple task of putting together a puzzle, "Mama's Family" begins to fire on all cylinders and offer the occasional emotionally honest moment, but more consistently, elementary, earnest laughs.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer looks light years beyond every TV broadcast I can remember, including more recent airings on the ION Network. That said, this is still a cheap looking show shot on video and eye-pleasing is never an attribute that will be attached to this show. Colors are garish, partly intentional and partly not. Detail is firmly mediocre and there are some minor video artifacts to be found.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track fairs better than the image, but not by much. The mix is as well balanced as one could expect from its time period and budget. Dialogue is generally clear with only a few lines here and there coming off as muffled if not a tad tinny.
Bonus features include a "Family" sketch from the "Carol Burnett Show," a brief featurette focused on the character of Bubba, a segment of a cast reunion, and last but not least an interview with Allan Keyser. Taken on its own, it's not particularly impressive, but cumulatively, the bonus features on all the individual seasons of the show add up to quite a bit.
Fans of "Mama's Family" are definitely going to want to add this third season release to their collection, provided they don't already own the full series set (for the record, this release is identical to the third season discs in that set). Casual fans and newcomers alike are encouraged to start here as the show is in all honesty, never as fresh as it is here, save for the latter half of the final season. It's not high art by any means, but it's still worth your time and more importantly, laughter. Highly Recommended.