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Mama's Family: The Complete Fourth Season
Following a rather sizable casting change-up in the third season, "Mama's Family" slowly but surely, settled into its new groove. With season four, all the new dynamics of the inclusion of Bubba and Iola as Thelma Harper's neer-do-well grandson and busybody neighbor, respectively, became familiar territory from episode to episode. Allowing more room to breath in terms of sheer character volume compared to seasons one and two, the show was allowed to build relationships between all the characters. Season four adds something new to the mix, a light, but admirable attempt at a narrative through point in the form of a race to graduation for both Thelma and Bubba. While nowhere as near detailed as some of the season spanning arcs present in the modern sitcom, it is in fact another shining example of while "Mama's Family" may have sported a low-budget look, aimed for cheap laughs at times, and truthfully was little more than a syndicated series, it remains a high-water point for the American sitcom of its era.
The casting of the series is something that shines, especially in this fourth season, with every actor bringing something unique to the table, led first and foremost by Vickie Lawrence's performance as Thelma. What more can be said about the role that hasn't already been stated and likely more eloquently. Lawrence is a force of nature, playing a character many decades older than the actress herself, but with an authenticity that makes the more broad humor easier to digest and accept. Lawrence's chemistry with the cast, in particular with Ken Berry playing her inept but well-meaning son Vinton and Dorothy Lyman as his sultry but devoted wife Naomi. There's a constant balance of absolute frustration towards Vinton's constant screw-ups and frequent whining, but that rare level of caring that gets lost in more mean-spirited sitcoms translates nicely; Lyman on the other hand acts as a great foil to Lawrence's gruff and outspoken nature, offering sympathy, but playing against appearance by exhibiting many of Vinton's goofier traits, albeit much more subtly. Beverly Archer and Alan Kayser also deliver consistent performances, albeit much more broad and one-dimensional at times; as much as I love the series, the weaker writing for Archer's Iola quickly grated on the nerves, while Kayser's work as Bubba felt off at times, with the actor just not looking the right age for the part.
In terms of standout episodes, "Workman's Holiday" remains a personal favorite, fully capturing the comedic dynamic of Thelma and Vinton, allowing Berry to showcase is great gift of physical comedy, an aspect of the show not fully given its due. "Mama Goes Hawaiian" offers a two-parter set around the genre cliché of a Hawaiian vacation; three decades after airing, the low budget of the show really hinders things in this episode, although there is a fair amount of earnest sentiment that shines through. "Mama Gets the Bird" is the second most consistent episode of this season and is a great focal point on the large cast dynamic; the mystery subplot is funny for other reasons entirely and despite the resolution being a bit clunky, it's an episode that is actually a great representation of the whole series.
As a whole, season four of "Mama's Family" is second only to perhaps season five in terms of overall series quality. It doesn't redefine the genre, nor try and stray too far form workmanlike writing, but again, these are all distinct positives. To the modern viewer, the tacky production design and exaggerated performances don't mesh well with the modern idea of the sitcom, but joke-for-joke, I'll argue the laughs within are infinitely more "real" and inspired. "The Cosby Show" it isn't, in a league of its own, it most definitely is.
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 the featurette Mama's Family Tree: The Neighbors," another interview segment, this time focusing on Beverly Archer, and more of the reunion, "Under One Roof." Taken on their own, they are sparse, but when put in the context of the other season releases, they all add up to quite an enlightening retrospective.
Fans of "Mama's Family" are definitely going to want to add this fourth season release to their collection, provided they don't already own the full series set (for the record, this release is identical to the fourth season discs in that set). A great representation of the series at its best, season four represents an essential purchase for loyal fans and new fans alike. Highly Recommended.