Bea Arthur appeared as cousin Maude in two episodes of All in the Family. Her and Archie Bunker didn’t get along, in part because their politics were opposite ends of the bat. The Maude character, maybe based on Lear’s first wife, soon proved to be one that a series could be built around. Once Maude got her own show, you never heard of Archie and Edith again.
Developed by Norman Lear, Maude was an outlet for Lear’s own political discussions, but he didn’t forget to make the show funny.
Maude could be grating, loud and preachy. As Bea Arthur played her, Maude could destroy with an acid comment or just an icy stare.
Sitcoms in the 1970s contained a lot of yelling and high volume discussions. This show tackled many social and political issues of the day, wrapped about middle class characters. Maude was a liberal and Arthur Harmon, their close family doctor friend, was a conservative, so it gave them plenty of opportunity for opposite viewpoints.
The series would deal with abortion, alcoholism, attempted suicide, plastic surgery, civil rights, feminism, infidelity and many other sensitive issues. Controversy in sitcoms is not a big deal today, but nearly five decades ago, it was cutting edge. We forget how milquetoast the times were, just a few years ago away from married adults sleeping in twin beds. These shows did not solve the day’s issues, but it tended to bring them out into the open and encouraging more discussions.
Maude was designed as a comedy was often mixed with pathos, like when Maude’s husband Walter, developed an alcohol problem, lost his once-successful appliance store, and attempted suicide. The show did not turn into an instant drama, but it carefully weaved comedy around those very difficult issues.
Maude was a pretty self-righteous character, firm in her viewpoints, but often injected with other facts and opinions. It was apparent when she hired Florida, her African-American housekeeper, that Maude’s liberal views were based on her middle class, Caucasian status, and her assumptions were often off the mark. Maude was preachy, but she often learned as much as she preached. The characters in Norman Lear’s shows were never perfect, all of them had flaws, they were human.
The series ran from 1972 to 1978, six seasons and 141 episodes. The first four seasons were highly rated, but the show declined in season five and finished the last season near the bottom of the ratings. The sitcom rule of five. Making it through five years is the goal, after that, shows usually decline quickly as ideas are used up and characters are no longer interesting. Five years gives you a minimum of 100 episodes needed for profitable syndication, generally the goal.
All of the main characters went on to significant television and film success. Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan enjoyed great success in the long-running Golden Girls. Bill Macy (Walter Findlay) had co-starring roles in many films including The Late Show and My Favorite Year. Conrad Bain (Dr. Arthur Harmon) went on to star in the long-running Diff’rent Strokes sitcom. Adrienne Barbeau played Maude’s daughter Carol, still works in television and film career, often in horror films, directed by her first husband, John Carpenter. Esther Rolle played Florida, the first housekeeper in the series. Her character was spun-off to star in her own Lear-produced show, Good Times.
Walter was Maude’s fourth husband, and provided a comfortable lifestyle for Maude, she doesn’t work in the early years of the show. Walter has an appliance store, which seemed on the verge of expanding, but financial issues causes it to suddenly close. Walter soon has a downward spiral which ramps up his drinking and he ultimately tries taking his own life. Maude then goes to work and even is appointed to a state legislative seat.
I always felt that Maude was somewhat jealous her daughter, Carol, who is young, enjoys the sexual revolution, and being a divorced, single mother is no longer a stigma. Women are becoming more empowered. Maude lived a similar life when younger, but it came at a cost, and was not acceptable as it is now. Carol dates a variety of men, is doing well, and enjoys the fruits of a changing social scene. Maude is older and her life appears set, and while supportive of Carol, can be a bit old fashioned at time, and not as liberal as she reminds us. Maude also as she watches her daughter living a great life, while she deals with a variety of middle life issues.
These shows have played in syndication for years, and now with more television channels devoted specifically to other shows, viewers get more opportunity to sample the social and cultural mores of those times.
One of the reasons I picked this show to write about is how ironic the issues in the show are ones we still debate and that divide us today. Pick one: race relations, abortion, equal rights, substance abuse, marijuana, religion, ageism. Some of the episode stories around these issues might seem dated, but the basic conflicts are still relevant. The more things seem to change, the more we are rooted in our different beliefs.
This was the era of big theme songs that gave the viewer some information about the premise of the show. I always found these lyric-heavy songs to generally be awful. They sound very dated and the lyrics were contrived even then. One of these days I will write a blog on 1970s television show theme music.