'Maude' Remains Funny and Groundbreaking 40 Years On

by J.M. Suarez

6 April 2015

Maude certainly paved the way for other strong-willed, independent, feminist characters, but she more than others will be remembered for her wit and unwavering beliefs.
 
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Maude: The Complete Series

(CBS)
US DVD: 17 Mar 2015

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.

Isadora was the first bra burner
And you’re glad she showed up—(Oh yeah)
And when the country was falling apart
Betsy Ross got it all sewed up.

And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s Maude.
And then there’s
That uncompromisin’, enterprisin’, anything but tranquilizing,
Right on Maude.
—“And Then There’s Maude”, the theme song to Maude

A spinoff of All In the Family, Maude ran for six seasons from 1972 to 1978 and, in the tradition of other Norman Lear productions, was as unapologetically progressive and confrontational as its titular heroine. The theme song lyrics above place her in storied company, and Maude lives up to the comparisons in her feminist ideals, establishing a groundbreaking character brought to life by one of Bea Arthur’s best performances.

From the very beginning, Maude is a unique character. Tall, opinionated, and an immediately imposing presence, she’s married to Walter Findlay (Bill Macy), her fourth husband, the perfect straight man for her often overblown moments. In addition to Walter, the Maude cast is rounded out by neighbor, and Arthur’s best friend Dr. Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain), her best friend and Arthur’s eventual wife, Vivian (Rue McClanahan), her daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), and grandson Philip (Brian Morrison and later, Kraig Metzinger). When Florida leaves the series in the second season, the Findlay’s hire Mrs. Naugatuck (Hermione Baddeley), an eccentric British housekeeper who adds a different dynamic to the series.

Maude’s liberal views are frequently at odds with Arthur’s much more conservative opinions, and in turn he serves as the perfect foil for her many crusades. His traditional viewpoints on relationships and the role of women in particular are of particular offense to Maude and their arguments are often very funny. These disputes are also a glimpse into the time period.

Maude is very much a show of its time. At its outset, it was dealing with the repercussions from the civil rights movement, as well as a great deal of political upheaval from the Watergate scandal and the ongoing Vietnam War. The show’s angle on race relations is equal parts thoughtful and willing to poke fun at itself. Maude’s white liberal guilt is regularly on display, and though certainly coming from a place of real empathy, she often comes off as desperate for approval and congratulations on her progressive views. Her preoccupation with hiring a black housekeeper as a way to prove her equal views is as ridiculous as it sounds, and when she hires Florida Evans (Esther Rolle in the role she would go on to play in the Maude spinoff Good Times), Florida is completely unmoved by Maude’s attempts to show how liberal she is.

Whether at odds with Arthur, or fighting a traffic cop in court, Maude is never anyone but herself: she’s wholly authentic. Her understanding of her self extends to her interactions with those closest to her. Her relationship with Carol is filled with arguments and banter, but it is always rooted in love. Similarly, her marriage to Walter, despite their ups and downs throughout the series, is a perfect match. His humor and long-suffering attitude makes him the best partner for Maude, and perhaps no other arc showcases that dynamic better than the famous abortion story.

Maude’s unexpected pregnancy leads her to consider abortion and Walter’s support is integral to the story. When she decides to have the abortion, she asks Walter how he really feels and his response is indicative of the ways in which Maude approached controversial issues. “For you, Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own home, you’re doing the right thing.” It’s ultimately dealt with in personal terms, making the issue less about the big picture and more about how it affects these characters. In doing so, the series makes more headway than if it were solely making intellectual arguments, and in turn, humanizes the controversial.

Maude is undoubtedly one of the groundbreaking shows of the ‘70s, if only for its interest in addressing issues like race relations, abortion, suicide, and adultery, among others. The program presents a fearlessness that not only is mark of Lear’s work, but also a perfect match for Arthur, whose performance cannot be overstated. She brings to life a character that could easily be a one-note shrill know-it-all, but instead Maude is human. For all of her good intentions, she’s flawed, often insecure, and quick to anger. Arthur always understands the line she walks and never steps over in a way that undermines or invalidates her character. 

A series with an agenda, in the best sense of the word, as well as compelling characters that show growth over the show’s run, Maude may be comfortably rooted in its time period, but it also resonates today. Arthur, along with Macy, Bain, and McClanahan, played off of one another wonderfully. In fact, the chemistry between cast members is one of the series’ highlights. Maude certainly paved the way for other strong-willed, independent, feminist characters, but perhaps none will be remembered for her wit and unwavering beliefs more than Maude.

The DVD set includes several featurettes, two unaired episodes, as well as two episodes of All In the Family in which Maude appeared. In addition, there are cast interviews. Unfortunately, there are no episode commentaries, which would have been an especially instructive bonus feature.

Maude: The Complete Series

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