An incomparable doyenne of mid-level suburban socialites, Maude (played by comic legend Beatrice Arthur), is in desperate need of an attitude adjustment. She’s loud. She manipulates anyone within arm’s reach. She even threatens people with extreme bodily harm (“I’ll rip your heart out”, she croaks at a neighborhood child, and then again in another episode to her beleaguered husband). Maude, though a first rate drama queen, is actually a comedy about a liberal feminist (albeit one who creeps around like a vampire hunting for blood), and it is a hysterical, kitsch-filled treat to revisit the trailblazing series more than 30 years after it’s initial run.
A spin-off of Norman Lear’s All in the Family (Maude was Edith’s cousin but really she’s the female Archie Bunker — grumpy, opinionated, and sort of crass), the immensely popular Maude, which ran for six seasons, was a pioneering sitcom: the show took on some major, timely social issues, never losing its comedic bite during the process of preaching its anti-conservative message. Racism, activism, gender equality, abortion, legalization of marijuana are but a miniscule sampling of Maude‘s causes and Arthur was nominated for the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy five times for her portrayal of this larger than life character, winning once.
Each episode is rather formulaic, and usually takes place in one of two places: Maude’s grotesquely mod-ish living room or Maude’s kitchen (although we do get to see Maude’s budoir on a couple of rare special occasions — complete with Maude in her sexless negligee). Mostly, the show is prime kitsch. The theme song and opening montage really set the tone: As Arthur shamelessly mugs for the camera, which freezes on Maude’s various moods, she is compared in the song to Joan of Arc, Isadora Duncan, Lady Godiva, and Betsy Ross. This is how we know Maude is going to be a revolutionary.
Living in Tuckahoe, New York with her fourth husband Walter (the squirrelly Bill Macy), her divorcee daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), and her young grandson Philip (who curiously is around very little), Maude lives to agitate. She’s always yelling about something. She’s a well-intentioned pain in the ass, bored suburban housewife who takes up new causes daily, much to the chagrin of her exasperated family. “God’ll get ya for that” is Maude’s catchphrase, and it flows like water when she doesn’t get her way, which, unfortunately for everyone she bullies, is quite often.
In “Grass Story”, middle class haus frau Maude tries to score some weed, so she can get arrested in protest of ultra-tough mandatory minimums (she’s supremely self-sacrificing and would never even think of smoking it). Arthur’s particular brand of hysteria is vintage comedic gold: she screams at everyone at the top of her lungs, yanks phones from walls, and even begs a police officer for some herb. A myriad of funny situations arise through this plot catalyst: when a delirious Maude can’t get any pot, she automatically assumes that her trusty housekeeper, Florida Evans (a wry Esther Rolle), can find it for her. “Who can I turn to?” shrieks Maude as Florida walks in with perfect comic timing. As Florida wisely declines to help, the incorrigible employer absent-mindedly wonders aloud “Florida is black. Don’t tell me she doesn’t know any musicians.”
In this same episode, the writers cleverly juxtapose the absurdity of Maude’s crusading with the over-the-top substance abuse of her own crew: Valium, Ritalin, Seconal, Nembutal, and Librium are just a few of the pills consumed by various characters over the course of the episode; doled out by the Findlay’s conservative neighbor Dr. Arthur Harmon (the priggish Conrad Bain) as he downs Bloody Marys while demanding extra vodka. Maude gives out pills to anyone who will take them. It’s like she has a pharmacy in her purse. In addition, everyone is constantly drinking on the show. Not casual drinking either, they drink to get wasted; pounding back straight gin like its water. And it isn’t just in this episode, either, it is all of them. Even when she finds out she is pregnant, the 47-year-old Maude is still pounding black coffee, cup after cup.
The lead character’s pregnancy, featured in the two-part cliffhanger “Maude’s Dilemma”, was the easily biggest controversy the series faced. Maude became the first prime time sitcom to feature a major character getting an abortion, almost immediately after the Roe Vs. Wade decision was handed down. Of course, it is all handled with delicacy and a reasonable amount of taste (there are no “funny” abortion clinic sequences — thank God — but there is a laugh track awkwardly placed in what is supposed to be a tender a scene between Maude and her husband), but the show was able to use a light touch to drive their message home: a woman’s body is her own. This is a daring viewpoint given the time and the audience. Initially, the network was barraged with hate mail and protests, but by the time the episode was over, the show was enjoying its highest ratings.
Abortion is only one of the risky subjects the show courted during its long run. Racial sensitivity (or lack of) is a recurring theme. The bourgeois Findlays hire Florida early in the first season (and the character would become so popular that she would receive her own Maude-style spin-off, Good Times), and Maude makes it clear that Florida is to be a member of the family, not a “maid”. Maude deems Florida her “equal”. She is one of those over-bearing, well-intentioned types of rich white women who always say the wrong thing when it comes to matters of race.
In the episode “Maude and the Radical”, the title character is throwing a fundraiser for a premiere black militant leader. Maude scrambles to invite what she calls a “token” black couple to the party, so the man will feel more comfortable. She also deceives her guests into thinking it is just a party, not a fundraiser (she’s sly, that Maude). During the episode, she shockingly (and teasingly) calls Florida “Aunt Jemima”, and, disturbingly Florida then does her impersonation of Aunt Jemima. Then she forces Florida, her employee, to attend the party and pretend she is not the housekeeper, but a black friend.
It’s a moment that is more than jarring to watch, but it is also mildly comforting to know that the show’s intention with playing with these racially-charged storylines was to open their viewers’ minds. Each episode is loaded. There is a “message” behind each story. This is a show that really set out to bring about change through humor. It would be a challenge to find a show today that is doing this sort of subversive work. In subsequent seasons, the series would continue to work stealthily within other issues of the time that were not being talked about on television: nervous breakdowns, alcoholism, spousal abuse, and even menopause all got the Maude treatment, which is always mildly offensive, but never without a point.
This sort of refreshing lack of political correctness and sensitivity would not be allowed in such a blunt manner on network television today. Susan Harris, who would go on to collaborate with Arthur again to great success more than a decade later on The Golden Girls (keep an eye out for Arthur’s co-star Rue McClanahan, as Maude’s best friend Vivian!), should be given credit for taking this format to the limit, especially in a period where television was really beginning to come out of it’s shell. She blazed new trails for women in their middle age (and then, later, in their senior years), and created indelible, funny, real characters.
Maude may be incredibly dated (if you thought Arthur’s Miami senior chic wardrobe on Golden Girls was funny, you should see her loud-as-hell polyester pantsuits here, they will take your breath away), a bit hammy, and more than a little coarse; but it holds up as being a crowning achievement for Arthur, one of television’s all-time most innovative comediennes. There’s no one like her, and there is no one like Maude.