Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re concluding our coverage on the best episodes from Maude (1972-1978, CBS), which was just released in full on March 17, 2015!
An ultra liberal housewife often finds herself in conflict because of her outspoken social and political views. Starring BEATRICE ARTHUR as Maude, BILL MACY as Walter Findlay, ADRIENNE BARBEAU as Carol Traynor, CONRAD BAIN as Dr. Arthur Harmon, RUE MCCLANAHAN as Vivian Cavender Harmon, KRAIG METZINGER as Phillip Traynor, and MARLENE WARFIELD as Victoria Butterfield.
Despite two casting misfires, the final season of Maude begins with a renewed sense of energy and several classic installments. Marlene Warfield as Maude’s West Indian housekeeper is a laugh killer, while the re-casting of Phillip (presumably because the show wanted to utilize his character more) with a blander and more generic kid proves needless. But the early scripts are strong, and the performances even stronger. However, as ratings began to fall and Maude got shuffled around by CBS, the show started running out of creative steam, and the series’ sense of humor seemed to all but evaporate. Knowing that a change was in order, the last three episodes of the season found the Harmons and Carol moving away, convincing Maude to take her late Congresswoman friend’s place and move to Washington, D.C. Ms. Arthur was not happy with this development and walked away from the series. Lear attempted to retool the premise with John Amos, and then Cleavon Little, but the three produced episodes never aired. In 1979, Bill Macy and the new cast of the final episode starred in a similar short-lived sitcom called Hanging In. No matter the incarnation, it was unsuccessful, and for the purposes of our Maude study, the final episode is a gross disappointment. But I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) All episodes are directed by Hal Cooper, unless otherwise noted.
01) Episode 118: “Maude’s Guilt Trip” (Aired: 09/12/77)
Maude alternates between grief and dreams of inheritance when her aunt’s plane crashes.
Written by Charlie Hauck
Regarded by many devoted fans as one of the series’ absolute funniest, I must concur with the assessment, finding this episode to be the final season’s most consistently amusing. Maude’s faux aunt, whom nobody can stand, is coming to visit on a cheap airline courtesy of the Findlays. To make Maude feel guilty, Aunt “Tinkie” names Maude a beneficiary of her life insurance. Then Maude gets word of the plane’s crash and can barely contain her excitement over the prospect of using this newfound money to take a dream vacation to Italy. It’s exactly the kind of delicious dark comedy that this series does so well, and the ending is particularly memorable. Brilliantly written and played, this is a Maude classic.
02) Episode 119: “Phillip And Sam” (Aired: 09/19/77)
Maude unknowingly invites one of Phillip’s female friends to spend the night.
Written by Pamela Herbert Chais
As regular readers of my blog know, I think kids in sitcoms are rarely funny. Phillip in Maude is no exception, but episodes that feature his character are often pretty good, because the show knows to focus the story more on Maude and her reaction to his liberal ’70s upbringing and sometimes difficult behavior. In this installment, Maude invites Phillip’s friend Sam to spend the night, only to learn that Sam… is a girl! This is an ideal premise for Maude, whose modern easy-going beliefs are put to the test, revealing that she’s more old-fashioned than she’d expect. It’s a surprisingly funny installment; and Ms. Arthur’s Maude is, not surprisingly, wonderful.
03) Episode 120: “The Flying Saucer” (Aired: 09/26/77)
Maude believes she saw a UFO.
Story by S.J. Levine | Teleplay by Arthur Julian
Generally speaking, it’s difficult to accept stories that aren’t grounded in reality. UFOs, a sci-fi hallmark, are a surprisingly common sitcom staple (We see them in The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Golden Girls, Married… With Children, and many others), although it’s never a believable premise. However, that becomes the point of this episode, as Maude’s sighting of the alien object and everyone’s accompanying disbelief becomes the source of comedy. It’s a uniquely funny script, mining laughs from a place that Lear shows rarely go. And once again, Bea Arthur is dynamite, selling the far-fetched story and making this one of the season’s most enjoyable outings.
04) Episode 122: “Walter’s Temptation” (Aired: 10/17/77)
Walter’s secretary wants to go to bed with him.
Written by Arthur Julian and William Davenport
Although this installment boasts a generous helping of laughs and an interesting story, in which a competent assistant for whom Maude has just crusaded to earn a well deserved raise then voices her desire to go to bed with her boss, Walter, this episode is most notable for the guest appearance of Marcia Rodd, the original Carol in the 1972 backdoor pilot that aired as part of All In The Family‘s second season. She and Ms. Arthur still share excellent chemistry and it’s a delight to see them together again. Also, Richard Kline of Three’s Company (coming to Sitcom Tuesdays this June) fame guest stars. Mature, memorable episode.
05) Episode 125: “The Ecologist” (Aired: 11/14/77)
Maude is attracted to an ecologist who makes a play for Vivian.
Written by Arthur Julian
While the topic of Maude having sexual feelings for a man outside of her husband was covered in a solid fifth season installment (that I highlighted in last week’s entry), this episode, which features Edward Winter, takes things to a more comedic arena. The story becomes less about Maude’s feelings and is refocused on her misplaced belief that the feelings are reciprocated, as he makes a play for Vivian. This puts McClanahan, the episode’s MVP, into the driver’s seat for much of the comedy, as she’s unsure of how to respond. Of course, Ms. Arthur is equally divine and the Picnic joke at the end is a hoot. This one’s a sleeper — an underrated gem and a favorite of mine.
06) Episode 126: “The Gay Bar” (Aired: 12/03/77)
Maude is disgusted when Arthur tries to close a local gay bar.
Story by Michael Endler & Thad Mumford | Teleplay by Michael Endler & Thad Mumford and Arthur Julian & William Davenport
Being the progressive Norman Lear series that it is, Maude has dealt with homosexuality several times over its past five seasons. But, as the most broad story crafted around the issue, “The Gay Bar” has the distinction of being the funniest. From jokes about Arthur’s new group (with an acronym of F-A-G-S) to a great gag about orange juice (a reference to Anita Bryant, a hilariously topical reference that places this episode as undoubtedly 1977), this is a Season Six episode that stands out from the rest. It’s a great premise for this series, handled with a funny script that delivers a consistent stream of big character-driven laughs. Probably the last really stellar episode of the series.
07) Episode 130: “The Obscene Phone Call” (Aired: 01/16/78)
Maude’s been haunted by obscene phone calls.
Written by Elliot Bernstein | Directed by Anthony Chickey
With a strong script that makes great use of the ensemble and allows for plenty of moments for comedy, this inherently theatrical installment plays just like a murder mystery one act (without an actual murder). While the reveal of the culprit is truthfully not very surprising (even on first viewing), the course that the characters take to uncovering the truth is amusing and a joy to watch, for the teleplay is littered with great individual character moments It’s a fan favorite, and certainly one of mine as well. (Also, note that this episode is one of the few post-1972 installments NOT directed by Hal Cooper.)
08) Episode 131: “Musical ’78” (Aired: 01/28/78)
The beneficiary of Maude’s new telethon is faking her condition.
Written by Arthur Julian and William Davenport
Perhaps it’s indicative of just how much the quality has declined in the final season (and the lack of competition provided by other episodes), but this is the only musical revue episode (of the series’ four) that’s made my list of the best. While this series is blessed with a talented cast, there’s often not a lot of comedy or storytelling integrity in these music-heavy shows. But this is probably the best of the four, because in addition to fun musical performances, the story is the funniest, as the crippled tap dancing prodigy, who reveals herself to be not-so-crippled in the final dress rehearsal, makes for some broad — but hilarious — comedy.
09) Episode 133: “Maude’s Foster Child” (Aired: 02/11/78)
Maude is shocked to learn her Ethiopian foster child is white.
Written by Johnny Bonaduce
This is the last episode of the series that can balance humor with a socially significant story, and thus, feel like classic Maude. The wonderful premise has Maude meeting her Ethiopian foster child for the first time, only to learn that he’s a white Italian. Everyone’s shock that he is not black is expectedly humorous, but the series, as it has once before in this final season (in “Victoria’s Boyfriend,” which can be found in the honorable mentions), raises interesting questions about racial identity and skin color. The script’s got real weight, and with some truly delicious comedy, this episode becomes one of the final season’s most recommendable and “Maudian.”
10) Episode 137: “Mr. Butterfield’s Return” (Aired: 03/11/78)
Maude learns a secret about Victoria’s morally righteous father.
Written by Arthur Julian and William Davenport
Roscoe Lee Browne, a regular in Lear’s stable of guest actors, makes the second of his two appearances as Victoria’s West Indian father. In his first appearance (which was cut from the list at the last minute in favor of this episode), the character reveals, not only great sexism (which, naturally builds Maude’s ire), but also his racism against black Americans. This kind of rhetorical complication to the idea of collectiveness among people of a similar skin color is a wonderful thing for this series to explore. However, while that episode is fascinating, this installment, in which Maude gets the upper hand when she catches him fooling around with a stewardess, packs more laughs, and, on the whole, is the better written offering.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Victoria’s Boyfriend,” the aforementioned show in which Victoria’s sexist father raises objection to her dating a black American, “Businessperson Of The Year,” in which Maude and Walter are up for the same award, and “Vivian’s Decision,” a near two-hander for Maude and Vivian in which McClanahan gets to deliver a solid dramatic performance.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Maude goes to…..
“Maude’s Guilt Trip”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of Rhoda (1974-1978, CBS)! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!