Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re continuing our coverage on the best episodes from Mama’s Family (1983-1984, NBC; 1986-1990, First Run Synd.), the hilarious half-hour extension of the popular “Family” sketches from The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978, CBS), which we discussed here several years ago.
Widow Thelma “Mama” Harper lives in Raytown with her dimwitted son, trashy daughter-in-law, and naive grandson; her best friend and neighbor is a kooky spinster woman. Mama’s Family stars VICKI LAWRENCE as Thelma Harper, KEN BERRY as Vinton Harper, DOROTHY LYMAN as Naomi Harper, BEVERLY ARCHER as Iola Boylen, and ALLAN KAYSER as Bubba Higgins.
During initial viewings of Season Four, the second to air in first-run syndication, I considered it the series’ strongest showing, housing the greatest amount of classics. However, having watched every episode and year consecutively for these posts — and with an eye towards crafting commentary — my point-of-view is no longer so rigidly defined. In fact, I’m not even sure if I have one singular favorite season because I can now proudly claim that I enjoy each year without terrible fluctuations in preference. Truthfully, there’s something in each year for every viewer. For as we’ve circuitously discussed in past posts, while these syndicated years are more laugh-packed and better cast, the NBC era feels more like the original sketches, and in addition to the recurring cast (Burnett, Korman, White) of original players, the characterizations at the beginning of the series are more acrimonious, and therefore truer to the Harpers’ origins. (For instance, Mama is more cutting than folksy and Naomi is a better foil to Mama — more adversarial than stupid.) But the million dollar question for Mama’s Family remains: how alienating are these shifts, particularly to those who want their Mama undiluted?
Well, that’s a question that can never be answered due to the slow and almost unnoticeable changes that are being implemented, primarily by Lawrence. That is, there isn’t a pinpointable moment where Mama transforms. Lawrence is so smart about the way she plays Mama that it isn’t until we sit back and think about the character (or watch episodes from two different eras back-to-back — a luxury that wasn’t around until home video) that we realize an evolution has occurred. Therefore, I believe that any viewer who likes the darker Mama from the beginning and agrees to watch the series chronologically will enjoy her characterization more, because the progression is subtle and justified. But, I make it my job to analyze, so let’s discuss where Mrs. Harper’s at now … By Season Four, Lawrence’s Mama is splitting her time between the character’s iconic unpleasantness and the sarcastic-but-lovable persona (with the higher, more grandma-y voice) that will soon come to dominate her portrayal. It’s actually about a 50-50 divide here, and while I generally prefer the former depiction, there are episodes that work best employing the latter, and as the remaining seasons find Mama losing almost the entirety of her original persona in favor of the one Lawrence has crafted (cunningly) to fit better in the series, Season Four is the last where an obvious and regular connection can be made between where Thelma Harper begins and where she ends.
Now, as for the season itself, this used to be my favorite because the first half is jam-packed with hits — some of my favorites from the entire series. However, similar to Season Three, the second half of the year is not as strong, with a few too many gimmicks in play (and while I can forgive some, I can’t embrace all of them). This unbalanced structure is actually a trend that will persist throughout the remaining two seasons, although both of which, as you’ll see in upcoming posts, also produce a high volume of outstanding offerings, thus complicating my ability to claim Season Four as my favorite, which, as of now, I no longer do. Furthermore, the different portrayals of Mama (as discussed above) are seldom reconciled within the same episode; usually, we’re getting a performance that tilts more towards one or the other. However, when an episode is as comedically worthwhile as the offerings highlighted below, these trivial performative details are unimportant and even less apparent — for the bountiful laughs act as a means of melding together a complete (and more seemingly consistent) characterization. And, trust me, there are some really fine offerings here. So I have, as usual, 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Dave Powers.
01) Episode 61: “Educating Mama” (Aired: 09/26/87)
Bubba and Mama attend night school to get their diplomas.
Written by Neil Lebowitz
Season Four’s premiere kicks off with an arc that will conclude in the season finale — Bubba going to night school to graduate on time and Mama joining him so that she can finally earn her high school diploma. (There’s a logic hurdle to overcome regarding how Bubba and Mama are in the same class, but this isn’t the only sitcom that asks us to suspend disbelief for this story.) The two scenes in class, in which Mama spars with her teacher and then earns his favor by being the only one to have actually read The Scarlett Letter, are exquisitely well-written and played, with big laugh after big laugh (some of the year’s finest). Also, the theme of Mama righting a wrong from her past has some emotional weight that’s good for the story — and fortunately, it doesn’t get in the way of the delicious comedy. A favorite, and my pick for the season’s strongest.
02) Episode 62: “Zirconias Are A Girl’s Best Friend” (Aired: 10/03/87)
Mama becomes addicted to teleshopping.
Written by Rick Hawkins
Our opening run of comedically outstanding Season Four offerings continues with this incredibly funny installment, which works because of a humorous premise that’s also believable for the Mama character: her getting hooked on teleshopping. The sequence where the members of the ensemble try to curb Mama’s “strange addiction” by hitting her with newspapers (as you would when training a dog) each time she tries to call into the show to buy something is hysterical — a supreme gag. However, the quality of the scripting throughout the episode is also strong enough to earn distinction for being another one of the year’s finest and one of several other contenders for the season’s MVE. Another of my personal favorites. Good fun.
03) Episode 63: “The Key To The Crime” (Aired: 10/10/87)
Mama and Iola set out to find the neighborhood’s burglar.
Written by Dorothy Van
Another fan favorite, this installment works for two major reasons. First, the idea is funny. The concept of a Courteous Crook, who breaks into your house and takes the time to clean it, is great — quirky and fun and perfect for this series. Second, the script allows Mama to pair with Iola for some really Lucy-and-Ethel inspired hijinks, material they perform miraculously well. The extended bit in which they try to break in through the window of Vinton’s store is one of the series’ best and most memorable moments of physical comedy. This scene alone is enough to earn the offering a place on today’s list, overcoming an uneven pacing and the script’s spotty assortment of laughs. So this really is a case of strengths outweighing weaknesses.
04) Episode 65: “A Big Hand For Mama” (Aired: 10/24/87)
Mama has a personality change after a near brush with death.
Written by Jim Evering
Reminiscent of last year’s “Where There’s A Will,” this installment takes its premise from the idea that Mama is going to change her ways (in both cases, we know it will only be temporary) and be nice to all, keeping her easy-to-lose temper under a fierce control. Where this episode becomes a bit more unique is in the distinction that Mama is consciously choosing to treat others better (instead of being forced to be nice, like last time) and that a lot of the comedy in this offering actually comes not from her actions, but from the reactions of the other members of the ensemble, who decide to manipulate Mama’s change of heart for their own personal gain. It’s a solid, enjoyable and well-liked outing with laughs that come from character.
05) Episode 67: “Teacher’s Pet” (Aired: 11/07/87)
Mama seeks advice on how to attract her new teacher.
Written by Rick Hawkins
In a continuation of the season’s overarching story of Mama going back to school, this installment features the first appearance of Joseph Campanella as Mama’s new teacher — who becomes her three-episode love interest! Coming up with more stories about Mama’s return to the classroom is a wise move, giving the show a rare sense of continuity and an opportunity for fresh stories. Also, it’s a nice change of pace to see Mama actually have a man. For although the show (and this fan) has no desire to see Mama find a permanent mate, which wouldn’t be believable for a woman of her generation and mindset, Campanella’s presence gives Lawrence new material to play, while also serving to make Mama more relatable. Smart idea.
06) Episode 70: “Gift Horse” (Aired: 11/28/87)
Mama tries to sell some of Iola’s homemade gifts in a yard sale.
Written by David Castro & Daphne Pollon
If any episode were to take the place of this week’s chosen MVE, it would be this one, which is probably the best Iola showcase of the year. While I find Iola to be a wonderfully comedic character, predicated on Archer’s sublimely unique and nuance-filled portrayal, I know of several fans who find her an obnoxious presence and one that’s difficult to believe Mama would tolerate. However, the wonderful thing about an episode like this is that Iola’s penchant for annoying others is actually a part of the storyline, as the Harpers try to rid themselves of some of her hilariously bad knick-knacks. Unfortunately, Iola shows up unexpectedly and learns of their betrayal. Lots of great laughs here; a series classic. Outstandingly fun and funny.
07) Episode 76: “I Do, I Don’t” (Aired: 01/23/88)
Bubba, Mama, and Iola each fantasize about married life to their respective loves.
Written by Rick Hawkins
More than any other episode on today’s list, this is the episode that I would most ascribe to being built around a gimmick. The gimmick, or ostentatious structural template, involves three characters having nightmarish fantasies about what it would be like to actually marry the objects of their varying affections. Lawrence is wonderful in all three sequences, and fans of Rebecca will enjoy her daydream of what it would be like married to her new teacher beau (Campanella). However, without a doubt, the best sequence is Iola’s, as she and Naomi essentially switch places — the hilariously saucy Iola gets Vint, while Naomi is the awkwardly goony neighbor. There are a lot of (easy, but enjoyable) laughs, making this one most memorable.
08) Episode 79: “Mama On Jeopardy!” (Aired: 02/13/88)
Mama is chosen to be a contestant on the game show Jeopardy!
Written by Neil Lebowitz
Ever since the “Family” sketches on The Carol Burnett Show, a popular recurring theme has been putting the characters in competition in various games and gameshows. While the first season featured a fan favorite in which the cast goes on Family Feud (it didn’t move up from the honorable mentions in that post due to a fundamental lack of logic), I actually prefer this offering, in which Mama alone goes on Jeopardy! While the initial audition scene tests the limits of believability (and, conceptually, why the heck is the show in Raytown?), Mama’s behavior and competence on the show make more sense than in the aforementioned Family Feud episode, where her presentation is contrived. As always, with logic, the laughs are even better.
09) Episode 83: “Bed And Breakdown” (Aired: 03/12/88)
The Harpers take in boarders during the Tri-State fair.
Written by Phil Hahn & Jack Wohl
Curiously, this installment was produced near the beginning of the season and held until close to the end. (This is generally for one of three reasons: a pre-emption, a lengthy post-production, or a belief that the episode isn’t very good.) None of those excuses seem applicable to me (but I’d be interested to know otherwise), and while the last reason (the episode’s quality) would seem the most likely, it must be noted that this episode is comparatively strong. It’s not among the finest of today’s list (because of the high quality competition), but there are consistent laughs, building to an extended set-piece involving Mama and an uncompromising hammock. Again, Lawrence’s Mama is giving us shades of Lucy Ricardo — and she does it superbly.
10) Episode 84: “Naomi’s Identity Crisis” (Aired: 03/19/88)
Mama takes advantage of Naomi’s temporary amnesia.
Written by Dorothy Van
Characters getting amnesia in situation comedies is always a forced and cartoony development, but this series is able to pull it off because of its sketch comedy origins. The premise doesn’t feel out of place on Mama’s Family. The characters and situations are generally always larger than life, so the show has a bit more room to flex its imagination and work with stories that an intelligent viewer may ordinarily disdain. The comedic merit of this episode, thematically similar to “A Big Hand For Mama” (where the metaphorical shoe was on the other metaphorical foot) is that Mama is exploiting Naomi’s amnesia in order to get her daughter-in-law to do the housework. Naturally, lots of big laughs flow through here. Another personal favorite.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” in which Vint and Naomi split, “Flounder’s Day,” in which Mama competes to sing the new town anthem at the Founder’s Day festival, “Mama Sees Red,” which has a rotten premise but stratospheric laughs (and was therefore the closest to making today’s list) and “The Sins Of The Mother,” a flashback show featuring Mama and a teenage Eunice — played by an actress who does a spookily good imitation of Burnett (for better and worse).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Mama’s Family goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!