RERUN: The Five Best MAMA’S FAMILY Episodes of Season One

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, I’m once again excited to resurrect a forgotten segment from this blog’s eight-year run. Here’s how it works: I’ll provide a link to the original piece and then offer a bit of updated commentary. But, as I always caution, please be gentle; this early article is from a long time ago, and my standards have changed as I’ve changed — I’ve improved as a thinker, a communicator, and a television-watcher.

So, let’s revisit… The Five Best MAMA’S FAMILY Episodes of Season One:

Mama’s Family began in early 1983 just as Laverne & Shirley was ending, but they’re both broad sitcoms in the idea-led camp, with sensibilities rooted in the sketch comedy world — the former arose from a recurring feature on The Carol Burnett Show, while the latter, like most of Garry Marshall’s output, claims thin, caricatured leads and repetitive, one-joke storytelling that’s reminiscent of the kind of humor we’d find on a variety show, which requires less dimension (especially via character). However, I want to talk about Mama’s Family for a reason that has nothing to do with Laverne & Shirley: I want to start laying the groundwork for our return to the 1980s by pointing out how interesting it is that this series — the funniest of the decade’s network sitcoms to get cancelled and then pop up in first-run syndication — is unlike the bland, domestic fare typifying family shows in this era, courtesy of smash hits like Family Ties and even the otherwise more fun The Cosby Show, where warmth and kindness rule because everyone basically gets along and life is so good that problems (unless “Very Special”) are small, keeping laughs and drama light and characters even lighter. In contrast, Mama’s Family is predicated, like its sketch origins, on familial discord and abrasive confrontations that reject the pat and unexciting moral idealism of the aforementioned, demanding conflict-prone characterizations that heat up with friction, producing big hahas as a result. This is more akin to Married… With Children and Roseanne, both of which would eventually respond to shows like Family Ties and The Cosby Show with a similar sketch-like repudiation of the subgenre’s clichés. Yet Mama’s Family is, comparatively, a far less self-conscious opposition to its contemporaries, for upon its debut in 1982-’83, the decade was still figuring out its comedic identity — Family Ties had premiered earlier that same season — and the series was cancelled in 1984 before Cosby cemented the dull domestic comedy as a dominant trend. Then, by the time it was resurrected in 1986-’87 for syndication, the counterculture against family sitcoms was already brewing, and Married… With Children was born with a pointed boldness that made obvious its satirical aims, rendering Mama’s Family, which already was forced to become tamer sans Eunice and Ellen, relatively less combative, and more goofy — not so much a rejection of convention as a quirky variation on it.

At any rate, said variation is very funny, both on NBC and in syndication, as each era has its strengths… and its weaknesses. While the network seasons benefit from the angsty comic edge of the sketch (and the characters within it), they suffer from an imbalanced ensemble where the kids — and even Rue McClanahan’s vague Aunt Fran — fail to carry their own weight, enabling recurring forces that were created in the sketch, namely Carol Burnett’s Eunice, to chew scenery and dominate the proceedings… at the expense of Mama’s Family’s freshly minted elements, which need more development. And while syndication irons out the cast, boasting a more comedically helpful kid and a hysterical friend for Mama in the unique Iola, both of whom add fuel to the show’s storytelling fire, it misses the emotional continuity of Eunice and Ellen (as Betty White had since gone on, with McClanahan, to The Golden Girls). They both gave the show depth and a heightened sense of conflict that bred hilarity, even if overused. Accordingly, I hold no preference for either iteration, as they both have their pluses and minuses. As for Season One, all of those pluses and minuses are on display, but I have to credit this year, specifically, for managing a semi self-correction. That is, the series was actually supposed to premiere in the fall of ’82 but got delayed until midseason when production shut down for a needed retooling, eventually emerging with a premise pilot that establishes Vint’s move into Mama’s home, and, over the next few scripts, his quick courtship with Naomi, the matriarch’s chief rival and, thus, this new sitcom’s most important character, an antagonist who could supplant the dynamic Mama shared with Eunice — the crux of “The Family” sketch, no longer invokable every week. (Aunt Fran was thought to possibly function in this capacity, but she lacked a strong characterization.) With Naomi, Mama’s Family was ready to roll (or at least try to; Naomi was never maximized to her fullest potential), and, indeed, the first season has many great episodes — looking over my initial list today, I’d make no changes — particularly my MVE, “Cellmates,” a button to the Eunice/Mama relationship, giving them closure and allowing Mama to move forward in her own series. I consider this to be the moment where Mama’s Family hopes to pivot from “The Family” sketch to a family sitcom… the hallmark of the ’80s.



Come back next week for more sitcom fun! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!