Y’know, it’s kind of odd to think about the shows that I grew up with as “classic” TV shows, but of course since they’re now around 40 years old, I guess they do qualify. After all, to today’s generation they’re as much ancient history as the shows from the 50s and 60s that I tend to feature here, and today’s audiences are likely just as unfamiliar with them unless they haunt cable channels such a TV Land.
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how TV shows, especially network television, have changed over the years. Of course, there are those who say that we’re living today in a new “golden age of television”, but most often what they’re pointing to are either shows that are on cable channels such as HBO or shows that are basically what would have been aired as “mini-series” back in the day or shows that are coming from the various streaming services or imports of shows from other countries or some combination of the above. Rarely are they referring to the week-in-week-out television shows that air on what used to be called the “big three” networks, i.e. ABC, CBS, and NBC. And there are a lot of different reasons for that, from the fact that many of those new outlets aren’t beholden to advertisers who are far too ready to run from anything that even remotely smells of controversy, to the question of why creators who want to be able to express themselves in ways that the basic networks won’t allow them to should put their time and effort into shows for those networks, when most likely their shows are just going to be lost in the shuffle of the latest CSI-wherever or totally fatuous rom-com (or bro-com) or non-reality show or… well, you know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, all of that brings us to Norman Lear. Now, I could spend a lot of time writing about Mr. Lear’s career, but really I think all I need to do is list some of the shows created by him: All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and today’s feature show, Maude.
(By the way, I do feel that I should also mention that besides his television work, Mr. Lear also founded the liberal advocacy organization People for the American Way, but that’s kind of outside the scope of this particular post.)
In movies, there is what is known as the Auteur Theory. What is that? Well, for a quick definition let’s simply turn to Wikipedia which states “In film criticism, auteur theory holds that a film reflects the director’s personal creative vision, as if they were the primary “auteur” (the French word for “author”). In spite of—and sometimes even because of—the production of the film as part of an industrial process, the auteur’s creative voice is distinct enough to shine through studio interference and the collective process.” Now obviously I’m talking about Mr. Lear as a creator of the above listed shows, and not as a film director, but nonetheless I’m willing to make the argument that based solely on the above list, he definitely fits the criteria and definition enough to be considered a television-based auteur. He definitely had a distinct, singular vision which was reflected in those works, and he was fortunate enough to find an outlet for that vision and his voice in network television.
These shows were not, however, all cookie-cutter versions of the same thing. Each of them also had their own distinct focus. All in the Family, for instance, looked at the struggles of a working class family, especially it’s patriarch, Archie Bunker, and how they dealt with the tumultuous and continuously changing social mores of the time. Good Times looked at the same working class struggles from the perspective of an African-American family, while The Jeffersons dwelt on the struggles of a more upper-middle class African-American family as they tried to fit into a society that really didn’t want them there. One Day at a Time? The pressures on a single mother trying to raise her two daughters on her own.
Unlike the show which it spun out of (the character of Maude was first introduced on All in the Family as Edith’s cousin), the setting for the show was definitely the upper-middle class suburbs, and the character of Maude herself was far more liberal than the protagonist of AitF. Married to her fourth husband, Maude, along with her daughter Carol (who was raising her own son as a single parent), was meant to be a representative of the feminist movement of the time.
Now, I really don’t want to get into a discussion of the definition of feminism, and how that definition has changed over the years, but as far as the show’s take on the concept, I really think it’s summed up well in the opening theme song that I posted at the top of this article.
What makes the show even more interesting, however, and one of the things that I think is observable in all of Mr. Lear’s shows and which moves them above being simply one-trick ponies and into the realm of true classics, is that though Maude, as interpreted by actress Bea Arthur (about whom I simply can’t say enough) is the protagonist of the show, much like Archie Bunker in AitF, she is far from perfect. Again, to quote Wikipedia,
Maude’s political beliefs were closer to those of the series creators than Archie Bunker’s, but the series often lampooned Maude as a naive “limousine liberal” and did not show her beliefs and attitudes in an entirely complimentary light. Just before the show’s premiere in September 1972, TV Guide described the character of Maude as “a caricature of the knee-jerk liberal.”
Nor did the show stick only to its core theme of feminism, daring to tackle topics that today, as I noted above, would shove the show out of the realm of what broadcast networks would dare to air and likely force it into the realm of HBO or its competitors. One last time, I’ll do a bit of stealing and editing from Wikipedia:
While the show was conceived as a comedy, scripts also incorporated much darker humor and drama. Maude took Miltown, a mild tranquilizer, and also Valium; she and her husband Walter began drinking in the evening. Maude had an abortion in November 1972, two months before the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal nationwide… In a story arc that opened the 1973-74 season, [her husband] Walter came to grips with his alcoholism and subsequently had a nervous breakdown. The beginning of the story arc had Maude, Walter, and [their neighbor] Arthur enjoying a night of revelry. However, Maude panicked when she woke up the following morning to find Arthur in her bed. This alarmed her to the point that both of them swore off alcohol entirely. Walter could not do it (“Dean Martin gets a million dollars for his buzz”) and became so aggravated during his attempts to stop that he struck Maude. Afterward, he suffered a breakdown as a result of his alcoholism and guilt over the domestic violence incident… The first season episode “The Grass Story” tackled the then-recent Rockefeller Drug Laws, as Maude and her well-meaning housewife friends try to arrange to get arrested in protest over a grocery boy’s tough conviction for marijuana possession. The severity of the marijuana laws was contrasted with the characters’ own lax attitudes toward drinking and prescription pill abuse… During the fifth season, Walter suffered another nervous breakdown, this time even attempting suicide, when he saw his business go bankrupt.
Obviously, this is a show that I could go on and on about, (I really haven’t even touched upon the supporting characters that did so much to make the show work), but maybe I’ll save that for a re-visit of the series another time. Instead, I think it’s time to finally just give you a chance to watch it for yourselves and see what you think, so here’s an episode that I picked pretty much at random from the series’ first season:
And, as a special bonus, here’s one of the show’s most celebrated episodes, from season 4, in which Maude goes to see a psychiatrist. What makes this episode particularly special is that it is basically a one-woman show which gives Bea Arthur the complete spotlight as she carries on a monologue with an almost completely unseen analyst who communicates at most with only a few interjections. (I apologize, btw, for the fact that there appears to be a slight bit missing from the very beginning of the show, but all of the copies on YouTube seem to be taken from this same clipped TV Land broadcast, and I do think it’s really missing less than a minute, and most likely only a few seconds at the top.)
So there you go. Norman Lear the auteur, Maude the feminist, and what can only be described as truly classic TV.