Anything But Tranquilizin’

For the purpose of making this post fit the general subject matter of this blog, let me state first that Bea Arthur, who died over the weekend at age 86, once made a record. Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends was recorded in December 2001 at her one-woman Broadway show. Arthur was an old Broadway hand, having appeared in the original productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Mame, and her album features songs and stories from across her lengthy career. But it’s a mere footnote to her years as a television actress, on The Golden Girls (1985-1992) and Maude (1972-1978).

Maude aired for a short time on TV Land in the 90s, but it had vanished into the vaults before the first season came out on DVD last year. I recently rewatched the whole thing, and it occurs to me that historians who attempt to discuss the cultural history of the 1970s without mentioning it are missing an important touchstone. For the last 20 or 25 years, conservative cultural critics have been on guard, looking to expose the liberalism inherent in Hollywood productions and sometimes finding it where nobody else seems to notice it. Maude would have blasted them off of their couches and into orbit.

Maude Findlay’s liberalism was writ large and on display in every episode, and it dated back to the character’s December 1971 appearances on All in the Family, when she sparred with Archie Bunker over Franklin D. Roosevelt. Maude‘s characters discussed political, racial, gender, and sexual issues with an openness that’s simply not permissible today. Yet the program didn’t present Maude as an unabashed heroine; occasionally, she came off as what we’d have called a “limousine liberal” back then—somebody who talks the talk without walking the walk.

The single episode of Maude most remembered today is one in which the political melded with the personal. Maude, on her fourth marriage and 47 years old, gets pregnant, and decides to have an abortion. The episode aired in November 1972, two months before the Roe v. Wade decision, but after abortion had been legalized in New York State, where the show was set. The subject is handled euphemistically—the word “abortion” is mentioned but once:

The episode didn’t become profoundly controversial until it was rerun in August 1973, when a couple dozen CBS affiliates refused to carry it. “Maude’s Dilemma” would not be the only time Maude courted controversy, or dealt with subjects that were no laughing matter. Throughout its run, Maude frequently visited the dark side, with stories about domestic violence, marital infidelity, alcoholism, bankruptcy, and suicide.

The program’s topicality isn’t the only reason it disappeared from syndication, however. The show is brightly, almost harshly, lit. The costumes and set design, while typical of upper-middle-class life in the 1970s, often feature colors not found in nature, and they look badly dated today. Neither Maude nor her husband Walter (played by Bill Macy) is particularly attractive, although the show doesn’t use that as an excuse to ignore their sexual relationship—which is another way in which Maude is marked as a unique document of its moment in history. On TV today, unattractive people don’t get to have sex, and if they do, it’s seen as perverse, or an excuse for humor. (Of course, the show also featured Adrienne Barbeau as Maude’s daughter Carol, and Barbeau became one of the 1970s most famous pinup girls.)

Sony apparently has no plans to release Season 2 on DVD as yet, although Season 1 remains in print. Few artifacts of our favorite decade will take you back to the social and political maelstrom of the Nixon era better than Maude. Plus, it had one of the funkiest theme songs in TV history, sung by Donny Hathaway. It doesn’t appear as though he ever officially released a version of it, but you can hear it here.

3 responses

  1. And, of course, when talking about Bea Arthur, it’s hard not to talk about “The Golden Girls,” or its theme song, Andrew Gold’s “Thank You for Being a Friend.” I think it’s pretty funny that the song was only a mid-range Top 40 hit in its initial run in 1978 but much, much more popular when used as a TV theme a decade later.

  2. Besides being easy on the eyes, Barbeau is equally as famous for giving birth to twins at age 52.

  3. […] even yet in grade school when she showed up as the title character in the television show Maude. As JB astutely notes, the show did have one of the funkiest themes of all time. Even at four or five, I knew there was something about […]

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