Friday, December 21, 2012

Maude - "Maude's Guilt Trip"

Season 6, Episode 1
Original Airdate: September 12, 1977
Writer: Charlie Hauck
Director: Hal Cooper
Executive Producers: Hal Cooper, Rod Parker
Cast: Bea Arthur, Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau, Rue McClanahan

People don’t talk much about “Maude” anymore, do they? Though well-liked throughout most of its run, in recent years its popularity has been eclipsed by the show it spun out of (“All in the Family”) and star Bea Arthur’s other iconic comedy (“The Golden Girls”). And what a shame that is, because for my money “Maude” is better * gasp! * than both of those sitcoms.

The show centers on Maude Findlay (Arthur), Liberal with a capital “L” and currently married to her fourth husband Walter (Bill Macy). While “All in the Family” mocked its bigoted hero Archie Bunker while simultaneously humanizing him through his faults, “Maude” had a more interesting trick to play: Maude considered herself one of the educated, cultural elite who was consistently faced with the foibles of everyday life, tried to rise above it, but (usually) ended up surrendering to her more base emotions. As an audience, we see parts of ourselves in Archie, sure, but I see a lot more of myself in Maude. A similar version of this would be used to huge success first with Sam in “Cheers” and later with Fraiser in his self-titled spin-off.

The show also took one hell of a lot of risks, more than probably any other in history. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you’ve probably heard about the infamous abortion episode, which unfortunately doesn’t hold up today. But there is so much more. At some point every major character abused prescription drugs. An entire episode focused on Maude trying to buy a bag of pot. Walter became an raging alcoholic who slapped Maude onscreen. Later he went bankrupt and attempted suicide. Maude struggled with what, in retrospect, appears to be bipolar disorder. In one episode Maude hired a black maid (Ester Rolle, who spun her Florida character off into “Good Times”) because she had white man’s guilt. And in a fantastic tour-de-force, Arthur performed a one-woman-show for an entire episode as her character quietly came apart at the seams in a therapy session. You simply can’t get away with stuff like this today, even though for my money sitcoms would be served well to be a lot more topical and risk-taking. Oh, and I should note that, even though the above events are really “heavy” in content, the show still managed to be really damn funny, even in its darkest moments.

“Maude’s Guilt Trip” is, for me, the high point of the entire series, and shows all its characters reacting to the “death” of a most hated relative. Everything action, reaction and line of dialogue showcases moral ambiguity taken to most hilarious extremes.

The episode begins with Maude preparing for the arrival of her loathed Aunt Tinky (“Her tea kettle doesn’t whistle, it whines”). Maude has bought her a plane ticket on a crappy puddle-jumper, but her mind is focused on wanting to take a trip to Rome. As a way to make Maude feel guilty, Tinky purchases $50,000 worth of life insurance in Maude’s name before she gets on the plane…and then the plane crashes.

Arthur’s performance throughout the episode is tremendous, a perfect balance between the meaningful words coming out of Maude’s mouth and the dollar signs spinning in her eyes. All Maude really cares about is getting the best trip to Rome possible, but she must go through the motions of seeming upset that this horrible person is dead, especially in front of her daughter (Adrienne Barbeau) and best friend Vivian (Rue McClanahan. Yes, THAT RueMcClanahan. Seriously, you should be watching this show).

Here’s a little sample of how brilliantly writer Charlie Hauck toes the line between humanity and selfishness:

Maude: “We could make (the trip to Rome) a pilgrimage in Tinky’s honor.”
Vivian: “Was she Catholic?”
Maude: “What the hell is the difference?”

Just as Maude finally makes peace with her “emotional reaction” to Tinky’s death and begins to behave normally again, Hauck pulls the rug out from under the characters in a brilliantly executed twist: Vivian’s husband Arthur (Conrad Bain) arrives with the news that there is a lone survivor who has crawled out of the rubble and is fighting for survival in the woods where the plane crashed.

The thought that Tinky might be alive becomes secondary to the thought that the trip to Rome is now in question, even though Maude tries to pretend that her priorities are just the reverse. She desperately attempts to keep the moral high ground even though there is none to stand on, and even though no one around her is really judging her. Watching Arthur spiral out of emotional control is one of the great joys in all of comedic television, and her meltdown here is one for the ages.

Then there’s yet another twist, one I’ll let you discover for yourself, since I’m pretty sure you haven’t watched the episode. It’s worth noting that this is the first episode of the show’s sixth and final season, and to see the sitcom still firing on all cylinders this late in its run is wonderful. Despite the heavy writer turnover throughout “Maude’s” run (like many sitcoms of its time), the show was consistently good, often great, and allowed its characters to learn from their mistakes and stumbles – a rarity in a genre where keeping things status quo is the norm.

All this, and yet only the first season of “Maude” is available on DVD, and there don’t appear to be any announcements of the other seasons forthcoming. Such a shame, because this show feels perhaps even more timely and button-pressing today than it did when it first aired. Arthur remains a treasure, and fans of “The Golden Girls” would adore this sitcom because the characters are so similar. Here is a show that still has something to say to modern audiences, and yet that audience is having one hell of a time finding it.

“Maude’s Guilt Trip” is only available on YouTube.

1 comment:

  1. watching this episode now on Antenna TV. Thanks for the blog. Very on target about the show and its characters.