“Working with such talented people—the writers, the actors, directors, producers—doing material that was bright and literate and original and adult and daring,” Bea Arthur exclaims halfway through her 2002 one-woman show On Broadway: Just Between Friends, speaking about her work on both Maude and The Golden Girls. Even as she tendered a compliment to the body of work that turned her into a household name, her emphatic button on the word “literate” comes off as an inadvertent snipe. Arthur’s heart forever remained with Broadway; that much is self-evident. In fact, in reminiscing about her first appearance as Maude, Edith Bunker’s cousin on All in the Family, she said the role felt wonderful because if seemed just “like being on stage.” That’s exactly what makes Arthur and her star vehicle, Maude, the underheralded apex of creator Norman Lear’s ’70s TV universe. He unabashedly brought as much Noo Yawk as he could muster to Television City, and Arthur’s to-the-cheap-seats delivery on set in the West Coast could no doubt be heard loud and clear all the way back at her old stomping grounds.
It was her brassy chutzpah that earned Maude its bona fides as a trailblazer, and what also allowed the series to transcend its initially admittedly shallow premise. In her inaugural All in the Family appearance, Maude was framed as a formidable, fire-breathing nemesis to the bellicose, pig-headed Archie Bunker. Everything he was and everything he represented she reflected back on him. There was something thickly satisfying about watching her chew the Neanderthal up and spit out his bones, but it had very little to do with their political antagonism. (The episode climaxed with a hardly timely debate about FDR’s alleged socialist leanings, and for the most part Maude was satisfied hitting Archie below the belt: “You’re fat!”) CBS head of programming Fred Silverman legendarily called up Lear before the credits on “Cousin Maude’s Visit” had even finished rolling to lock Arthur down for her own spinoff, and it’s easy to see how simply everything fell into place for Lear thereafter.
Almost too simply. With All in the Family, Lear leaned awfully hard on the false equivalency between Archie and Meathead, using the latter’s flawed and immature liberal worldview as an excuse to push the former much further into the realm of grotesque caricature. In other words, Lear’s admission that, sure, maybe liberals didn’t exactly have it all figured out gave him carte blanche to cut down all conservative ideology as sheer reactionary buffoonery. Like any master satirist, he didn’t hide his allegiances, but he would often contort himself into needlessly schematic parables. Until Maude, that is.
No matter what Lear or TV Guide may have said at the time, Maude Findley was never merely the anti-Archie, a careless progressive incapable of backing up her beliefs. She was an imperfect but cogent woman, and asserted her right to be just that. It was her (and Arthur’s) refusal to be a cookie-cutter housewife that poured octane into Lear’s cultural criticism, allowing him to explore the comedy of someone he no doubt identified strongly with (Maude was based, purportedly, on his own wife), falling hysterically short of her own principles.
And boy did Arthur sell the farm. Fearlessly theatrical in her delivery, Arthur’s Maude would use syllables the way a milliner uses cherries and feathers, decorating her combative jabs with glassy consonants. When her husband, Walter (Bill Macy, understandably underrated as Maude’s foe-in-chief), flashes a wide smirk at a ribald double entendre involving cigarettes and butts in the first-season episode “Florida’s Problem,” Maude cuts him down with a crisply enunciated, “Gutter humor titillates you, does it?” Even drunk, as she and her best friend, Vivian (fellow Golden Girl-to-be Rue McClanahan), get spectacularly so in the third-season episode “Lovers in Common,” her diction only seems to improve as she bellows, “I would laugh hys-TER-ically, hys-TER-ically...if only I could get my cheeks to move!” If Carroll O’Connor’s Archie spoke like a marshmallowy Brando, Arthur’s Maude was a brick-house Joan Crawford.
Yes, early on, the series seemed content reworking arguments already well established by All in the Family from the opposite end of the spectrum: the liberal, educated, feminist, affluent end. (Somewhere along the way, Maude turned into Edith’s decidedly upper-middle-class cousin.) The first season contains not only the groundbreaking episode in which Maude decides, after facing her own sublimated prejudices, to have an abortion, but also as many other issues as the writers could handle: race relations, transforming gender roles, sex education, divorce, marijuana laws—everything but homosexuality, a topic that would have to wait until the third-season episode “Maude’s New Friend.” Most of the clashes then occurred between Maude and her next-door neighbor, Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain), a conservative doctor who, though prone to demagoguery, was at least an intellectual match for Maude. But Maude would just as often set herself at odds with her liberated, stacked daughter, Carol (Adrienne Barbeau, almost double-handedly bringing curvy back in vogue), and her Harlem-dwelling housekeeper, Florida (Esther Rolle), both of whom she’d frequently goad for not being as enlightened as herself. (In her very first episode, Florida’s refusal to use the front door to save Maude the embarrassment of having a black maid using the back one leads her employer to call her a “bigot.”)
The idea that everyone’s tantric dissention was the byproduct of brisk social changes was always simmering under the confrontational surface of All in the Family. But it became far more nuanced and compelling with Maude, especially later on as the show continued exploring its title character, uncovering neuroses (as in the tour-de-force season-four episode “Maude Bears Her Soul,” a wrenching 26-minute monologue by Arthur delivered to her unseen analyst) and confirming that Maude, like the rest of us, was always doing her best to revise her worldview as quickly as the world could turn.
Of course, to enjoy Maude today you do have to look beyond the gingham cravats, mile-wide neckties and flowing, chartreuse polyester housecoats. Which isn’t exactly easy given Lear’s CBS production house style of taping everything on video under harsh, glaring studio lights. Seen today, Maude looks as loud as she sounds. It’s almost too appropriate to contrast the show’s lack of visual tact against, say, The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s soft, faded film stock. Shout! Factory’s full-series DVD collection captures that hot, faultily white-balanced look accurately enough. The only thing hotter, actually, is the microphone capturing the live studio audience. Every round of applause, every sustained roll of laughter sounds like a dump truck filled with Cap’n Crunch sliding down the rocky face of the Matterhorn. It might even discourage binge watching, but that’s for the best. A show like Maude was made to be savored.
About half the bonus content featured on the disc is recycled from All in the Family sets—not only the two episodes from the earlier series that featured Maude, but also two of the featurettes, which were seemingly produced when the prospects for a series-encompassing DVD set for Maude must have seemed pretty dim. Additionally, there’s a new featurette with up-to-date interviews with Bill Macy and Adrienne Barbeau, and two rough-draft versions of episodes the show used later on during the run. Of the two, it’s "Maude’s New Friends"—a wife-swapping farce—that seems the more radical departure. Casting is everything.
"God’ll get you for that, Walter." And Walter had better watch out, because finally having the complete Maude on DVD proves God’s existence.