With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 bestepisodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
In the long history of TV theme songs that explain the premise, the best will always be Gilligan’s Island, followed closely by The Brady Bunch and Mystery Science Theater 3000. And then there’s Maude. In an era when the opening themes tended to set a tone rather than tell a story, Maude’s song theme put Norman Lear’s All In The Family spinoff into a larger context, comparing the title character to Betsy Ross, Joan Of Arc, Lady Godiva (“a Freedom Rider”), and Isadora Duncan (“the first bra-burner”). The message was clear: There was nothing new about the arguments raging in American living rooms about feminism and equality in the ’70s. Tuckahoe, New York housewife Maude Findlay was part of a long tradition of brassy, strong-willed women.
The existence of Maude the TV show owes a lot to the actress who played Maude the character. According to Lear, when Bea Arthur appeared as Maude in the All In The Family episode “Cousin Maude’s Visit” in December 1971, before the closing credits rolled CBS executive Fred Silverman was on the phone, saying that the character needed her own show. By fall 1972, Maude was on the schedule, and would run for six seasons, garnering five Emmy nominations (and one win) for Arthur. The show wouldn’t have worked without its lead: an imposing, deep-voiced presence with impeccable comic timing, and the ability to modulate from frantic to deadpan. Adrienne Barbeau, who played Maude’s daughter Carol, put it best: “No one could hold a take longer than Bea and make it pay off.”
The original hook for Maude was that it was a politics-flipped All In The Family, with a loud-mouthed Democrat in the lead instead of a loud-mouthed Republican. Lear was a left-winger who made All In The Family’s Archie Bunker into a lovable lunkhead with a weak grasp of the issues; but while he was more simpatico with Maude Findlay, he and Arthur used the character to satirize what Lear called “horse’s ass” liberals, who try so hard to prove their bonafides that they end up exposing their own prejudices. A lot of leftists loved Maude anyway (just like a lot of conservatives loved Archie), because she was so fiery, and so sincere. But the opposite was true, too. In an interview included on Shout! Factory’s new Maude: The Complete Series box set, Arthur admits, “A lot of people hated me, hated the character.”
Very quickly, Maude became a weekly forum for issues that weren’t strictly “political.” The show dealt with alcoholism, abuse, sexuality, and social embarrassment, and did so in a way that—again, like All In The Family—resembled one-act plays more than a sitcom. Episodes often had titles about so-and-so’s “problem,” “dilemma,” or “crisis,” which would play out in something close to real time, in long scenes often featuring only two or three characters. Yet Maude also had a homey quality, as fans became familiar with the Findlay living room—with its circular bar in the corner, where a lot of the conversations took place—and with Maude’s succession of flowing long-sleeved pantsuits. More importantly, Lear’s team never forgot to make Maude funny, even when its subject matter was grave. It was very much a ’70s sitcom—not just because of its social consciousness but because it had its own catch-phrase: “God’ll get you for that, Walter.”
“Walter” was Maude’s fourth husband, an appliance-store owner played by Bill Macy. In addition to Barbeau as Carol, the show also regularly featured Conrad Bain as Walter’s best friend Dr. Arthur Harmon, a reactionary hypocrite who enjoys a lot of the new freedoms of the era while spouting off regularly about how the world’s going to hell. Rue McClanahan played Maude’s college chum Vivian, who married Arthur in the second season. Maude also had a succession of maids, including Esther Rolle as Florida Evans (an African-American who resisted her boss’ efforts to pretend that they were friends) and Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Naugatuck (an unreliable, tall-tale-telling Brit). Barbeau aside, these actors weren’t young or sexy. Maude was about people who’d already lived full lives, having dealt with death and divorce while building careers and raising kids. Like a lot of “over the hill” Americans, they were still slugging away, trying to adapt to a world rapidly changing all around them.
In a video that Lear made to pitch Maude’s syndicated package, he talked about its biggest fan: first lady Betty Ford. He also mentioned that Maude had finished in the Top 10 in the Nielsen ratings in each of its first four seasons—which was true. But in seasons five and six, between 1976 and 1978, the show dropped dramatically in the ratings. The quality hadn’t declined, even though the writers had started to repeat themselves a little, returning to hot-button issues they’d already covered. But more likely, by the end of the ’70s the television audience didn’t need something as challenging as Maude on a weekly basis. Even Silverman, the man who insisted on green-lighting the series, had moved to ABC by 1975, where he gained a reputation for championing escapist “jiggle shows” like Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, and Battle Of The Network Stars.
For a good long while, though, Maude gave its parent show All In The Family a run for its money, in terms of the writing, the performances, the direction, and the willingness to introduce to television the kind of conversations that viewers were already having in their own homes.
“Maude Meets Florida” (season one, episode three): In the first episode that showed just how savvy Maude could be about its heroine’s version of political correctness, Maude hires Florida to be the Findlays’ new housekeeper, and then makes it her mission to get her employee to think of her as a peer. As Maude fawns over Florida’s stories about her life (“The things that come out of your culture,” she coos) and tries to get the maid to stop thinking like “a pre-liberation Southern black,” the Findlay home gets dirtier and dirtier, and the lady of the house almost ends up driving her help away. Carol chastises her mother for falling into old habits—“A black maid says hello, you say, ‘I’m sorry.’”—while Maude learns that in her need to prove that she’s not racist, she has been primarily trying to relate to Florida based on the color of her skin.
“Maude’s Dilemma” (season one, episodes nine and 10): Easily Maude’s most famous episode—and frequently included on lists of the best TV of all time—the two-parter “Maude’s Dilemma” was inspired by Lear and his writers imagining a funny scene of Maude telling Vivian that she’s pregnant. They decided to explore the ramifications of that, as the Findlays’ family and friends debate whether the 47-year-old Maude should get an abortion, which had just become legal in New York state. (These episodes aired two months before Roe V. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court.) Credited writer Susan Harris—who’d later create Soap and The Golden Girls—peels back the rhetoric surrounding the procedure and makes “Maude’s Dilemma” all about the conflicted emotions of the main character, who fervently supports reproductive rights but has a hard time getting over the shameful, “sinister” stigma of abortion that she’d known when she was younger. This is peak Maude: a sitcom that always acknowledged that actions have consequences, and that nothing is as cut-and-dried as the sloganeers would like to believe.
“Walter’s Problem (a.k.a. Life Of The Party)” (season two, episodes one and two): The age of Maude’s protagonists, coupled with their progressive values, allowed the show’s writers to explore the generation gap in different ways than All In The Family, where the lead reflexively opposed most social change. Throughout the run of the series, Walter struggled to cope with Maude’s unwillingness to be an old-fashioned cook-and-clean wife. In “Walter’s Problem,” Maude wrestled with how to get her husband to realize that after spending his whole adult life chain-guzzling cocktails, he’d become an alcoholic. As always with Maude, this two-parter avoids histrionics or lectures, instead showing Walter working through his embarrassment and Maude swearing that there’s no problem so big that they can’t handle it together. The crisis comes to a head when an angry Walter smacks Maude, a moment that provokes audible gasps from the studio audience. In an interview included on Shout! Factory’s Complete Series set, Bill Macy still cries when he recalls that scene, decades later.
“Maude’s Musical” (season two, episode 10): The culture wars rage in Tuckahoe when Maude commandeers the local high school’s auditorium to stage a benefit show. School board member Arthur takes exception to her “salute to burlesque” theme, demanding that she ditch the smut and replace it with patriotic numbers. In addition to giving the theater-trained Bea Arthur a chance to show off her powerful pipes—and graceful dance moves—“Maude’s Musical” doubles as a meta-commentary on the controversies surrounding Maude itself. As Arthur decries the proliferation of promiscuity and perversion in mainstream entertainment, Maude sets out to prove that bawdiness is as American as war-mongering.
“Maude’s New Friend” (season three, episode 12): In “Maude’s Musical,” Arthur complains about an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. that features a homosexual character. In “Maude’s New Friend,” Maude gets in on the act, introducing a gay local novelist, Barry (played by Soap’s Robert Mandan), whom our heroine adores but Walter finds insufferable. Once again, the show delves into the complications of bigotry, asking whether Walter can’t admit his homophobia, or if Maude only likes having Barry around because his sexual orientation makes her feel hip.
“The Election” (season four, episode five): The first five episodes of Maude’s fourth season tell one story, as Maude enters the Democratic primary for state senate, and Walter responds petulantly, moving out of the house and falling off the wagon. The arc ends on election day, with Walter back in the picture and Maude in trouble with the electorate over a TV interview where she advocates for premarital sex. Nothing goes as planned, but there’s still a sweetness to “The Election,” as Maude gets to see another side of a democratic process that she believes in devoutly—but as the one on the ballot rather then the one doing the voting.
“The Analyst (a.k.a. Maude Bares Her Soul)” (season four, episode nine): Throughout the run of Maude, the show often aired episodes that mostly consisted of the Findlays alone, having one long conversation/argument. “The Analyst” cuts the cast down to one, as Maude spends the entire half-hour talking to an unseen shrink, who only says “uh-huh.” Throughout the monologue, she goes from running through a list of pet peeves about Walter to wondering if all the passion has gone out of her life—and if so, why. The episode shifts subtly throughout, with Maude looking into the mirror early on and describing herself as having “the innocent glow of Donna Reed and the crisp features of George C. Scott,” and later breaking down crying as she relates a vivid memory of her father. Regular Maude director Hal Cooper places the camera overhead for Bea Arthur’s big moment, pushing in slowly to her face as Maude sobs.
“The Case Of The Broken Punchbowl” (season four, episode 15): It’s Rashomon à la Maude when the Findlays return home from their second honeymoon to find a shattered family heirloom and three different stories about how it got broken. As with a lot of sitcom episodes that use the “multiple perspectives on the same event” conceit, a lot of the fun of “The Case Of The Broken Punchbowl” comes from watching the actors give multiple interpretations of the same material, playing the lines as “drunk” or “jealous” or “horny” depending on how the other characters see them. But it’s also a glimpse at an alternate version of Maude, where the Findlays are guest stars and the Harmons are center stage.
“Feminine Fulfillment” (season five, episode 19): Bea Arthur’s ability to milk a take reaches a new high in “Feminine Fulfillment,” when Maude and Walter drop by Vivian’s house unannounced and she answers the door in the nude, prompting nearly 30 seconds of complete stillness and silence, while the studio audience roars. It turns out that Viv’s bought into a new anti-feminist movement, which encourages women to cater to their husband’s every whim. Maude has a hard time making sense of how happy her friend seems to be with the new arrangement—or how jealous Walter is of the Harmons. Even late into its fifth season, Maude was finding new ways to show how Maude herself could be small-minded. But “Feminine Fulfillment” also throws in a good twist, when Vivian admits that she’s only playing along with this system because she likes the sex part; she’s actually not that fond of the cooking and pampering. This is one of Maude’s smartest takes on how opinionated idealists can make relationships work, through compromises and pretense—all without ever admitting what they really want.
“Maude’s Big Move” (season six, episodes 22-24): At the end of Maude’s sixth season, Lear considered rebooting the show, but Arthur ultimately nixed the plan. The series’ concluding three-parter laid the groundwork for what the new Maude would’ve been, with the Findlays saying goodbye to their friends and family and moving to Washington, D.C., where Maude had been appointed as the new congressperson from her district. The first two episodes serve as a kind of farewell to the Maude of old, and then the third is a fascinating what-if, introducing the new characters who might’ve become regulars in season seven. In between the still-trenchant commentary on stupefying Washington protocol, “Maude’s Big Move” shows that this series could well have survived the changes. So long as Bea Arthur was still doing her thing at the center of the show, Maude would’ve been Maude.
And if you liked those, try these: “The Perfect Marriage” (season one, episode 21); “Maude’s Facelift” (season two, episodes four and five); “Vivian’s Problem” (season two, episode nine); “The Tax Audit” (season two, episode 21); “Maude Meets The Duke” (season three, episode one); “A Night To Remember” (season three, episode eight); “The Telethon” (season three, episode 16); “Maude And Chester” (season five, episode two); “Walter’s Crisis” (season five, episodes four-six); “The Obscene Phone Call” (season six, episode 13)
Availability: The complete run of Maude is now available in a DVD boxset from Shout! Factory. The first season is also available digitally (for purchase only) from Amazon and iTunes. Some episodes are also streaming on YouTube.