One of my favorite sitcoms ever finally made its DVD debut this week with the release of the first season of Maude. Norman Lear’s All in the Family spinoff, which shot off in 1972, gave Edith Bunker’s explosively liberal, near-radical cousin from Tuckahoe, New York — the whirling polyester dervish with the monochromatic cotton-candy top — a weekly forum with which to hilariously dismantle perceived notions of upper-middle-class white progressivism. From the show’s point of view, it wasn’t important to think like Maude, but it was important to have the open, honest, maybe combative yet often surprising discussions about politics, sexual issues and personal health that Maude, her husband, Walter (Bill Macy), and their single-mom daughter, Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), got caught up in. That was the political brilliance of the show, which, dare I say, was richer in tone and isn’t nearly as dated as All in the Family. This show named names — feminism, marijuana legalization, Vietnam, abortion (a famously controversial two-part episode in which Maude discovered she was pregnant is on the first-season disc), black power, alcoholism. And unlike the weirdly apolitical universe sitcom characters live in now, Maude advocated taking a stand. Can you imagine anybody on a sitcom now even calling themselves liberal or conservative?
But Maude was never a lesson show. Later, half-hour comedies would seem to only dredge up issues in ways that killed laughter and promoted treacliness, but Maude was gloriously funny liberal-guilt vaudeville. So when Maude’s right-wing neighbor Arthur (Conrad Bain) goads her into saying she’s against Proposition 17 since he’s for it, Maude rushes to her League of Women Voters guide after Arthur leaves to find out what Proposition 17 is. That’s not even the whole joke, since she then screams in horror: “There is no Proposition 17!!”
Of course, any paean to Maude wouldn’t mean squat without kneeling at the altar of Bea Arthur, one of the greatest comic actresses in television history, whose flare-ups were scary, whose expressions of love were heartfelt, and whose way with a withering retort — delivered usually while an audience howled in anticipation at her stony mug — was like pulling a slot lever that hit a jackpot every time. If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, Bea Arthur was the reaction face that launched a billion laughs.