Watching old TV sitcoms on DVD can be disappointing: The best jokes that once were fresh have been recycled so frequently in later series that they seem now, unfairly but undeniably, stale. The shows that dealt with topical matters fare even more poorly — who wants to guffaw about Richard Nixon or leisure suits now?
Maude, whose first, 1972-73 season is now on three DVD discs with no extras, is a glorious exception. Here, every episode, taped in front of a studio audience, is like a complete play clocking in at a little over 20 minutes. The laughs generated by Beatrice Arthur’s Maude are sometimes so loud and long that the actress has to do that stage-freeze thing, standing motionless until her next line can be heard.
A spin-off of All in the Family (Maude was Edith Bunker’s liberal, upper-middle-class cousin — i.e., the anti-Archie), Maude was a prime example of producer Norman Lear’s comedy empire of that era, with old-fashioned gag structures juiced by timely, often controversial references. Like Archie Bunker, Maude is an intimidating powerhouse: She’s brayingly noisy, not to mention taller than her husband, Walter (the breezy Bill Macy), and her grown daughter, Carol (the stiff but charming Adrienne Barbeau).
Maude’s topical humor retains its bite. Other ’70s TV shows dealt with the rise of black power, but only on Maude would the title character host a fund-raiser for ”one of the most important black militant leaders in the country.” And Maude is now startlingly un-PC: She calms her rattled nerves in that episode by downing ”two Miltown, the greatest tranquilizer known to man,” and following them with a Valium and a glass of scotch.
By far the most controversial episodes of Maude occur in this first season: the two-parter ”Maude’s Dilemma.” When it aired in November 1972 — months before the Roe v. Wade ruling — Maude was the first TV character to choose abortion (it was then legal in New York, where Maude resided). The teleplay by Susan Harris, who would go on to create Arthur’s next sitcom, The Golden Girls, is a fascinating mixture of frankness and fudging. While Carol, the show’s mouthpiece for feminism, argues for the procedure and points out that for Maude at age 47, pregnancy could be risky, ”Maude’s Dilemma” spends most of its time on comic subplots such as Walter’s fear of getting a vasectomy. The decision is made in the final moments of the second episode. Walter reassures Maude she’s chosen the right option. They hug and credits roll. The subject is never referred to in the next episode. It’s one of the few times Maude is vulnerable; it’s also one of the few times Maude is so subtle it seems timid.