Monday, August 09, 2010

When Maude Got An Abortion

Yep, I know when it comes to comedy sitcoms, nothing screams belly laughs like abortion, but in November 1972, Norman Lear and the writers behind the hit TV show Maude managed to accomplish just that with perhaps the most controversial episode of a program to ever air on network television. In this two-parter, which was titled "Maude's Dilemma," the show's liberal minded heroine finds herself pregnant at the age of 47. Middle aged Maude is devastated, and after her adult daughter Carol suggests that she doesn't have to have the baby, Maude and her husband Walter do some soul searching for the right decision.

The episode is especially poignant for me because my own mother found out she was pregnant with me in 1971 when she was 41 (she was 42 when I was born.) I was the result of a low-dose birth control pill that was failing at the time, resulting in several pregnant women in their 40s who, like my mom, thought their baby making days were over. Thankfully, my mother never considered abortion, but I've often wondered if Maude's producers got the idea for the storyline from a real life scenario.

The episode aired a couple of months before the Roe vs. Wade decision was handed down, making abortion legal in the U.S. As you can imagine, it attracted a firestorm of protests and letters from pro-life and Catholic groups. Lear supposedly received photos of dead fetuses. A few CBS affiliates refused to air the episodes, and some advertisers dropped their media buys. It got even worse when CBS decided to rerun them as repeats in the summer of 1973. They received over 17,000 letters of protest (compared to 7,000 before the original airing.)

Watching "Maude's Dilemma" online recently, two things struck me. First, that Maude carefully debates her decision, and the pros and cons of each outcome ("At age 62, I'll be the mother of an Eagle Scout!") In my opinion, the episode was neither pro-life nor pro-choice. Today, if such a scenario dared to be written for prime time, it would be strongly for or against abortion, with no middle ground. 

Secondly, in typical Maude style, even though it deals with a serious topic, the episode is pretty funny. This was the first time fellow future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan made an appearance as Maude's friend Vivian, and the banter between the two definitely set the stage for the 1980s hit. When Maude breaks the news to Vivian, she doesn't believe her at first, and the look on her face in priceless. "You're pulling my leg. Maude. Maude? Please pull my leg?" She then tells Maude's daughter Carol, "You know how when you always wanted a little brother or sister? Well, your mother is about to make that wish come true for you!"

Actually, if there is any argument for pro-choice in this episode, it comes from Carol. "You're still thinking that abortion is a dirty word," she tells her mother. "It's not anymore." In a remarkable did-she-just-say-that moment, she also insists that the procedure is "as simple as going to the dentist" to which her mother replies, "NOW I'm scared." 

Maude's husband Walter is a little shell shocked at first, but supports Maude and tells her that whatever she decides to do, he'll be happy with. He even offers to get a vasectomy to prevent it from happening again. At first Maude warms up to the idea of becoming a middle aged mother but in the end, confesses to Walter that they cannot become parents at their age, and decides to have the pregnancy terminated. 

Maude would also go on to tackle alcoholism and suicide in future episodes, but the abortion storyline will always remain its most famous. It's just pretty remarkable to think of groundbreaking television like this in the early 70s, when today's dumb shows revolve around dating, sex, and parental problems. I miss shows like Maude.

7 comments:

  1. There was a lot of progressive thoughts pushing through the din. Some of society was reaching to evolve philosophically (an extension of the 60's?). Topics like abortion were not new or even whose time had come. But there was precious few ways to have a societal discussion. But these shows allowed all to participate in the discussion around the water cooler; I think we could decide what we felt in the comfort of our homes.
    Maude was a great show; I watched approx. the first season. Just when I decided she was scary, she exhibited warmth and caring and was funny. I understand she was a real sweet person in real life. Agreed, Maude was a good show. .... "Right on Maude..."
    stay-at-home-dad

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  2. Maude was awesome. Bea was awesome. I agree that comedies back then could be incredibly cutting edge - or they could be Three's Company. Either way, I loved it. I just read this really interesting article about Barney Miller that focuses on the grunge of the offices and how real, and slightly depressed, it all seemed. I also feel that way about What's Happening. That was a great show about finding light in a very depressed situation.

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  3. I've only ever seen a couple of episodes of Maude. I remember the episode of All in the Family with her in it. I do like Bea Arthur. She was great in the Golden Girls which mom and I liked.

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  4. Thanks for posting on this amazingly brave show. My girlfriend and I have watched a few on Netflix; I barely remember the show myself and she was born much later, so it's great to be able to revisit this highlight of American television.

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  5. I just watched this on YouTube. It's funnier than I thought it would be, and at the same time it had a degree of legitimacy to it that made me believe in the characters. Maude and Walter love each other deeply, yet even after being together for so long, they still have the capability to surprise each other. They don't know each other quite as well as they thought they did, and that made them feel more real. (Plus, as much as I grew up with 'Good Times,' I totally did not know that Florida began as a character on this show! Weird seeing her in such a different context.)

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  6. I vaguely remember the episode, though it was MANY moons ago when I watched it.

    Funny - the thing that strikes me? Maude is supposed to be 47 in that episode, but goodness greyness, she looks about 60!

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  7. Yeah, she and Rue McClanahan both look younger in 'Golden Girls' than they do here!

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